By Said Nazir
In the wake of 9/11, a number of militant outfits emerged in the federally administered tribal areas, claiming that their purpose was to maintain peace and purge vulgarity, social injustices and crime from the lawless tribal society. Armed with their own interpretation of Sharia, they quickly gathered recruits from all walks of life. Men and women alike flocked to their banners, and their adherents soon included politicians, lawyers, teachers, students and medical practitioners.
But with the passage of time, it became increasingly clear that the reformers were themselves indulging in criminal activities and that those who claimed to battle lawlessness had been infiltrated by the very people they claimed to oppose: the criminal gangs of Fata.
In militant connections, opportunity beckons
To those who know the tribal areas well, this did not come as a surprise. By virtue of their close proximity to Peshawar and Afghanistan, the Bara sub division and the Tirah Valley of the Khyber Agency have been the favoured haunts of small groups of kidnappers and car lifters since well before the birth of these militant outfits.
With the rise of the militants, the criminal mafias saw not a threat, but an opportunity. Thus was born an alliance of convenience between the two groups.
The Lashkar-e-Islam, led by warlord Mangal Bagh, has been the preeminent militant group in the area since 2006, specialising in the kidnapping of wealthy people, rivals and government officials from not just the Khyber agency, but also Peshawar and other settled districts of the province.
Besides the LI, there is the omnipresent Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and two other militant organisations including the movement for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice (ABWAM) and the Tirah based Ansarul Islam (AI) led by Qazi Meboob-ul-Haq, a bitter opponent of the Laskhar-e-Islam.
Of these, the ABWAM and AI are considered to be the lesser evils, as they rely on money generated from ‘taxing’ the drug trade and transporters. They also collect Zakat and Ushr and impose fines on tribesmen for violating their self-styled codes of conduct.
But the TTP and the LI are a different story. Not only are their activities funded by the drug trade and extortion, they also heavily depend on the business of kidnapping for ransom.
As this reality dawned on the LI’s adherents, disillusionment started to set in. “We supported the Lashkar-e-Islam in order to eliminate social evils from the area, but instead the LI supported and strengthened criminals just for the sake of money. This is against the principles of Islam,” says Khyal Math Shah, a journalist and ex-supporter of the LI. “I gave up supporting the LI after they started destroying schools, beheading their opponents and kidnapping innocent people for ransom.”
It wasn’t always this way, says Shah as he traces how the criminals gained more and more say in the LI’s councils. “The LI was founded by Mufti Munir Shakir, a religious scholar who was later exiled to his native Kurram agency for inciting hatred in his speeches, but the majority of his followers were illiterate people led by Mangal Bagh, a bus conductor by profession, who lacked an understanding of real Islam.”
A matter of necessity?
Suhbat Khan, however, an ex-agency councilor from the Bara Tehsil, counters Shah’s arguments, saying that the business of kidnapping for ransom was a well established policy of militant organisations. Khan says that this is not just a way to raise funds, but is also a terror tactic intended to intimidate opponents. He says that criminal elements were deliberately patronised because thugs and murderers are the kind of people you need to carry out beheadings and kidnappings.
“This is why militant groups gave criminals a major role in their organisational affairs”, claims Khan. And he would know, as he has been on the receiving end of the LI’s activities.
His father, Sharif Khan, was abducted by Mangal Bagh’s fighters for his alleged support to the rival Ansar-uI-Islam in 2010. He was released after two months when he paid Rs1.2 million to the militants. After this harrowing experience, Khan says ‘regular’ criminals are easier to deal with.
“The independent criminal gangs were more flexible and more humane than these ‘militants’ in dealing with release of a kidnapped person,” says Khan. He adds that unlike the militants, criminal gangs used to demand a smaller ransom and would rarely torture and kill the captives if their demands were not met, as they were afraid of retaliation. That is no longer the case.
Links with militant organisations have emboldened gangs who now use the cover of religion to carry out their activities. While previously they would operate in the shadows, they are now out in the open and unafraid.
“To protect themselves from the tribes and the government, well-known kidnappers, robbers, drug smugglers and killers entered militant organisations in the early stages of their formation and occupied key positions,” says Suhbat Khan, whose cousin was beheaded by LI militants in 2009.
According to locals, names of some criminals-cum-militants and smugglers-cum-militants from LI include commander Wahid Afridi, commander Shalabaaz, commander Noorul Haq, Commander Mirza, ex-spokesman Haji Zarkhan, ex-spokesman Haji Misri Khan, commander Khan and commander Saifoor, among many others. They said that well-known drug smugglers and billionaires including an ex-MNA from Landikotal were the close aides of Mangal Bagh and financed his army.
The Lashkar-e-Islam denies the charges, claiming that they are an attempt to defame the LI.
“We are a force of Mujahiddeen! We have no criminals in our ranks and all the money generated from kidnappings is used for the noble cause of fighting social evils. This is allowed by Islam,” claims an LI commander who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said that there were no criminal gangs in the areas they control as they had either been eliminated or else had joined the LI after surrendering and giving up their activities. It’s a bold claim, but the reality is quite different.
Where the administration fits in
Two years ago, the political administration demolished the house of local criminal Hakeem Khan for his involvement in cases of kidnappings in Landikotal. Farhad Shinwari, a correspondent of Mashal radio in the Khyber Agency has an interesting tale to tell: “We approached the site to report on the demolishing of his house, but stopped covering the event after we came to know that the criminal was LI chief Mangal Bagh’s right hand man,” says Farhaad Shinwari, who says the decision was made out of fear of retaliation.
There is some truth to the LI’s claims — but only some. In order to boost their image in the community and win the government’s sympathy, some criminals were in fact eliminated by the militants. A known criminal named Charg was killed by the TTP in Darra Adam Khel, and a professional killer called Riaz was executed by the LI in Charsadda. But Haris Khan Afridi, a former LI supporter, says these killings took place only because those criminals insisted on operating independently.
Of course, the militants also tend to define ‘crime’ a little differently. As Suhbat Khan puts it, “Whatever crime, theft or murder is committed by a militant, it is justified by his organisation as being in the best interests of Islam and their own Jihadi outfit”.
Haris Khan Afridi says this attitude is shared by all the militant groups operating in Khyber and other parts of Fata. All of them are dominated by militant-cum-criminals who have a big say in running these outfits. For instance Dawa Khan, an operational commander of AI in Peshawar, and an ex-spokesman of the same organisation, Dr Naeem, both had criminal backgrounds. Dr Naeem was even wanted by the police in the kidnapping of Dr Sohail who was recovered by police from a home next to his home in Peshawar’s Hayatabad area last year.
Spokesman for the AI, Ansarul Islam Mehboob Afridi, partially rejects the charge, saying that Dr Naeem was expelled for not following the manifesto of the organisation while Dawa Khan was not involved in criminal activities but was pursuing the policy laid down by his organisation.
Haris also blames the police for supporting criminal militants saying that when the LI was in full swing before the military operation in Bara, the local police allowed its militants to move freely in Peshawar and other districts of the province, kidnapping people at will. But after the operation started against the LI in Bara the police closed its doors on its militants and instead encouraged AI, which was operating now in Peshawar and other settled districts against supporters of rival army of Islam. Like the LI, now the AI kidnaps people from Peshawar with the connivance of local police and releases them after payment of a hefty amount of ransom that he claims is shared by police officials.
The criminal militants of different groups and independent criminal gangs in settled districts are in close coordination when it comes to kidnapping and sharing the ransom. “A kidnapped person is sometimes sold and resold to different gangs and frequently shifted to avoid detection and recovery,” said Farhad Shinwari
According to militant sources the collaboration with these kidnapping gangs ranges from collecting information on potential victims, physically snatching the person, providing well-protected hideouts, to ‘renting’ out the kidnapped people and negotiating ransom deals.
People are often kidnapped by militants so that they can exchange them for ransom, exchange them for militants in state custody, or spread fear. In cases where high-profile people are kidnapped, militants not only receive a huge amount of money but also secure the release of their fighters arrested by security forces in exchange.
The trend of kidnapping people for ransom has spread like a cancer in militant organisations which abduct not only neutral tribesmen but their ex-supporters as well. As a result Khyal Math Shah and others like him — like ex agency councilor Hashim Khan Afridi — have realised their mistake and regret their once-blind support for the militants.
“I have been missing my village Nala in Bara tehsil for the last two years but I cannot return due to the presence of the Lashkar-e-Islam… which we had once developed for a noble cause,” says a repentant Hashim Khan.