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

Special In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan fighters in South Waziristan. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 29 September 2022

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

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
  • Arab News interviewed traders who had received extortion demands in recent months
  • Most of them said the callers identified themselves as militants belonging to 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 the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in past years and where officials as well as local residents widely say the militants are attempting to regain a foothold.

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

Last week, Arab News interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and businesspeople 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 Sept. 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 Tehreek-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 were 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 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 has managed to step up attacks in recent months, and both police and government officials as well as locals report that hundreds of insurgents have returned — as have demands for extortion.

Mohammed 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 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 Affairs Ministry 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.”  

Another police official based in Swat Valley said: “Well-off people, including lawmakers, receive phone calls on a regular basis. 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 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, 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 has been an evident surge during the last 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 telltale sign that the militants 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.”

Related


UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses
Updated 11 sec ago

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses
  • ‘Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights’
LONDON: Britain on Friday announced sanctions against 30 people worldwide, including Russian and Iranian officials, targeting those it deems responsible for acts of torture, sexual violence, and the violent repression of street protests.
The move came a day after France announced plans for new European Union sanctions against Iran over human rights abuses in its security crackdown on popular unrest there as well as its supply of drones to Russia before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The British government said its sanctions were coordinated with international partners to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and Global Human Rights Day. They encompassed individuals involved in activities including the torture of prisoners and the mobilization of troops to rape civilians.
“Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.
Those sanctioned include Russian Col. Ramil Rakhmatulovich Ibatullin for his role as the commander of the 90th Tank Division, which has been involved in fighting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
The government said there have been multiple allegations made against serving members of the 90th Tank Division, including the conviction in Ukraine of a senior lieutenant on sexual abuse charges during the conflict.
Russia, which has said it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to eliminate threats to its security, has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians.
Britain also sanctioned 10 Iranian officials connected to Iran’s prison systems. This included six people linked to the Revolutionary Courts that have been responsible for prosecuting protesters with sentences including the death penalty.
Nationwide protests that erupted after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 have posed one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.
The British government sanctioned Ali Cheharmahali and Gholamreza Ziyayi, former directors of Evin prison in Tehran, which it said was a facility notorious for the mistreatment of both Iranian and foreign detainees.
The foreign office said the sanctions against 11 countries across seven sanctions regimes were the most that Britain has ever imposed in one package.
Britain also sanctioned figures involved in Myanmar’s military, which it said were involved in committing massacres, torture and rape.
Among those sanctioned by Britain were Myanmar’s Office of the Chief of Military and Security Affairs, which it said had been involved in torture since last year’s military coup, including rape and sexual violence.

Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap

Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap
Updated 09 December 2022

Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap

Russia says ties with US still in ‘crisis’ despite prisoner swap
  • Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: relations between the two countries remained in a ‘sorry state’
  • Moscow-Washington tensions lately soared over range of issues

MOSCOW: Russia said Friday that its ties with the United States were still in “crisis” despite a prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have soared in recent months over a range of issues, peaking after President Vladimir Putin sent troops into pro-Western Ukraine.
“It is probably wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusions that this could be a step toward overcoming the crisis that we currently have in bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Izvestia newspaper.
Ties “continue to remain in a sad state,” he said, adding that talks with US authorities allowed “a Russian citizen, who was basically held captive by the Americans for 14 years... to return to his country.”
Dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” Bout was released Thursday in a prisoner swap in Abu Dhabi involving WNBA star Griner, 32, who was jailed in Russia for possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
Bout, 55, was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
He was arrested in an American sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
bur/ach


Fire destroys Moscow shopping mall, killing 1 man

Fire destroys Moscow shopping mall, killing 1 man
Updated 38 min 12 sec ago

Fire destroys Moscow shopping mall, killing 1 man

Fire destroys Moscow shopping mall, killing 1 man
  • Fire broke out at Mega Khimki shopping center
  • “arson” ruled out in fire

 MOSCOW: One man was killed after a massive fire on Friday destroyed a shopping mall on Moscow’s northwestern outskirts.
Authorities said the blaze at the OBI mall in Khimki outside the Russian capital was sparked by welding that apparently violated safety regulations.
The huge blaze erupted before the mall opened it’s doors to customers, engulfing the entire building of 17,000 square meters (183,000 square feet).
Officials initially said arson may have been involved, but later said it was due to unsafe welding.
A probe into the possible violation of safety rules has been launched.


Sri Lanka’s Parliament approves budget amid economic crisis

Sri Lanka’s Parliament approves budget amid economic crisis
Updated 09 December 2022

Sri Lanka’s Parliament approves budget amid economic crisis

Sri Lanka’s Parliament approves budget amid economic crisis

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Parliament approved a budget Thursday that includes reforms aimed at improving the country’s finances as it attempts to recover from its worst economic crisis.

The 5.82 trillion rupee ($15 billion) budget includes a 43 billion rupee ($117 million) relief package for those affected by the crisis.

The budget provides for a restructuring of state-owned enterprises, reduced subsidies for electricity, and tax increases to boost state revenue based on proposals by the International Monetary Fund under a preliminary $2.9 billion bailout plan.

Unsustainable government debt, a severe balance of payments crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shortage of essentials such as fuel, medicine and food, and soaring prices have caused severe hardships for most Sri Lankans. Many have lost their jobs because businesses have become unsustainable.

The government announced in April that it was suspending repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year. It has since entered a preliminary agreement with the IMF, which has agreed to provide $2.9 billion over four years depending on the willingness of Sri Lanka’s creditors to restructure their loans.

Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt exceeds $51 billion, of which $28 billion has to be repaid by 2027.

The economic meltdown triggered a political crisis in which thousands of protesters stormed the official residence of the president in July, forcing then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and later resign.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded Rajapaksa, has somewhat reduced the shortages of fuel and cooking gas, but power outages continue, along with shortages of imported medicines.


Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection
Updated 08 December 2022

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection
  • Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroscepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone
  • At Giurgiu, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometres begins forming from dawn

GIURGIU, Romania: After more than 10 years waiting to be admitted into the Schengen zone, Bulgaria and Romania were once more turned away after two EU countries vetoed their admission.
Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroskepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone through which passport checks are not normally required.
Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca spoke of his “profound disappointment” after Austria blocked their admission.
In Bulgaria, President Rumen Radev regretted what he described as the “internal borders” he said were being put up with the European Union bloc.
Their failure to win admission to the Schengen’s vast zone of free movement means that the long lines at various border crossings will continue.
At Giurgiu, for example, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometers begins forming from dawn.
Jaded long-haul drivers speaking to AFP in early December in Giurgiu, on the Romanian side, told of long hours waiting for the customs checks before they could enter Bulgaria.
Alexandru Birnea, 36, a long-haul driver for 13 years, said joining the Schengen zone would improve the lives of thousands of truckers.
“We would like to avoid losing all this time and therefore money in endless queues so that we can get back to our families more quickly,” he said.
But his pessimism about the outcome of the vote turned out to be well founded.
The European Commission has long expressed its wish for a widened Schengen zone.
But while tourist hotspot Croatia received the green light on Thursday, Romania and Bulgaria were left out in the cold.
Both countries joined the European Union back in 2007, before Croatia. Both countries met the technical criteria set out by Brussels.
But both countries were asked to make progress on judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts and were monitored for improvements.
When that process ended, both countries were hopeful that they had cleared the final hurdle. improvements.
But Austria hardened its stance, denouncing an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded.
“The migratory flows do not pass through Romania,” but mainly through Serbia, Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode argued.
He pointing to the nearly 140,000 migrants on the western Balkan route recorded by the European agency Frontex since January.
Prime Minister Ciuca said Austria’s refusal was based on “incorrect” figures.
But for political analyst Sergiu Miscoiu, Austria’s veto was more a reflection of internal political pressures, given the rise in polls of the far right there.
The Netherlands finally changed its position and gave Romania the green-light after long being opposed. But it maintained its concerns about “corruption and human rights” in Bulgaria.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that he wanted to be assured that no-one could “cross the border with a 50-euro note.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev rejected what he described as “insulting” remarks, especially given the “exceptional efforts” they had made to meet Brussels’ demands.
Bulgarian weekly magazine Capital commented: “We expect the impossible from the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU: don’t let migrants pass through (the country), but give asylum to every migrant who enters,” it remarked.
And analyst Miscoiu warned that a negative vote could “strengthen the euroskeptics, especially in Bulgaria, which has already had four elections in the past two years.”
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis also warned that rejection “might compromise European unity and cohesion, which we so need, especially in the current geopolitical context.”

Related