Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Karachi tackles growing Taleban

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi

Shabbir, a member of the Pakistani Taleban
"Shabbir" (L) says the Taleban will not take over in the next 10 years

For the members of Karachi's Anti-Violence Crime Cell (AVCC), it was supposed to be a routine raid.

The elite anti-terror squad is used to playing a significant role in carrying out the arrests of high-profile terror suspects.

It has been involved in hundreds of raids and dozens of shootouts against hardened and trigger-happy bandits and suspected terrorists.

As such the operation on 15 January in Karachi's Sohrab Goth, a shanty town ridden with crime, was seen to hold few surprises for the detectives.

They could not have been more wrong - as the four-strong advance party, led by AVCC chief and police superintendent Farooq Awan, discovered. They were taken hostage by armed gunmen.

As the back-up force swooped in, the desperate gunmen first shot the hostages and then opened fire on incoming police vehicles.

Mr Awan was among dozens wounded, but two policemen were killed in the hail of bullets.

The gunmen subsequently made good their escape through the narrow streets of the shanty town.

'Jihadi network'

"It was a classic case of lack of information," says a senior police official who was involved in the following investigation.

Police Superintendent Raja Umar Khattab
At the moment, [the Taleban] appear to be lying low, but that could change
Raja Umar Khattab,
police superintendent

"The fact that Mr Awan, one of the best anti-terror officers on the force, had gaps in his information shows how unpredictable and dangerous the militant network in the city has become."

According to the official, the main reason for this is the influx of new militants to Karachi, primarily from North West Frontier Province.

"There is also a considerable number from South Punjab, but the jihadi network increasingly has a Pashtun face.

"By default, that means it is the Taleban who have an increased network and clout within the city."

But the officer adds words of caution to his analysis of the situation.

"Please don't take this to mean that complete Talebanisation has started in Karachi - that is certainly not happening."

But what of the Taleban themselves?

"We're here for business - not to fight," says Shabbir, a member of the Pakistani Taleban. "But we do have people here."

Karachi policeman
Police insist the Taleban are not going to take over Karachi
Shabbir - not his real name - agreed to talk to us about what is happening in Karachi on condition of anonymity.

After a late-night rendezvous, we drive around the city to hear what it is like to be a Taleban member in Karachi today.

"The last time I went to fight was to Afghanistan about a year ago," he says.

But now, he says, it is increasingly difficult to navigate across the Pakistani border.

"Only veterans who have been going there since the fight against the Soviets can cross now."

Most of the fighters are now locals.

While Shabbir agrees there is a Taleban presence within Karachi, he says there is no grand plan to take over the city.

"The people who talk about the Taleban taking over have no concept of military strategy.

"It would take a massive army to take over Karachi, much more than there are Taleban here."

But the most important fact that Shabbir admits grimly is the lack of local support.

"The people here do not believe in our kind of ideology. I don't see the Taleban taking over Karachi over the next 10 to 15 years."

Robberies and kidnappings

Shabbir is not alone in his evaluation of the situation on the ground.

Police superintendent Raja Umar Khattab has been at the forefront of the struggle against Muslim militants since 9/11.

He is an officer in operational charge of the provincial anti-terrorism Criminal Investigation Department, has won a national gallantry award and has been the target of a militant assassination attempt last year when he was seriously injured in a bomb attack on his vehicle.

Karachi police
Karachi is a city that is used to criminal and militant violence
But despite his close encounters, he remains closely involved in monitoring the militants' activities.

"Here there are no video shops destroyed by militants, no [Islamic] sharia courts and there are no no-go areas because of a strong Taleban presence.

"These three elements not are not here, so we cannot say the Taleban are taking over Karachi."

Mr Khattab does accept however, that most of the militants active in Karachi belong to Afghanistan or Pakistan's tribal areas.

"But they are not involved in militant activity over here - rather they focus on bank robberies and kidnappings to finance the fight back home," he says.

"Another major reason is that the Karachi police has been particularly effective in cracking down on such activities."

He is quite clear, though, that the militants remain a clear and present danger to Karachi and Pakistan.

"If you carry out any act of terrorism in Karachi, you send a message all over the world.

"At the moment, they appear to be lying low, but that could change as the [fighting] front broadens in the north-west."

And while people like Shabbir make themselves ready and available, that scenario remains a possibility.

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