Pakistan’s ransom market

Kidnapping has spread in Pakistan as a means of filling up the war-chest of terror; and everybody, including those who are supposed to prevent it, is getting fat on it.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Updated: March 19, 2016 12:01:15 am
Illustration: C R Sasikumar In Karachi, a group of police officials were arrested for participating in this evil commerce. Illustration: C R Sasikumar

The kidnapped son of the murdered Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, has come home after four and a half years of captivity with the terrorists. On March 8, Shahbaz Taseer rang from outside a restaurant near Quetta, Balochistan, and was picked up by the police and brought to Lahore where his family and numberless sympathisers were happy to see him alive.

His family paid no ransom. He was sold to the Uzbek militia (IMU) after his kidnap in Lahore, and was in Zabul, Afghanistan, after his captors fled the Pakistan army operation against their hideouts in Miranshah in North Waziristan and Shawal Valley. In Zabul, the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Akhtar Mansour attacked the Uzbeks for joining the Islamic State. They recovered Taseer from them and dropped him near Quetta on a motorbike. His freedom took long because the family refused to pay ransom.

Days earlier, the killer of his father, a policeman doing duty in his security detail, was hanged in the face of opposition from Pakistan’s powerful clergy. Is Pakistan changing? With India, it is now behaving differently, catching people suspected of being involved in a terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot air force base, informing New Delhi about possible attacks by Pakistani terrorists in the coming days, and registering cases against the Pathankot abettors in Pakistan.

Kidnapping has spread in Pakistan as a means of filling up the war-chest of terror; and everybody, including those who are supposed to prevent it, is getting fat on it. In Karachi, a group of police officials were arrested for participating in this evil commerce. Political parties and politicians take their cut from operators located as far away as Afghanistan. Universities, dominated for decades by the “student wings” of the religious parties who never get votes in elections, are disgorging student kidnappers connected to al-Qaeda and affiliated madrasas and jihadi outfits fielded by the state earlier to sort out its foreign policy problems.

Shahbaz Taseer was picked up by a gang operating out of internationally wanted Hafiz Saeed’s old nesting place, the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. Its now-absconding leader, Usman Basra, was working for whoever was ready to give him big money. The Basra gang also picked up other victims in 2011 and dispatched them to North Waziristan — and onward to Afghanistan — where they were sold and resold among the various Islamic terrorist outfits to shame the kidnappers of Mexico.

That year was special because Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad by an American covert operation. The engineering university’s well-equipped Usman Basra (he operated with fortified land cruisers) grabbed two more people in addition to Shahbaz Taseer — welfare workers American Warren Weinstein from Model Town, Lahore and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto from Multan. Both were killed in a US drone attack in North Waziristan targeting the kidnappers. Then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Ali Haider Gilani, 29, was seized by the Usman Basra gang in a hail of gunfire on the outskirts of Multan in Punjab in May 2013.

Two other Pakistanis were snatched for ransom — Malik Amir, son-in-law of the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) General Tariq Majid, from Lahore in 2010; and Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, in 2008. The first got out in 2012, the second after a mere three months, after shelling out big dollars and releasing imprisoned terrorists. Only the son of former PM Gilani now remains with the kidnappers. However, the story of Weinstein is extremely touching as recounted recently in The New York Times.

Weinstein’s family, not so well-off, had to pay the ransom as recommended by Weinstein himself talking on the phone from North Waziristan. Initially, the Taliban wanted a colossal amount, but after a lot of haggling agreed to a ransom of $2,43,000. Weinstein got a man, a Pakhtun, from his Lahore office to be the go-between who would take the money to the captors.

The money was moved to Pakistan through the notorious hawala network, but the kidnappers wanted $45,000 to be able to “bribe their way past the authorities between wherever they were cloistered and whatever location they wound up agreeing on for delivering Weinstein”. But that was not all, they wanted $2,43,000 more and Weinstein begged his family to hand it over.

The sum pauperised the Weinsteins back in America. They were convinced that the captors would not deliver, like their Mexican counterparts who never play fair. But Weinstein was a Pakhtun enthusiast as a relief worker and trusted the go-between’s assurance that he had made them “swear on the Quran and by the Pakhtunwali, the tribal code of the Pakhtun ethnic group” that they would deliver the victim “clad in a burqa” in a bazaar in Peshawar.

That never happened. Then the kidnappers promised to deliver Weinstein in Islamabad, the capital, giving the Weinsteins the measure of how much they controlled the cities in Pakistan. But before the victim could reach Islamabad, the drone got to him first. Easy to guess, the Taliban who failed to deliver according to the tribal code never returned the ransom money.

In Mexico, where most victims don’t tell the police, 27,740 citizens, or 76 per day, are recorded kidnapped officially. Pakistan must not be far behind because, here too, the victims don’t report and prefer to pay off rather than fight back. In Mexico, the police partake of this bounty. In Pakistan, too, this is the pattern, especially in Karachi where “short-term” abductions are in vogue. But the new military leadership is clearly opposed to the past practice of letting the “good Taliban” have their way.

It probably became disenchanted in 2010 when it saw two old ISI officers, Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar alias Colonel Imam and Squadron Leader Khalid Khwaja, being kidnapped by the Taliban on a video before their murder at the hands of the Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud. Pakistan couldn’t avenge that outrage; an American drone got Hakimullah too.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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