In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

Army soldiers patrol in a market in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on April 26, 2021. (AFP/File)
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Updated 29 September 2022

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

  • Arab News interviewed at least seven traders who had received extortion demands in recent months
  • Six of them said the callers identified themselves as militants belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

PESHAWAR: Soon after a grenade struck his house in Peshawar city three months ago, Ihsan Khan, a well-known trader in the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, received a phone call.

“Next time, the entire home will be blown up if you don’t pay Rs300 million ($1.2 million),” the voice on the other end said.

The menacing call was taken seriously in a northern pocket of the country where Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), insurgents, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in past years and where officials as well as local residents widely say they are attempting to regain a foothold.

In the next few days, Khan held a series of phone negotiations with the caller and finally negotiated the demand down through the help of intermediaries, subsequently paying a smaller sum.

Last week, Arab News interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and business people who had received demands for protection money in recent months. Six said the callers had identified themselves as militants belonging to the TTP. It was unclear how many paid up.

The increasing demands for cash have stirred fears of the comeback of insurgents to the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad and drawn-out negotiations that began last year.

On September 20, the TTP said it was not linked to the extortion demands and issued a statement calling on the public not to pay up.

“If anyone asks you ... in the name of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), please contact us so we can unmask them,” the statement said, offering a contact number.

In comments to Arab News, Abu Yasir, the head of the TTP’s grievance commission, said the group had a “clear-cut and strong stance” against extortion.

“We have neither allowed nor will we allow anyone to do so,” Yasir said. “We have stopped many. And in some cases, members of the Tehreek have also done it on an individual basis, but we have stopped them ... We have stopped our colleagues and asked others as well, when a complaint has been lodged with us.”

’TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Attacks and threats of violence have been a part of life in northern Pakistan since at least 2010, including the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and an attack on an army-run school in 2014 in which at least 134 children were killed.

Though thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence in the last two decades, attacks declined in the last few years after a series of military operations that pushed most TTP insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest to find shelter in neighboring Afghanistan.

But many analysts and officials warn militants are attempting to return and are busily conducting kidnappings and extortion to stockpile cash for the fight ahead if peace talks with Islamabad fail. Their reach and their ability to carry out attacks was chillingly demonstrated earlier this month when eight people were killed in a roadside bombing that targeted an anti-Taliban village elder’s vehicle in Swat Valley, in what was the first major bombing in the area in over a decade. Taliban militants this month also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecom company and demanded Rs100 million ($418,000) for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counterterrorism department.

Concerns of a TTP resurgence have grown since August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul following the departure of US and other foreign forces. Pakistani officials have since variously spoken of fears of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban group, which is separate but affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, crossing over from Afghanistan and launching lethal attacks on its territory.

The Afghan Taliban have reassured their neighbor they will not allow their territory to be used by anyone planning attacks on Pakistan or any other country. Still, the TTP have managed to step up attacks in recent months and both police and government officials as well as locals report hundreds of insurgents have returned — as have demands for extortion.

Muhammad Ali Saif, a spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, said anonymous calls demanding protection money were being made both from Afghanistan and within Pakistan.

“Different people have received calls for extortion, some have registered FIRs [police reports] and others have not,” Saif told Arab News, saying the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) and police took immediate action whenever such cases were reported.

Not all calls, he said, were from TTP militants.

“Some calls are also made by criminals and extortionists,” the spokesperson said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Inspector General of Police, Moazzam Jah Ansari, CTD Chief Javed Iqbal Wazir, and spokespersons for the Pakistani foreign office and army and Afghanistan’s information ministry did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

But a Peshawar-based senior police official with direct knowledge of the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the provincial police department had been registering at least four extortion cases a day in the city since July.

“This is just the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Previously, traders, transporters and businessmen used to be the targets. Now, members of national and provincial assemblies as well as government officials are also asked to pay protection money … The situation is very bad and it’s deteriorating with each passing day.”

“Well-off people, including lawmakers, receive phone calls on a regular basis,” said another police official based in Swat valley. “Few report it and a majority of them pay the money.”

Since the start of August, Swat police have registered four cases of extortion, naming the TTP as suspects in their reports. In one such case, the Swat official said, militants were paid Rs25 million ($103,000) as protection money by a provincial lawmaker.

“Militants asked the lawmaker to remove CCTV cameras from his home before they arrived to collect the money at midnight,” the official said. “The lawmaker opted not to report the incident.”

’PREDICTABLE PHENOMENON’

Malik Imran Ishaq, president of the Industrialists’ Association Peshawar (IAP), said militancy and extortion had caused “severe damage” to the business fraternity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In Peshawar, extortionists targeted wealthy families, he said, with residents regularly finding small bombs outside their homes or businesses.

“Many of our association’s members have received [extortion] calls and many of them have been hit, targeted by rocket launchers and hand grenades,” the industrialist said.

Police had increased patrolling in the Hayatabad industrial estate area of the city but it had not resolved the issue, Ishaq said.

“I am clueless about how this issue will be resolved,” he said, lamenting that businesses worth billions of rupees in the Hayatabad industrial estate were on the verge of closure.

“Twenty-eight of our members have shut their industrial units in Peshawar and moved to Punjab to set up factories there,” Ishaq said, blaming the move on a resurgence of militancy and a rise in Taliban demands for cash.

“There is an evident surge during the last one year, particularly the last couple of months.”

The crime wave means the government and military could face a well-armed insurgency if the TTP is able to fully return to the country’s northern belt, experts warn.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based militancy expert, said an increase in demands for protection money was a tell-tale sign that Taliban were making serious attempts to regain control in Pakistan’s northwest.

“Militants require financial support for their operations,” he said, “and in this context, the rise of extortion incidents in these areas is a predictable phenomenon.”


Maersk launches Pakistan’s largest integrated logistics park at Karachi's Port Qasim

Updated 59 min 12 sec ago

Maersk launches Pakistan’s largest integrated logistics park at Karachi's Port Qasim

  • Facility holds total footprint of more than 1.3 million square feet across seven cities
  • Park will allow connecting, simplifying supply chains for importers, exporters, traders

ISLAMABAD: In a bid to connect and simplify supply chains for Pakistani importers, exporters and traders, Danish shipping company A.P. Moller Maersk (Maersk) on Wednesday inaugurated an integrated logistics park in Pakistan’s southeastern port city of Karachi, with a total footprint of more than 1.3 million square feet across seven cities, a statement issued by the company said.

Established at Karachi’s Port Qasim, a deep-water seaport situated on the coastline of the Arabian Sea, the park includes six purpose-built sheds, making Maersk the country’s largest logistics and warehousing provider.

The integrated logistics park would act as a warehouse, including a consolidation and fulfillment center and cold storage. This facility will also cater to storage requirements of cargo from retail and lifestyle, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), automotive, and technology sectors. It will also serve as the perfect warehouse destination for customers to manage their import and export cargo with the least time delays while connecting to and from vessels.

 “At Maersk, our purpose is to improve life for all by integrating the world,” said Hasan Faraz, Managing Director of Maersk Pakistan commented during the inauguration of the facility.

 “With our state-of-the-art Integrated Logistics Park, we want to ensure that we play an important role in connecting and simplifying the supply chains for importers, exporters, and traders of Pakistan.”

Danish Ambassador to Pakistan, Jakob Linulf (center), inaugurates Maersk's Integrated Logistics Park at Karachi's Port Qasim, Pakistan on November 30, 2022. (@Maersk/Twitter)

Faraz added that he was proud of this major investment in Pakistan as it would serve as a critical building block in the logistics infrastructure.

“It is also apt to recognize the unwavering support our customers have extended, with whom we could have meaningful conversations that helped us design a solution that creates value in their supply chains.”

Jakob Linulf, the Danish Ambassador to Pakistan, who was also present at the facility’s launch ceremony, said Pakistan had incredible potential to grow.

“Despite the various current challenges, Maersk has played an important role as a trusted partner for Pakistan’s traders,” the statement quoted him as saying. “Maersk’s commitment to invest in a large facility such as the one inaugurated today in Port Qasim speaks volumes of the potential that is out there to be harnessed.”

The statement added that the logistics park would come equipped with modern warehouse management systems. 

“With Maersk taking care of the movement of cargo – ocean transportation on one side and landside transportation on the other side of the warehouse – customers will experience lesser handovers of their cargo, leading to higher efficiencies, faster turnaround times, deeper visibility and better control over the cargo movement,” the statement said. “All of this will result in better predictability of supply chains.”


Pakistani brothers, venture capital firm founders, feature on Forbes 30 Under 30 list

Updated 01 December 2022

Pakistani brothers, venture capital firm founders, feature on Forbes 30 Under 30 list

  • Mohammed Amdani and Ammar Amdani lead a team of eight
  • Most of their team members identify as people of color, Forbes said

KARACHI: Pakistani brothers Mohammed Amdani and Ammar Amdani have made it to this year's Forbes 30 Under 30 list, a litany of young investors who are putting their money to work in companies created by and for their immigrant, people-of-color and other minority peers.

Forbes 30 Under 30 is a set of lists of people under 30 years old issued annually by Forbes magazine and some of its regional editions.

"The Amdani brothers founded Adapt Ventures as an early-stage firm and venture studio investing across the US and Latin America, with $30 million in assets under management," Forbes said on its website.

"They were one of the first backers of unicorn Clara, Italic, Wander and several acquired companies. They've also helped incubate Pluto, a Middle East-focused spend management startup that announced a seed round in February."

The Pakistani-American cofounders lead a team of eight, most of whom identify as people of color, across New York and Miami.

Last year, 13 young Pakistanis have made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list which included startup founders and young innovators like Bazaar Co-founders Hamza Jawaid and Saad Jangda, Dastgyr Co-founders Muhammad Owais Qureshi and Zohaib Ali, CreditBook Co-founders Iman Jamall and Hasib Malik, ModulusTech Co-founders Yaseen Khalid, M. Saquib Malik and Nabeel Siddiqui, Visual artist and designer Misha Japanwala, Producer Abdullah Siddiqui, Eikon7 Managing Partner Shayan Mahmud, and Digital Pakistan Co-founder Hannia Zia.


Pakistan Test commences on schedule today after England stomach bug scare

Updated 01 December 2022

Pakistan Test commences on schedule today after England stomach bug scare

  • England's cricketers, including skipper Ben Stokes, were struck down with a suspected stomach bug
  • Problems with food and players becoming ill during the Twenty20 series led to the decision to bring a chef

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Cricket Board said the first Test against England in Rawalpindi would go on as per schedule today, Thursday, after England's cricketers, including skipper Ben Stokes, were struck down with a suspected stomach bug.

There were fears on Wednesday the virus outbreak could force England to change the team for the Test which had been announced on Tuesday.

England are on their first Test tour of Pakistan in 17 years, following their Twenty20 side playing seven matches in the country two months ago, taking the series 4-3.

“The ECB has informed the PCB that they are in a position to field an XI, and, as such, the first #PAKvENG Test will commence as per schedule today (Thursday, 1 December) at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium,” PCB said on Twitter.

Problems with food and players becoming ill during the Twenty20 series led to the decision to bring a chef, Omar Meziane, who also worked with the England men's football team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and at Euro 2020.

England and Pakistan will contest a three-Test series with the second in Multan beginning December 9 and the third in Karachi from December 17-21.


Pakistan central bank to set up special wing to ensure Shariah-compliant banking — finance minister

Updated 01 December 2022

Pakistan central bank to set up special wing to ensure Shariah-compliant banking — finance minister

  • Federal Shariat Court gave a five-year deadline to the government to Islamize the country’s financial system
  • Religious scholars call for practical steps to transform Pakistan’s banking system under the court’s verdict

KARACHI: Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar said on Wednesday a dedicated wing would soon be established at the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) to ensure the country’s transformation into an interest-free economy to comply with a ruling of the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) earlier this year.

The FSC directed the government in April to eliminate riba, or interest, within five years while pointing out its prohibition was absolute in all forms and manifestations in Islam.

The finance minister said his government was committed to transforming Pakistan’s banking system by December 2027, adding it would up the special wing at the SBP to expedite the process.

“A wing would be formed at the SBP and I will notify the formation of wing within a week,” Dar said while addressing at a seminar on the prohibition of riba in Karachi.

“We can’t establish a ministry [to oversee the economic transformation] which is also not needed,” he continued while emphasizing that the role of the central bank was “pivotal” in Islamizing the banking system of the country.

Referring to the deadline set by the court, the finance minister said the conversion of the banking system was doable within five years.

“This is not the work that can’t be done in five years,” he said while asking the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) along with the central bank to diligently work on the project.

“A base has already been established as the share of Islamic banking in terms of the overall assets and deposits has surged by 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of the overall banking sector,” he added.

The finance minister noted that significant progress had been made in relation to the Islamization of Pakistan’s banking system during his government’s previous tenure, adding that things came to a halt due to political instability in the country.

“Today the financial share of the Islamic banks would have been 40 percent instead of 20 percent,” he said.

Earlier, the SBP governor, Jameel Ahmad, noted the demand for Islamic banking services was far greater than the conventional ones. He added the central bank was therefore taking more “measures to meet the growing demand.”

“We have already commenced work on a transformation plan to shift to Islamic banking,” Ahmed said.

He informed a high-level working group of officials from the SBP, SECP and finance ministry had been formed and activated which was responsible for developing Sukuk structures.

Ahmed said that Pakistan currently had five full-fledged Islamic banks offering a wide range of products and their annual growth rate over the last five years in terms of their assets and deposits had been 25 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

This, he noted, was far higher than most conventional banks.

Speaking at the seminar, Mufti Taqi Usmani, a prominent Islamic scholar, appreciated the government’s decision to withdraw appeals against the FSC decision which had earlier been filed in the Supreme Court.

Usmani asked the finance ministry to take practical steps to move toward an interest-free system in the country while pointing out that some private banks had yet not withdrawn their petitions against the FSC ruling.

Political and religious leaders, including Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, and Siraj-ul-Haq, emir of Jamaat-e-Islami party, also participated in the seminar.


Pakistan PM meets new army chief, lauds military's professional abilities

Updated 30 November 2022

Pakistan PM meets new army chief, lauds military's professional abilities

  • Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif tells General Asim Munir it is a huge honor to lead the Pakistan Army
  • The PM hopes the armed forces will protect the country’s security better under its new leadership

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif praised the military’s professional abilities while holding a meeting with the new army chief Syed Asim Munir on Wednesday, saying it was a huge honor for anyone to lead the armed forces of Pakistan which were tirelessly working for the country’s security.

This was Munir’s first meeting with the prime minister after taking over the army’s command in a ceremony held at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on Tuesday. He replaced General Qamar Javed Bajwa who retired from the post after leading the army for six years.

“We have full confidence in the professional capabilities of the Pakistan Army,” the prime minister was quoted as saying in a statement released by his office after the meeting.

“It is a great honor to lead the Pakistan Army,” he said while addressing the top general. “It is hoped that the armed forces under your leadership will deal with the challenges facing the country’s security in a better way.”

Sharif congratulated Munir on taking charge of his new position.

He maintained the whole nation was proud of the army’s role in protecting the frontiers of the country and fighting violent extremism and militancy.

The army has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 75-year history, either through coups or as an invisible guiding hand in politics.

Munir’s appointment coincides with a dispute between the army and former premier Imran Khan, who blames top military generals for playing a part in his ouster in a parliamentary no-trust vote earlier this year.

Khan also expressed hope earlier in the day the new military leadership would end the “prevailing trust deficit” between the army and the public.

The PM Office said in its statement Sharif’s meeting with the army chief focused on professional issues related to the country’s defense and security.

Munir also met President Arif Alvi during the day.

In a separate meeting, Alvi discussed defense related matters with the new Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Sahir Shamshad Mirza.

Pakistan President Dr Arif Alvi (right) meets army chief Syed Asim Munir in Islamabad, Pakistan, on November 30, 2022. (PID)