Taleban militants in Pakistan have conducted an unprecedented wave of kidnapping and extortion in the lawless border region near Afghanistan, stockpiling cash for the war ahead, according to reports.
Businessmen in some areas say extortion increased five-fold before the long-awaited military offensive by Islamabad began in the frontier region of North Waziristan on 15 June.
Militant-related kidnappings also spiked in the commercial capital, Karachi.
The crimewave means that even if the military seizes control of remote and mountainous North Waziristan, the government still faces a well-armed and well-financed insurgency with roots dug deeply into Pakistan’s big cities.
Their reach and their ability to carry out high-profile attacks was chillingly demonstrated by the 8 June assault on Karachi airport, which killed 34 people.
Competition over money also helped fuel deadly intra-Taleban clashes earlier this year.
“They will use this money for fighting. For fighting the government, for fighting each other,” said Saifullah Mehsud of the FATA Research Centre, an Islamabad-based think tank. “This is a well-developed war economy.”
The crimewave also coincided with the collapse of sporadic peace talks between the Pakistani government and militants that had been pushed by prime minister Nawaz Sharif, an end that was hastened by the attack on Karachi airport.
Thomas Sanderson, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believes the violence and extortion is likely to continue, in part because so many Taleban leaders have been killed in drone strikes.
“Militants who replace dead commanders need to mount spectacular attacks to prove their leadership,” he said, adding that they also needed “to squeeze the locals” for cash.
Somewhat surprisingly, the scale of the crimewave even seems to have had an impact on the internal workings of the Pakistani Taleban itself.
In May, a faction broke away from the main group, accusing it of having become “a band of paid killers involved in un-Islamic activities” referring to robberies, extortion and kidnapping.
In Peshawar, a traffic-choked northern provincial capital, extortionists have targeted wealthy families using the same bomb-making techniques as the Taleban, said Shafqat Malik, head of the Peshawar bomb squad.
Before the offensive began, about two or three residents found small bombs outside their homes or businesses daily, he said, something very rare before peace talks began in February.