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.”


UK’s Daily Mail apologizes to PM Sharif for 2019 report

Updated 08 December 2022

UK’s Daily Mail apologizes to PM Sharif for 2019 report

  • UK’s Mail claimed in report Sharif was being probed for embezzling funds meant for earthquake victims
  • Sharif had sued the British tabloid in January 2020, saying it was a ‘politically motivated’ article against him

ISLAMABAD: British newspaper The Mail on Sunday and online news website Mail Online on Thursday apologized to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for publishing a 2019 report that said he was being investigated by Pakistani authorities for embezzling fund for earthquake victims.  

British tabloid Mail said in a July 14 article that Sharif, the president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, had embezzled funds provided by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for rehabilitation and reconstruction work after a devastating 2005 earthquake. 

A couple of months after the story was published, Sharif hired British law firm Carter-Ruck and filed a lawsuit against the British newspaper in January 2020. The firm, whose lawyers rank in the top tier of media, defamation and privacy lawyers in the United Kingdom, said the article was “gravely defamatory” of Sharif and contained false allegations.  

Sharif said he was appalled to read the story which he said accused him of “stealing British foreign aid money." The younger brother of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he was then the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.  

“We accept Mr Sharif has never been accused by the National Accountability Bureau of any wrongdoing in relation to British public money or DFID grant aid,” Mail Online wrote in its ‘Clarifications and Corrections’ section on the website.  

“We are pleased to make this clear and apologise to Mr Sharif for this error,” it added.  

"Disinformation & fake news have limited shelf life & truth is ultimate victor," Sharif wrote on Twitter in reaction to the apology.

The DFID had also rejected the contents of the article and said in a statement: “The UK’s financial support to ERRA [Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority] over this period was for payment by results – which means we only gave money once the agreed work, which was primarily focused on building schools, was completed, and the work audited and verified.” 


Saudi Arabia says ‘will continue to support’ Pakistan financially

Updated 08 December 2022

Saudi Arabia says ‘will continue to support’ Pakistan financially

  • Pakistan’s state bank says in talks with ‘friendly country’ for $3 billion loan
  • Amid soaring infation, cash-strapped Pakistan is in desperate need of finances

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Mohammed Al Jadaan said the kingdom would continue to support Pakistan’s finances as much as it can, as the country looks to shore up alliances with others struggling from inflation, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

With political instability on the rise, Pakistan is beset with various economic problems. The South Asian country has to pay off mounting external debt while its reserves continue to dwindle. It’s currency, the rupee, has failed to register strong growth against the US dollar in recent weeks. 

To make matters worse, in times of high inflation, devastating floods killed over 1,700, destroyed swathes of crops and damaged critical infrastructure in Pakistan this monsoon season. The country estimates losses over $30 billion from the floods. 

“The Saudi government will ‘continue to support Pakistan as much as we can,’” Bloomberg quoted Al Jadaan as saying at a press conference in Riyadh.

Last week, Saudi Arabia extended the term of a $3 billion deposit it made to Pakistan's foreign reserves to help the country grapple with its economic crisis.

Earlier today, Thursday, Pakistan’s central bank governor confirmed Islamabad is in talks for a $3 billion loan from a “friendly country”.

“The Government is also in talks with a friendly country for the disbursement of a $3 billion loan and negotiations with multilateral agencies are progressing, for further financial support,” State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Governor Jameel Ahmad said in a podcast.


Pakistan forms fresh investigation team to probe journalist’s killing

Updated 08 December 2022

Pakistan forms fresh investigation team to probe journalist’s killing

  • Pakistan’s top court directs team to submit progress report every two weeks
  • Fact-finding report says role of transnational figures in killing cannot be ruled out

KARACHI: At the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s directives, the Pakistani government on Thursday formed a new joint investigation team (JIT) to probe the alleged murder of journalist and anchor Arshad Sharif.  

Earlier this week, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial used the so-called “suo moto” provision — which allows him to take up cases on his own initiative — to set up a bench of five judges to supervise an investigation into the killing of the prominent television journalist in Kenya in October.  

Sharif, an outspoken critic of the government who also turned his guns on the military during the later part of his life, was shot to death by Kenyan police in Nairobi in October.   

Kenyan police said Sharif’s killing was a case of “mistaken identity” during the search for a car involved in a child abduction case. But a two-member Pakistani fact-finding team that visited the East African state subsequently called the killing a “targeted assassination.” 

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the government to form a fresh JIT to investigate Sharif’s killing. During the hearing today, the government’s representative, Additional Attorney General (AAG) Aamir Rehman presented a notification featuring the names of the five JIT members.  

These included Awais Ahmed, deputy inspector-general Islamabad, Muhammad Aslam, an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency’s representative, Murtaza Afzal, a representative of the Military Intelligence (MI), Waqar-ud-din Syed, director of cybercrimes of the Federal Investigation Agency and Sajid Kiani, deputy director-general of the Intelligence Bureau (IB).  

The notification said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and Islamabad Police have been directed to facilitate the team in their probe.  

Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, who conducted the hearing of the case with a five-member bench, said MoFA had submitted its reply with “ways and good suggestions.” 

The court then directed the JIT to submit a progress report to the court every two weeks. 

In its response submitted in court, MoFA said the Pakistan missions in Nairobi and Dubai were corresponding to facilitate the process of investigation and gathering evidence.  

The ministry said it was considering sending a special envoy to Kenya to raise the matter with local authorities and also arrange a phone call between the Kenyan and Pakistani foreign ministers.  

MoFA said it was also considering to direct the Pakistani High Commission in Nairobi to push senior Kenyan officials to accelerate the matter. 

Meanwhile, a fact-finding team’s (FFT) report seen by Arab News stated that the role of transnational characters in Kenya, Dubai and Pakistan could not be ruled out in Sharif’s killing.  

“Both the members of the FFT have a considered understanding that it is a case of planned targeted assassination with transnational characters rather than a case of mistaken Identity,” the report said. 

The team noted there were compelling reasons for Sharif to leave Pakistan, adding that criminal cases registered against him in different districts were most likely the reason why he was also asked to leave the UAE by authorities there. 

Sharif had left Pakistan in August over threats to his life and after a slew of court cases related to charges of treason and others were registered against him.  

“The four GSU [General Service Unit] police officials [in Kenya] ... had been used as instruments in this case under any influence, either financial or some other compulsion,” the report said.  

It added that Waqar Ahmad, who hosted Sharif, was connected to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of Kenya and other international intelligence agencies and Kenyan police. 

His brother, Khurram Ahmad, was driving Sharif back to Nairobi when the shooting incident took place.


In new audio leak, wife of ex-Pakistani PM allegedly tells aide to sell watches

Updated 08 December 2022

In new audio leak, wife of ex-Pakistani PM allegedly tells aide to sell watches

  • Ex-PM Imran Khan’s aide terms audio clip ‘fake’, demands forensic audit
  • Audio put spotlight on controversy surrounding sale of state gifts during Khan’s tenure

ISLAMABAD: A leaked audio recording allegedly featuring a conversation between the wife of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan and a close aide of the former premier has once again put the spotlight on a controversy surrounding the sale of state gifts during Khan’s tenure in office.

The election regulator in October disqualified Khan from holding public office in a case registered against him for failing to declare assets from the sale of state gifts. Khan was accused of misusing his position as then prime minister to buy items from the toshakhana, or state repository for gifts, to sell at higher rates in the market. A major charge was that the former premier failed to declare some of the earnings in his annual statements of assets submitted before the election commission.

At the heart of the controversy was an expensive Graff wristwatch set gifted to the former premier when he went to Saudi Arabia on his first official trip in 2018. A Dubai-based Pakistani businessman, Umar Farooq Zahoor, has claimed he bought the watch from Khan in 2019.

“Khan sb has some watches, he has said to send them to you so you can sell them etcetera, because they are not of use to him, so he wants that you [sell them],” a voice believed to belong to Bushra Bibi, Khan’s wife, is heard saying to Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, a Pakistani businessman and politician who is one of Khan’s closest aides.

“Definitely murshid, I will do it,” a voice purportedly of Bukhari is heard saying, using the Urdu word to refer to a spiritual guide or teacher.

However, speaking to Arab News, Bukhari denied it was his voice in the audio clip.

"No, it has nothing to do with that watch [gifted to Khan by Saudi crown prince],” he wrote in a text message. “And it’s a fake audio. Cut, copy [and] paste,” he added.
 
Bukhari said he had never sold any watch ever, calling for a forensic audit of the clip.
“I’ll [even] pay for forensics to be done,” he added.

Last month, Khan said he would take legal action against Zahoor and the Jang media group that conducted Zahoor's interview in which he said he paid Khan $2 million to buy the Graff set.  

There have been a number of audio leaks from the Prime Minister’s Office in recent months, including discussions between current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and members of his cabinet.

In another leak, Khan is believed to be having a conversation with his then principal secretary Azam Khan about a diplomatic cipher that was at the center of Khan’s allegations that his ouster in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April was part of a regime change conspiracy hatched by the United States. Washington denies this.

In another leak, a voice believed to be Khan’s can be heard telling Asad Umar, then planning minister, and Shireen Mazari, who held the human rights portfolio, to forcefully push upon the public the narrative that a “foreign conspiracy” was behind the ouster of his government.

In yet another leak, a voice believed to be Khan’s is heard discussing political horse-trading and the possibility of “buying” five legislators in the days leading up to the no-confidence vote in which Khan was removed.

PM Sharif has since launched an investigation into the leaks and strengthened cyber security protocols in government offices.


At Bali conference, Pakistan backs efforts to get Afghan girls and women back to school

Updated 08 December 2022

At Bali conference, Pakistan backs efforts to get Afghan girls and women back to school

  • Meeting on Afghan women's education co-organized by governments of Indonesia, Qatar
  • Indonesia has made Afghanistan one of its priority foreign aid commitments

JAKARTA: Indonesia on Thursday hosted the first international conference to back education for Afghan women who face growing restrictions from the Taliban government, with the Pakistani foreign minister emphasising a greater role for women in decision-making. 

Afghan girls and women have been facing growing uncertainty since the Taliban took control of the country last year, with an estimated 3 million secondary school girls kept out of school for more than a year.

The International Conference on Afghan Women’s Education was held in Bali and co-organized by the governments of Indonesia and Qatar. This was the first such meeting to take place since the Taliban takeover last year, gathering representatives of 38 countries, including Pakistan, international organizations, NGOs and academics.

In his remarks at the conference, Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari highlighted the "importance of education for women and their participation in decision making."

"Need for concrete and practical assistance programs benefiting cross section of Afghan society," the foreign office said in a statement, listing Bhutto Zardari’s main talking points. "Pakistan’s strong support to all efforts aimed at promoting the well-being and prosperity of the Afghan people."

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and conference host, has made Afghanistan one of its priority foreign aid commitments, with assistance directed mostly to support women’s empowerment and education.

“We cannot choose to remain idle, we must do something,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a press conference.

“I firmly believe investing in women means investing in a brighter future, given the opportunity women can make a critical contribution to society.”

Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaks at the International Conference on Afghan Women's Education in Bali, Indonesia on December 8, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Pakistan foreign office)

Marsudi said creating conducive conditions for women’s participation in Afghan society was of critical importance, urging participants to “encourage progress to establish an inclusive government that respects women’s rights” and “guarantee education for all.”

Under its new rulers, Afghanistan has been struggling to achieve growth and stability, as foreign governments have refused to recognize the Taliban while its aid-dependent Afghan economy has been in freefall following the suspension of billions of dollars in foreign aid.

Human rights violations against women and girls have mounted steadily in the last year and restrictions on women’s employment have cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to $1 billion, or around five percent, according to UN data.

The conference was a “good steppingstone,” Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater, told participants of the Bali meeting.

Indonesia and Qatar are working together on a scholarship program dedicated to Afghan people and planning to create economic opportunities through microloans. The two governments are also keen on facilitating policies that would connect the Afghan private sector with their international counterparts.

“One message for the international community: Education is a basic right for all ... And it’s important for myself and my colleagues as well — me as a Muslim woman — to confirm that this is not part of a faith; preventing women from their basic rights is not part of the faith,” Al-Khater said.

“It is our obligation as Muslim-majority countries to confront that and to say to any actors that this does not represent us, this does not represent the faith of Islam.”