Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

The blackmail network bankrolls the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule. (AFP)
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Updated 25 November 2022

Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

  • After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, the group was emboldened by its sister movement’s success
  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan: A lawmaker in Pakistan’s rugged northwest was sipping tea with voters when his phone chirped to life — the Taliban were calling with a demand for “donations.”
“We hope you won’t disappoint,” read the chilling text from a shady go-between of the Pakistan chapter of the Islamists, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A second message pinged on-screen: “Refusal to provide financial support will make you a problem,” it warned.
“We believe a wise man will understand what we mean by that.”
After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, TTP racketeering has infested Pakistan’s borderlands, locals say, with the group emboldened by its sister movement’s success.
Since July, the provincial lawmaker — who asked to remain anonymous — has been cowed into sending the TTP sums totaling 1.2 million rupees (over $5,000).
“Those who don’t pay have to face the consequences. Sometimes they throw a grenade at their door. Sometimes they shoot,” he said.
“Most of the elites pay the extortion money. Some pay more, some pay less. But nobody talks about it.
“Everyone is scared for their life.”
The TTP share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009, when they spilled out of the jagged belt splitting Pakistan and Afghanistan and overran the Swat Valley just 140 kilometers north of Islamabad.
The Pakistani military came down hard in 2014, after militants raided a school for children of army personnel and killed nearly 150 people, mostly pupils.
The TTP were largely routed, their fighters fleeing to Afghanistan where they were hunted by US-led forces.
With Afghanistan back under Taliban rule, it has become an “open shelter” for the TTP, according to Imtiaz Gul, an analyst with Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies.
“They now have freedom of action while living in Afghanistan,” he said.
“That’s a simple explanation for why the TTP attacks rose.”
In the year since the Taliban’s return, militant activity in Pakistan has spiked, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, with around 433 people killed.
“They started the same old game: target killings, bomb blasts, kidnappings — and making calls for extortion,” Swat community activist Ahmad Shah said.
The blackmail network bankrolls the TTP, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule.
Provincial MP Nisar Mohmand estimates 80 to 95 percent of well-off residents in surrounding districts are now blackmail victims.
Fellow legislators have been targeted for refusing to pay out, and some are too fearful to visit their precincts.
“They have their own system of reward and punishment,” said Mohmand. “They have established an alternate government, so how are people supposed to resist?“
The Afghan Taliban have long-standing differences with their Pakistani counterparts, and since capturing Kabul have pledged not to host international jihadist groups.
But the first telltale sign of a TTP blackmail attempt is the phone number — starting with the +93 international code indicating an Afghan SIM card.
Then comes a suggestive text, or voice message in Pashto — spoken with a Pakistani lilt.
AFP heard one message threatening an “action squad” would be dispatched to a landlord if he declined to pay.
“The days of cruelty are near. Don’t think we are a spent force,” it warns.
The sum “owed” is then hashed out, generally through an intermediary, before it is sent to the ragged bands of TTP fighters whose silhouettes haunt the mountain steeps.
Victims expect to be “tapped up” up to five times a year, the anonymous MP said.
Since the 2014 school slaughter, which horrified Pakistanis even marginally sympathetic to their cause, the TTP has pledged to avoid civilian targets, and claims extortion is done by criminals borrowing their brand.
But a civilian intelligence official in the area insisted they were “the root cause of the menace.”
Swat — a snow-capped mountain valley split by turquoise running waters — is one of Pakistan’s most famed beauty spots, but its reputation has a dark side.
In 2012 then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the TTP while campaigning for girls’ education, a campaign that later earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
This summer things seemed to have slipped irredeemably back toward those dark days.
After a decade-long hiatus, the anonymous MP started receiving blackmail texts once again.
“The situation was so bad that many people were thinking of migration,” said Shah. “Life was at a standstill.”
But there has been pushback, and several protests against the TTP have been held since the group’s high-profile kidnapping of three officials in August.
Businesses shut and thousands spilled into the streets in rallies up and down the valley.
Pakistan’s military claimed reports of strong TTP in the area were “grossly exaggerated and misleading.”
Still, in Pakistan’s borderlands, attacks and extortion continue unchecked — despite a professed negotiation truce between the TTP and Islamabad.
The Taliban’s return in Kabul, despite being pounded for 20 years by the world’s strongest armies, shows military might will not end the ordeal.
“We have to search a solution which is acceptable to both sides,” said government negotiator Muhammad Ali Saif.
“A lasting settlement will have to be found.”


Salman Rushdie says he feels ‘lucky’ in first interview since stabbing

Updated 06 February 2023

Salman Rushdie says he feels ‘lucky’ in first interview since stabbing

  • Novelist still struggling to write in the aftermath of ‘colossal attack’
  • Brands assailant Hadi Matar ‘an idiot’ but says he does not want to be ‘a victim’

LONDON: Author Salman Rushdie has said he feels “lucky” to be alive in his first interview since he was stabbed in New York.

Speaking to the New Yorker magazine, Rushdie said his “main overwhelming feeling is gratitude” that he had not been more severely injured during the incident, which saw him require emergency treatment and left him hospitalized for six weeks.

“The big injuries are healed, essentially. I have feeling in my thumb and index finger and in the bottom half of the palm. I’m doing a lot of hand therapy, and I’m told that I’m doing very well.

“I’m able to get up and walk around. When I say I’m fine, I mean, there are bits of my body that need constant checkups. It was a colossal attack.”

The Indian-born British American writer was attacked on stage at a talk at the Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 12 by 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who is thought to have been inspired to attack Rushdie by the fatwa issued by the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini for his book “The Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie, who spent several years in hiding after the fatwa was issued, was stabbed multiple times in the neck and torso by Matar, going blind in one eye and losing the use of a hand.

Matar has been charged with attempted second-degree murder and attempted second-degree assault, both of which he denies.

Rushdie said he only blames his assailant for the attack and holds no bitterness toward anyone else, despite the venue in question having insufficient security measures in place.

“I don’t know what I think of him, because I don’t know him,” Rushdie said of Matar, who has admitted to not having read “The Satanic Verses” in its entirety.

“All I’ve seen is his idiotic interview in the New York Post. Which only an idiot would do. I know that the trial is still a long way away. It might not happen until late next year. I guess I’ll find out some more about him then.”

Rushdie continued: “I’ve tried very hard over these years to avoid recrimination and bitterness. I just think it’s not a good look. One of the ways I’ve dealt with this whole thing is to look forward and not backwards. What happens tomorrow is more important than what happened yesterday.

“I’ve always tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim. Then you’re just sitting there saying, ‘Somebody stuck a knife in me! Poor me’ … Which I do sometimes think.”

He admitted, though, that writing had become difficult in the aftermath of the attack. “There is such a thing as PTSD, you know,” he said.

“I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

Rushdie was speaking ahead of the publication of his latest novel, “Victory City,” which he had completed prior to the fateful day at the Chautauqua Institution.

He added that the future of his writing career remains unclear following the attack.

“I’m going to tell you really truthfully, I’m not thinking about the long term,” he said. “I’m thinking about little step by little step. I just think, ‘bop till you drop.’”

He did suggest, though, that he could write a sequel to his memoir “Joseph Anton,” which would almost certainly address the attack.


Alleged Daesh ‘Beatle’ to go on trial in UK

Aine Davis is accused of belonging to a group of hostage-takers who were radicalized in London. (Metropolitan Police)
Updated 06 February 2023

Alleged Daesh ‘Beatle’ to go on trial in UK

  • Aine Davis is accused of belonging to the notorious group of hostage-takers, who grew up and were radicalized in London
  • Allegedly involved in abducting more than two dozen journalists and relief workers from the US and other countries

LONDON: An alleged member of Daesh’s “Beatles” kidnap-and-murder cell will face trial in the UK this month on terrorism charges, a judge said on Monday.
Aine Davis is accused of belonging to the notorious group of hostage-takers, who grew up and were radicalized in London.
Active in Syria from 2012 to 2015, they were allegedly involved in abducting more than two dozen journalists and relief workers from the United States and other countries.
The group members were nicknamed the “Beatles” by their captives because of their distinctive British accents.
The hostages, some of whom were released after their governments paid ransoms, were from at least 15 countries, including Denmark, France, Japan, Norway, Spain and the United States.
Daesh tortured and killed their victims, including by beheading, and released videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.
Davis, 38, will go on trial on February 27 at the Old Bailey criminal court in London, judge Mark Lucraft said on Monday.
He faces two charges related to providing money for terrorist purposes and one of possessing a firearm for a purpose connected to terrorism.
The judge also extended Davis’s detention in custody to March 3. It was due to run out on Friday.
Davis did not appear in court and the video link to his prison was not working.
His lawyer, Mark Summers, said he had been able to speak to his client about extending custody.
The lawyer predicted the trial would take less than two weeks.
Davis was arrested in Turkiye in 2015 and sentenced to seven and half years for membership of Daesh in 2017.
He was released in July last year and deported from Turkiye the next month. He was then arrested when he arrived at Britain’s Luton airport.
In 2014, his wife Amal El-Wahabi became the first person in Britain to be convicted of funding Daesh extremists after trying to send 20,000 euros — worth $25,000 at the time — to him in Syria.
She was jailed for 28 months and seven days following a trial in which Davis was described as a drug dealer before he went to Syria to fight with Daesh.
Two of the “Beatles,” El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, have received life sentences in the United States.
The fourth in the group, executioner Mohammed Emwazi, was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015.


British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

Updated 06 February 2023

British workers stage largest strike in history of health service

  • Biggest strike in 75-year history of National Health Service
  • Government urges workers to call off walkouts

LONDON: Health workers in Britain began their largest strike on Monday, as tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walk out in an escalating pay dispute, putting further strain on the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Nurses and ambulance workers have been striking separately on and off since late last year but Monday’s walkout involving both, largely in England, is the biggest in the 75-year history of the NHS.
Nurses will also strike on Tuesday, while ambulance staff will walk out on Friday and physiotherapists on Thursday, making the week probably the most disruptive in NHS history, its Medical Director Stephen Powis said.
Health workers are demanding a pay rise that reflects the worst inflation in Britain in four decades, while the government says that would be unaffordable and cause more price rises, and in turn, make interest rates and mortgage payments rise.
Around 500,000 workers, many from the public sector, have been staging strikes since last summer, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the disputes and limit disruption to public services such as railways and schools.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union wrote to Sunak over the weekend asking him to bring the nursing strike “to a swift close” by making “meaningful” pay offers.
“We’ve got one of the busiest winters we have ever had with record levels of funding going into the NHS to try and manage services,” Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, told Sky News on Monday.
“So every percent of a pay increase takes money away.”
The government has urged people to continue to access emergency services and attend appointments during the strikes unless they had been canceled but said patients would face disruption and delays.
NURSES LEAVING
The NHS, a source of pride for most Britons, is under extreme pressure with millions of patients on waiting lists for operations and thousands each month failing to receive prompt emergency care.
The RCN says a decade of poor pay has contributed to tens of thousands of nurses leaving the profession — 25,000 over just the last year — with the severe staffing shortages impacting patient care.
The RCN initially asked for a pay rise of 5 percent above inflation and has since said it could meet the government “half way,” but both sides have failed to reach agreement despite weeks of talks.
Meanwhile, thousands of ambulance workers represented by the GMB and Unite trade unions are set to strike on Monday in their own pay dispute. Both unions have announced several more days of industrial action.
Not all ambulance workers will strike at once and emergency calls will be attended to.
In Wales, nurses and some ambulance workers have called off strikes planned for Monday as they review pay offers from the Welsh government.
Sunak said in a TalkTV interview last week he would “love to give the nurses a massive pay rise” but said the government faced tough choices and that it was funding the NHS in other areas such as by providing medical equipment and ambulances.


Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

Updated 06 February 2023

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

  • Rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition
  • The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition
HONGKONG: Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opened Monday with dozens of pro-democracy figures accused of trying to topple the government in a case critics say reflects the criminalization of dissent in the Chinese territory.
The 47 defendants, who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, face up to life in prison if convicted.
Sixteen have pleaded not guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over an unofficial primary election.
The other 31 have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.
A rare, small protest erupted before the court convened, despite the large police presence.
One man was seen raising his fist in solidarity.
The defendants maintain they are being persecuted for routine politics, while rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition.
Most of the group have already spent nearly two years behind bars.
They now face proceedings expected to last more than four months, overseen by judges handpicked by the government.
The case is the largest to date under the national security law, which China imposed on Hong Kong after huge democracy protests in 2019 brought tear gas and police brawls onto the streets of the Asian financial hub.
Wielded against students, unionists and journalists, the law has transformed the once-outspoken city.
More than 100 people had queued outside the court, some overnight, hoping to see the trial begin on Monday.
Chan Po-ying, a veteran campaigner and wife of defendant “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, joined supporters carrying a banner that read “Crackdown is shameless” and “Immediately release all political prisoners.”
“This is political persecution,” she said outside the court.
Inside, Leung repeated his not-guilty plea, adding: “Resisting tyranny is not a crime.”
Those on trial represent a cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition — including activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, professor Benny Tai and former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Au Nok-hin.
Most — 34 out of 47 — have been denied bail, while the few released from custody must abide by strict conditions, including speech restrictions.
Families of the accused have called these measures “social death.”
The group was jointly charged in March 2021 after organizing an unofficial primary a year earlier.
Their stated aim was to win a majority in the city’s legislature, which would allow them to push the protesters’ demands and potentially force the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader.
According to prosecutors, this was tantamount to trying to bring down the government.
“This case involves a group of activists who conspired together and with others to plan, organize and participate in seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining (the government)... with a view to subverting the State power,” the prosecution said in its opening statement.
More than 610,000 people — about one-seventh of the city’s voting population — cast ballots in the primary. Shortly afterwards, Beijing brought in a new political system that strictly vetted who could stand for office.
The case has attracted international criticism, and diplomats from 12 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia and France were seen at the court Monday.
“This is a retaliation against all the Hong Kongers who supported the pro-democratic camp,” Eric Lai, a fellow of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told AFP of the trial.
“Beijing will go all out — even weaponizing the laws and court — to make sure democratic politics in Hong Kong cannot go beyond the lines it drew.”
The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition.
“It is as if the national security law is now the new constitution for Hong Kong and the judges are playing their role in making sure that happens,” said Dennis Kwok, Hong Kong’s former legal sector legislator.
Weeks before the hearing began, Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Andrew Cheung defended the courts against accusations of politicization.
“Whilst inevitably the court’s decision may sometimes have a political impact, this does not mean the court has made a political decision,” Cheung said.

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

Updated 06 February 2023

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

BEIJING: China on Monday accused the United States of indiscriminate use of force when the American military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon Saturday, saying that had “seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations.”
The US shot down a balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy on Sunday over the “US attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, which obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie said.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
Xie repeated China’s insistence that the balloon was a Chinese civil unmanned airship that blew into US mistake, calling it “an accidental incident caused by force majeure.”
China would “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” he said.
US President Joe Biden issued the shootdown order after he was advised that the best times for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
“What the US has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations since the Bali meeting,” Xie said, referring to the recent meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Indonesia that many hoped would create positive momentum for improving ties that have spiraled to their lowest level in years.
The sides are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights, but Beijing is most sensitive over alleged violations by the US and others of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Beijing strongly protests military sales to Taiwan and visits by foreign politicians to the island, which it claims as Chinese territory to be recovered by force if necessary.
It reacted to a 2022 visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island and staging threatening military drills seen as a rehearsal for an invasion or blockade. Beijing also cut off discussion with the US on issues including climate change that are unrelated to military tensions.
Last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned Pelosi’s successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, not to travel Taiwan, implying China’s response would be equally vociferous.
“China will firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests,” Mao Ning said. McCarthy said China had no right to dictate where and when he could travel.
China also objects when foreign military surveillance planes fly off its coast in international airspace and when US and other foreign warships pass through the Taiwan Strait, accusing them of being actively provocative.
In 2001, a US Navy plane conducting routine surveillance near the Chinese coast collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese fighter pilot and damaging the American plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a China naval air base on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan.
China detained the 24-member US Navy aircrew for 10 days until the US expressed regret over the Chinese pilot’s death and for landing at the base without permission.
The South China Sea is another major source of tension. China claims the strategically key sea virtually in its entirety and protests when US Navy ships sail past Chinese military features there.
At a news conference Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Blinken said “the presence of this surveillance balloon over the United States in our skies is a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law, and clearly unacceptable. And we’ve made that clear to China.”
“Any country that has its airspace violated in this way I think would respond similarly, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be in China if they were on the other end,” Blinken said.
China’s weather balloon excuse should be dismissed outright, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.
“This is like a standard thing that countries often say about surveillance assets,” Mastro said.
China may have made a mistake and lost control of the balloon, but is was unlikely to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit, Mastro said.
For the US administration, the decision to go public and then shoot down the balloon marks a break from its usual approach of dealing with Beijing on such matters privately, possibly in hopes of changing China’s future behavior.
However, Mastro said, it was unlikely that Beijing would respond positively.
“They’re probably going to dismiss that and continue on as things have been. So I don’t see a really clear pathway to improved relations in the foreseeable future.”