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There have been more than 80 terrorism-related deaths and about 46 reported injuries in 2014 in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous metropolis. Most of the incidents tallied multiple fatalities and injuries, including police. In some cases, unidentified assailants ambushed busy intersections or desolate roads, leaving unrecognized after wreaking havoc. In other instances, bodies of victims were found abandoned in ditches. Some of the victims were killed en route to work in their cars by drive-by shooters. Others were attacked leaving mosques, and one victim was killed while selling peanuts on the streets.
The month of January brought a series of horrors to Karachi, a port city of more than 23 million people. On Jan. 6, deep into an unusually cold night, six worshipers — all devotees of a little-known Sufi saint, Ayub Shah — found their meditations interrupted by armed assailants at a hilltop shrine in the Gulshan-e-Maymar neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. When their bodies were discovered the next morning, their throats were slit, and two were beheaded. A dagger used for the job lay nearby with a note. Written in Urdu and signed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the note proclaimed a similar end for anyone praying at a Sufi shrine. A flag that had flown atop the shrine lay rolling in the dusty courtyard — a sign of disrespect for Sufi believers. The Taliban, adherents of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam see belief in saints and Sufi mysticism as heresy, and the killings were meant to send a message to those in the city who oppose their beliefs and continue to frequent Karachi’s many Sufi shrines.
Two days later, a brazen afternoon attack targeted Chaudhry Aslam, the chief of Karachi’s Crime Investigation Department. A barrel containing over 100 kilograms of explosives, placed on the side of a highway, was detonated near a convoy carrying Aslam. The incident left him and two of his guards dead. Within hours, the TTP took responsibility, saying it was revenge for the operations that Aslam led against them.
After Aslam’s death, law-enforcement officials vowed to eradicate the Taliban from Karachi. On Jan. 13, police carried out raids in various parts of the city, including areas seen as Taliban strongholds, and arrested 29 alleged terrorists. In less than two weeks after the security sweep, 11 police officers were killed in reprisal attacks by the Taliban.
Pakistan needs more than feeble, reactive measures to contain the violence and ongoing destabilization.
On Jan. 17, six employees of the Karachi-based news channel Express TV, including three journalists, were killed by TTP militants when their news van came under attack. Sajjad Mohmand, a spokesman for the group, claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more against other media in the city.
The guns then turned to health workers. On Jan. 21, two vaccination teams were attacked while they were administering polio vaccinations to children in Karachi. Three people were killed, including two women. Vaccination teams were also attacked in the provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. After the attacks, polio-vaccination drives halted in Karachi and in the two provinces.
Last March, the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper, for which I am a columnist, said large swaths of Pakhtun neighborhoods in the west and east of Karachi — deemed impenetrable by law enforcement — were controlled by the TTP. The group is now able to use these areas as bases from which to carry out extended operations in other parts of the city.
In the past decade, the TTP has wielded control over various portions of Pakistan, mostly in the sparsely populated northwestern tribal areas. But the flurry of attacks in Karachi represents a crucial advance for the group. The resultant impact on economic activity is a crippling blow to the Pakistani economy. The city’s many fault lines — ethnic, sectarian and economic — provide fruitful avenues for fomenting a long-lasting civil conflict that could permanently destabilize the region. In addition to the dramatic killings this month, the city has been paralyzed by strikes called by various political and religious groups protesting the killings of their members. Educational institutions have been closed repeatedly. In an effort to prevent suicide bombings, it has become a common occurrence to jam cellphone signals in the entire city, despite the burdens it imposes on inhabitants.
Strategic overhaul needed
The task of fighting terrorism, a mainstay of the Pakistan-U.S. relationship, continues to be tailored to targeting militants in the rural areas of Pakistan’s tribal northwest, also the focus of U.S. drone attacks. In keeping with this perspective and to the satisfaction of many in the United States, Pakistani air force jets recently bombed the tribal areas in a renewed effort to hunt down militants. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan seems willing to note that the militants may have long relocated from their traditional mountain hideouts to urban quarters and are well on their way to claiming a megacity as their own.
Pakistan needs more than feeble, reactive measures to contain the violence and destabilization. The first step should be the creation of a comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy that involves the city’s various stakeholders, including sectarian, ethnic and political groupings. On the enforcement front, anti-terrorism operations in the city are carried out by both the national army and the provincial Karachi police. Lack of communication between the two and their disparate chains of command has weakened the ability to contain terrorism. A hybrid anti-terrorism force should be established to spearhead the operations and better coordinate intelligence gathering.
Karachi suffers from an acute and pressing lack of emergency facilities to handle the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The city’s inhabitants share only 22 fire stations. Taking terrorism out of Karachi would require better firefighting facilities and a well-equipped bomb squad to oversee the disposal of IEDs. In addition, a witness-protection program and crime-investigation teams are needed to collect and document evidence against terrorist suspects — 73 percent of whom are currently acquitted for lack of evidence. Without a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, Karachi will remain mired in chaos. And the TTP would be the main beneficiaries of unprecedented anarchy, graduating from implicit to overt control of Pakistan’s largest city and, perhaps soon, the entire country.