Lahore: A campaign of high-profile kidnappings has provided the Pakistani Taliban and its allies with new resources, arming insurgents with millions of dollars, threatening foreign aid programs and galvanizing a sophisticated network of Jehadi and criminal gangs whose reach spans the country, American daily New York Times reported Monday.
Wealthy industrialists, academics, Western aid workers and relatives of military officers have been targets in a spree that, since it started three years ago, has spread to every major city, reaching the wealthiest neighborhoods, Pakistani security officials say according to report.
For many hostages, the experience means a harrowing journey into the heart of Waziristan, the fearsome Taliban redoubt along the Afghan border that has borne the brunt of a C.I.A. drone-strike campaign.
One young Punjabi businessman who spent six months there in Taliban hands last year described it as a terrifying time of grimy cells, clandestine journeys, brutal beatings and grinding negotiations with his distraught, distant family.
For all that, his captors betrayed glimpses of humanity, even humor: small acts of kindness; quirky after-dinner games; shared confidences and reminiscences. But their ruthless intent was never in doubt, the former hostage said, speaking anonymously because he feared reprisals against his family.
During his captivity, four teenage suicide bombers were undergoing instruction, taking indoctrination classes in the morning and carrying mock explosive vests equipped with push-button detonators in the afternoon.
“Their mantra was: ‘One button and you go to heaven,’ ” he recalled.
Kidnapping is a centuries-old scourge in parts of Pakistan, from the tribesmen who snatched British colonists in the 19th century to the slum gangs that have preyed on Karachi business families since the 1980s. The national total has varied only slightly in recent years: from 474 kidnappings for ransom in 2010 to 467 last year, according to Interior Ministry figures.
What has changed, however, is the level of Taliban involvement.
In one case, a 70-year-old German aid worker and his 24-year-old Italian colleague, who disappeared from the city of Multan on Jan. 20, are being held by militants in North Waziristan, a senior security official confirmed.
Others in militant captivity include Shahbaz Taseer, son of the assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer; two Swiss tourists who vanished as they drove toward the Iranian border; the son-in-law of a retired four-star army general; and Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American snatched from his home last August, days before he was due to leave Pakistan, and said to be held by Al Qaeda.
The Pakistani Taliban are unapologetic, saying the kidnappings earn valuable funds, offer leverage to free imprisoned fighters and are a political statement against longstanding American efforts to drive Al Qaeda from the tribal belt. “We are targeting foreigners in reaction to government demands that we expel the foreign mujahedeen,” said the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman, during an interview at his North Waziristan stronghold.
The kidnappings are continuing even as Pakistani security forces have seemed to blunt the militants’ ability to inflict mass casualties: suicide attacks fell by 35 per cent in 2011, according to the annual report of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, while the number of people killed in attacks fell from 3,021 in 2009 to 2,391 last year.
But the lull may be temporary, experts warn, and meanwhile the militants are filling their coffers with ransom money.
The business is run like a mobster racket. Pakistani and foreign militant commanders, based in Waziristan, give the orders, but it is a combination of hired criminals and “Punjabi Taliban” who snatch the hostages from their homes, vehicles and workplaces.
Ransom demands typically range between $500,000 and $2.2 million, although the final price is often one-tenth of the asking amount, security experts say. The kidnappers’ methods are sophisticated: surveillance of targets that can last months; sedative injections to subdue victims after abduction; video demands via Skype; use of different gangs for different tasks, often with little knowledge of one another.
The victims tend to be wealthy – the police have recovered lists of prominent stock market players from kidnappers – and, often, from vulnerable sectarian minorities such as Hindus, Shiites and Ahmadi sects.
So it was with the young Punjabi businessman held in Waziristan last year. “They told me upfront I had been taken because I was an Ahmadi,” he said. “They consider us fair game.”
Snatched by armed men as he drove home from work, the hostage was locked in a cellar for a month before being driven to Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, under the cover of a woman’s all-covering burqa. He would spend five months there, imprisoned in a house with about 20 fighters from the various Taliban strands: Afghans, plotting to attack NATO soldiers across the border in Afghanistan, and Pakistani Taliban, drawn largely from the Mehsud tribe, pitted against their own government.
Over time the hostage developed relationships, of a sort, with his captors. Allowed to roam the compound, he fell into casual conversation with some, helped others with the cooking; sometimes, after meals, the militants would sit in a circle and make funny faces at each other. The hostage was encouraged to join in.
“The idea was to keep a straight face. At the end, everyone would burst into laughter,” he recalled with a wry smile. “It was funny and surreal.”
Some offered strange privileges. Before recording one hostage video, his captors thrashed him with a water hose. But afterward, two apologetic Afghan fighters sent for painkillers from the bazaar, and insisted on massaging his bruises with olive oil.
Still, there were frequent reminders of the militants’ cold-steel ideology and readiness to kill. As reading material, they offered a treatise by Al Qaeda’s ideological leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri; at night they watched, on laptops, videos of Pakistani soldiers being executed, or carefully chosen excerpts from Hollywood titles: Muslims killing Christian crusaders in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” or Sylvester Stallone battling Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in “Rambo 3.”
Help seemed tantalizingly near at times. The sounds of chatting women and playing children drifted from the house next door. Climbing to the rooftop for exercise, he could see a Pakistani military base, its flag fluttering, on the other side of town. Twice, C.I.A. drone aircraft passed overhead. Yet no rescuers arrived.
“Waziristan is very safe for the Taliban; the place is crawling with them,” he said. “Even the non-Taliban carry weapons, so it’s hard to know who is who.”
Not all militant kidnappings are Taliban-related. In 2009, nationalist rebels in western Baluchistan Province held an American United Nations official for two months; Baloch nationalists are also suspects in the case of a British Red Cross doctor snatched from Quetta in January.
But no group can match the Taliban’s reach. In the seaside megalopolis of Karachi, Islamist kidnappers lurk in the sprawling slums, targeting rich business families. Sharfuddin Memon, an adviser to the home minister of Sindh Province, said militants recently demanded $6.6 million in return for a wealthy industrialist. But in December, the police cornered the kidnappers on the city outskirts; after a shootout, three were killed and the hostage walked free.
“We’ve learned to tell the difference,” Memon said. “With local criminals, it can take six weeks to resolve a case; with the Taliban it’s more like six months.”
The Taliban’s extended range is most striking, however, in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where it has allied with criminal gangs to mount daring abductions, often in broad daylight.
One morning last August a gang driving motorbikes and a black S.U.V. dragged Taseer, the son of the assassinated governor, from his Mercedes sports car in a wealthy district of Lahore. Now Taseer is being held by Uzbek militants in Waziristan, said Rehman, the deputy Taliban commander.
Aiding the Taliban’s reach into Punjab is its alliance with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a vicious Sunni sectarian group whose cadres dominate the Punjabi Taliban and which has developed strong ties with Al Qaeda. “We see the nexus between the two groups in most cases,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
Sometimes the kidnappers demand more than money. When the son-in-law of Gen. Tariq Majid, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, appeared in a hostage video last year, he reportedly called for the release of 153 prisoners as well as $1.4 million in cash. The hostage identified his captors as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The problem is hurting foreign aid efforts on behalf of poor Pakistanis.
In 2010, Mercy Corps closed 44 offices in two provinces after the Taliban executed an employee taken hostage in Baluchistan. Mercy Corps reportedly paid $250,000 to free four others who had been captured. The abduction of the two Europeans in Multan last month and the disappearance of a Kenyan aid worker two days later, stirred fresh alarm among aid workers.
Interior Minister Malik said the government did not encourage payment of ransom, but conceded that, for those who ended up in Waziristan, there were few alternatives – even if it meant financing the insurgency.
When the young Punjabi businessman was freed last year, his family sent a cash payment to the Taliban. Just before his departure from the Miram Shah compound, a handful of fighters bid him farewell.
It was summer, they explained, so it was time to trek across the jagged mountains into Afghanistan, for a fresh season of battle against American and NATO forces.