Cross-border extortion calls from Afghanistan have made life unsafe for many in the newly-merged tribal districts. So far, the law-enforcement agencies have been unable to bring things under control
When Muhammad Ismail*, 55, a factory owner in a recently-merged tribal district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, sees a call from telephone numbers starting with the international code +93, he becomes worried. Since 2014, he has been receiving threatening calls from the militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan from their hideout in Afghanistan. Since then, he has paid a total of around Rs 25 million in seven instances of extortions.
“They [TTP militants] would call and threaten you that if you did not pay, you would be killed along with your family members right at your doorsteps,” said Ismail. “When I received the first call, I did not take it seriously, and refused to pay them the money. “The next night, they [TTP militants] hurled a hand grenade at the gate of my house. Luckily no one was hurt,”
Ismail is one of the hundreds of traders and affluent people who have received threatening calls from the TTP, a banned Pakistani terror group that has been sheltering Afghanistan’s bordering provinces, who use Afghanistan’s SIM numbers. After the military launched an operation against the TTP in the country’s tribal areas in 2014, the militants crossed the porous border and established their hideouts in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, with little or no writ of the government and help of the Afghan Taliban.
Threats from the TTP are not to be dismissed. If traders refuse to pay, the militants first detonate a small bomb at the door of the target’s house. If traders persist in not paying even after such a warning, the militants either kill them in public or attack their houses with bombs, resulting in casualties and damage to property.
On October 18, Bomb Disposal Unit personnel in Peshwar’s Patang Chowk area defused an explosive device weighing about two kilograms near a car showroom that was the apparent target because the owner had blocked the Afghan number from which he was receiving calls for extortion.
There are no statistics available on extortion cases. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that only a few cases are reported to the police, who are largely seen as ‘ineffective’.
Several leaders of traders’ bodies in Peshawar have complained that they have become accustomed to paying off the militants. The militants usually demand an amount between Rs 1 million and Rs 10 million and threaten bigger attacks in the event that they are not paid.
In most cases, according to anecdotal evidence, extortion victims are being contacted by militants from their own tribes. For instance, traders from the Mohmand clan are likely to be contacted by the TTP’s Mohmand chapter
Many traders have hired gunmen, installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, stopped their children from going to school and going out for social gatherings. Still, they do not consider themselves safe as despite taking these precautions, many have still come under attack. Most wealthy people, therefore, are forced to keep a low-profile to avoid extortion calls.
“In their phone calls, extortionists ask for ‘donations’ for the noble cause of jihad. In support of their demands, they use instances from Islamic history about people who sold their households for jihad,” says Abdullah*, a transporter from South Waziristan’s Mehsud clan who is currently based in Karachi.
Traders are not the only victims. Doctors, parliamentarians and even small-scale shopkeepers from religious minorities, such as Sikhs, have been asked to pay extortion money, forcing them to either pay hefty amounts in blackmail to save their lives or shift their businesses to other cities.
Senior police officials admit that cross-border extortion calls have become a very serious issue. They say that it is hard for them to crack down on the militants who are making threatening calls from across the border. At the same time, they claim that there has been a significant decrease in the incidents of cross-border extortions.
“We can arrest local criminals helping the TTP militants hiding in Afghanistan by providing them information on the wealthy traders and collecting the money on their behalf,” says a police officer in Peshawar. “But without carrying out an operation against the TTP militants in bordering provinces of Afghanistan, the issue will not be resolved permanently.”
A large section of traders believes that if they talk to the police about extortion calls, some of them relay it to TTP militants resulting in a more dangerous response by the militants. Many extortion victims allege that police officers often encourage people to pay extortion money to protect themselves and their own family members.
In most cases, according to anecdotal evidence, extortion victims are being contacted by militants from their own tribes. For instance, traders from the Mohmand clan are likely to be contacted by the TTP’s Mohmand chapter and a Mehsud transporter will likely be extorted by militants from his town tribe. In a few cases, extortionists will call and invite the victims for talks in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces to strike bargains.
To counter cross-border extortion calls from Afghanistan, Islamabad has contacted the Kabul administration several times in the recent past but Kabul did not have writ in the bordering provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar.
With the Afghan Taliban’s takeover and the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan, Islamabad was confident that the new rulers in Kabul would fulfil the promise to prevent the TTP’s use of Afghanistan’s soil for cross-border terrorism. However, the likelihood of this happening is now being questioned. Instead, the Afghan Taliban are now facilitating talks between Islamabad and the TTP leadership to resolve their disagreements and the TTP has agreed to a month-long ceasefire starting from November 9.
On the ground, traders in Pakistan continue to be at the receiving end of extortion calls by TTP militants. They seem to have been emboldened by the victory of the Afghan Taliban. This trend is visible in the form of increased attacks on Pakistani law enforcement agencies.
“People are still receiving complaints of threatening phone calls for extortion, mainly through telegram. The payments are mainly made through the hundi system”, says Lehaz Ali, a Peshawar-based journalist who covers extortion racketeering extensively. “The current wave of extortion is not as violent as before but the number of calls is very high.”
*Names changed for security reasons
The writer is a The News staffer and a Resilience Fellow on Extortion at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). Email: email@example.com and Twitter: @zalmayzia