Pakistani Taliban raise funds through street crime

AP News

10/12/2011 6:21:21 AM - AP News

Police caught up with the four Taliban militants about 15 minutes after they robbed the bank, shooting them dead on a bridge as they attempted to drive their loot to the safety of the border regions with Afghanistan.

The rare triumph against the insurgency in this dangerous part of Pakistan was short-lived _ 10 days later, the Taliban dispatched a husband-and-wife suicide unit to avenge the deaths, devastating the local police station and killing nine officers.

The daylight raid on the bank and the bombing in June were carried out by the "Black Night" group, a unit of the Pakistani Taliban dedicated to raising funds through robberies, kidnappings and extortion, according to a member of the group and intelligence officers.

The group's emergence highlights a shift in militant funding inside Pakistan, with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated groups relying less on cash from abroad and more on crime to get money for equipment, weapons and the expenses associated with running an insurgency.

The development is partly a result of Pakistani and American successes in targeting Islamist extremists.

Greater scrutiny on money transfers means it is harder to send funds around the world, while American missile strikes and Pakistani army offensives have killed or sidelined many mid-to-top-level commanders who had links to Middle Eastern funding networks, said a counterterrorism official.

As a result, "the militants have issued an internal order telling followers to look for funds from internal sources," said the counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Iraq, another country riven by Islamist insurgency, has seen a jump in crime in recent years, according to U.S and Iraqi officials. Militants there use profits from crime to finance operations, but former insurgents are also believed to have drifted into crime.

The Pakistani Taliban draws on a network of militants and for-hire criminals that stretches from the country's northwestern towns, through its Punjab heartland to the commercial capital, Karachi, home to some 4 million Pashtun migrants, the ethnic group that makes up the Taliban.

The crime wave also adds to the militants' goal of destabilizing the country by underscoring a growing feeling among Pakistanis that the U.S.-backed government is unable to provide enough security for its 180 million, mostly impoverished, citizens.

Allied with al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban across the border, the Pakistani Taliban mostly focus on terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, but are also committed to attacking American targets in Afghanistan and the United States. The group trained the Pakistani-American who carried out a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010.

There are few reliable statistics, but the most common ways of raising funds are kidnappings and extortion, according to Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militancy. Ransom demands range from about $150,000 and to $1 million.

The Taliban are currently holding in the border region a Swiss couple seized in July.

The same group is suspected in the August kidnapping in the city of Lahore of Shahbaz Taseer, the son of a liberal provincial governor who was killed by militants, according to intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. They say Taseer is being held in Waziristan close to the Afghan border. Weeks before Taseer's kidnapping, American development expert Warren Weinstein was taken from his house in Lahore. His fate is unknown.

The "Black Night" group works under the command of Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud, the top leaders in the Pakistani Taliban, according to a member of the group who spoke to an Associated Press reporter by phone from an undisclosed location.

He said the group would continue to target wealthy Pakistanis, government officials and foreigners from non-Muslim countries for kidnappings. Banks were hit because they charged interest and therefore violated Islamic law, he said.

In Karachi, four bank robberies this year have netted $2.3 million, according to a community police organization. The Taliban are suspected in three of them.

"We are not fighting on that front line against the Pakistani army or NATO forces in Afghanistan, but we are contributing to the jihad through this way," the militant said on condition that his real name not be used.

Police are not allowed to travel to the tribal-administered areas where the Pakistani Taliban and other militants are based. This status, dating back to British colonial times, means the area has long been attractive to criminals on the run or for those running criminal enterprises.

The robbers who raided the bank in Dera Ismail Khan were smartly dressed and appeared relaxed, striking just after midday. Waving guns, they bundled the employees and anyone on the street into the bathroom, then took $138,000 from the safe, stuffed it into bags and drove off.

Local police chief Zulfiqar Ali blamed the "Black Night" brigade for the robbery and subsequent attack on the police station, but insisted "morale was high" at the force.

"Even with very few resources we are prepared to give militants a tit-for-tat response," he said.

More than 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) away in Karachi, the Taliban didn't bring guns when they came knocking at the offices of a wealthy Pashtun property developer, but their intent was clear. The man, who didn't give his name, said they demanded about $20,000.

"I couldn't escape this situation. As a last resort, I asked them to decrease the amount they were demanding," he said. "They didn't bring any weapons when they came to my office the first time, but they can easily harm me and my business."

Another wealthy Pashtun related how two men on a motorbike seized his 7-year-old child as he left school.

It took 17 days for the kidnappers to contact him with a demand of $140,000. He said the phone calls came from numbers in the Punjab and large towns in Waziristan, and that the kidnappers appeared to know which government agencies he had discussed the case with. After four months, they settled for about $80,000.

Mohammed Yusuf, a member of the Pakistani Taliban who met an AP reporter in Karachi, said two groups _ the al-Mansoor and al-Mukhtar _ handle much of the fundraising for the movement in the city. He said they also arrange for supplies to be sent to Waziristan and look after fighters when they come to Karachi.

One of the most lucrative businesses was extorting money from the trucking companies that deliver food, oil and other non-lethal supplies to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Many of the companies are based in Karachi because the supplies land at the city's Arabian sea port.

"We can do this because our scholars have decreed that it is quite permissible for us to snatch from those who are siding with our enemies in jihad," Yusuf said.

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Brummitt reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.