Karachi Political Violence
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party traditionally dominated Karachi. By 2015, Rizwan Akhtar, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), chief of Pakistan’s main spy agency was spearheading a campaign to wrest control of the teeming port city of Karachi from this powerful political party, the military’s latest, and some said boldest, foray into civilian life in recent years. The military’s crackdown in Karachi started late in 2013, when the murder rate soared and mutilated bodies were dumped in alleyways daily.
The city had suffered a major breakdown in law and order until Pakistan’s paramilitary force called the Rangers started an operation in September 2013 to clear it out. The force had by the end of 2015 carried out 7,000 operations, leading to a 70 percent reduction in target killings, an 85 percent reduction in extortions, and a 90 percent reduction in kidnappings for ransom.
Crime and safety in Karachi are major concerns. Criminal gangs, often with political party affiliations, operate with impunity in most parts of the city, and some areas are effectively cut off from the police. Despite a large-scale security operation carried out by the Pakistani Rangers and the Sindh Police, the violent crime rate remains high.
Karachi has been the scene of recurring violence characterized by bombings, violent demonstrations and shootings. An October 2007 suicide attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed more than 130 and injured approximately 375 people in Karachi. In the aftermath of her December 2007 death, rioting in Karachi led to multiple deaths and injuries, as well as widespread property damage. Over the following years, Karachi has been wracked by political violence. Since the summer of 2009, there have been thousands of targeted killings in Karachi as a result of ethno-political rivalries. In rural Sindh Province, the security situation is hazardous, especially for those engaged in overland travel. The Government of Pakistan recommends that travelers limit their movements in Sindh Province.
Political violence in Karachi between 1986 and 1996 claimed at least 10,000 lives. The large numbers of kidnapping and bombings in Sindh -- the virtual breakdown of law and order -- necessitated the imposition of army rule in 1992 The three hubs of Karachi's political power -- the the majority Urdu-speaking Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM); the Pakistan People's Party (PPP); and the sizable Pashtun migrant minority, many of whom support the Awami Nationalist Party (ANP) -- all suffered casualties and are equally well-armed. MQM was known for violent tactics in the 1980's and 1990's, but it increasingly eschewed them, especially since joining the Musharraf government.
Karachi is the largest city, main seaport and the main financial center of Pakistan, as well as the capital of the province of Sindh. Karachi produces more than 50 percent of Pakistan’s revenue. The city has an estimated population of 13 to 15 million, while the total metropolitan area has a population of over 20 million. Karachi is the most populous city in the country, one of the world’s largest cities in terms of population and also the 10th largest urban agglomeration in the world. The city has been hijacked by ethnic death squads and sectarian death squads.
Much of the violence stems from a series of running clashes between rival gangs of the long-dominant political power in the city and a group of relatively new arrivals challenging their dominance. For years power in Karachi has been held by Mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking descendants of the immigrants who came from India at the time of partition in 1947. The ethnic group has wielded political power in the city through its party, the Mohajir Quami Movement, or MQM. But analysts say the city has undergone a sharp demographic shift as ethnic Pashtuns, many of them displaced from fighting in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, have migrated to the city.
Violence remained a major public health problem in Karachi, affecting predominantly wage earners. At least some of the violence is rooted within the political system. And a lot of it continues to be in the category of simple criminality, which gets an ethnic patina on it. Bouts of sectarian-based violence between Shia and Sunni Muslim groups have also been reported. Weinbaum adds that a further complication is a violent internal feud between factions of the MQM that has spilled into the streets of Karachi.
In May 2008, clashing groups of lawyers burned buildings and vehicles in several areas of the city, resulting in at least 11 fatalities. Americans and other westerners continue to be a particular target of hostility and occasional anti-Western mob violence. The US Consulate General in particular has been the target of several major terrorist attacks or plots in recent years, including a deadly March 2006 suicide attack. Non-essential travel to these cities is strongly discouraged.
Targeted killings are part of Karachi's political landscape. However, beginning in June 2009, they flared up. Previously, the majority of the killings seemed to be Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM-A) versus Haqiqi Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM-H). By the end of 2009, there were 152 deaths, according to the Ministry of Interior, but other estimates place the total at 200 or more.
With the start of the new year, a new round of violence began in 2010. The first four days brought ten new deaths, seven of whom were members of MQM-H. Then, on January 7, the body of a beheaded MQM-A worker was found. This ignited four days of violence, centered in the Lyari neighborhood, which caused an additional 47 deaths, including at least three more decapitations. By January 10, the federal government brought in the police Sindh Rangers (paramilitary) to restore order in Lyari. Under orders from Rehman Malik, Federal Interior Minister, police conducted raids in Lyari and arrested over 30 people. Protestors from Lyari took to the streets on January 11 saying the government crackdown targeted only them and not MQM supports. Lyari is a stronghold of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). PPP Members of National Assembly (MNA) from Lyari protested in the National Assembly and staged a walkout. They demanded operations in other parts of Karachi as well. On January 11, there were four more killings. MQM threatened to leave the government coalition in protest over the killings.
Lyari is the oldest inhabited area of Karachi, and home to major wholesale markets and business areas. Historically, two criminal gangs have fought over Lyari. Lyari is the only area of Karachi which is a stronghold of PPP. The killings are a battle between the MQM, PPP, and other stakeholders for the heart of Karachi, as well as being a war between various land mafias and criminal gangs.
While the late 2009t round of violence seemed to be a battle between MQM-A and PPP; there were many theories as to the causes. Some say political parties are not involved in the violence. Others believe the root cause is a land and power grab. Coloring all of this is the uncertainty regarding the future of the local government system in Sindh, as the law authorizing the system expired on 31 December 2009.
Some blame on the PPP claiming they are involved in the Lyari gang war. Without the restrained response of the MQM, violence would have spread into many other parts of Karachi as part of a conspiracy to destabilize Karachi. In Lyari, MQM was targeted by the gang of Rehman Dakai, who patronizes Federal Minister Nabil Gabol and Provincial Minister Rafiq Engineer. Dakai was killed by the police recently, and MQM blamed for his death. Some of the Haqiqi target killers are finding refuge in the largely Pashtun area of Sherpao colony. Some believe that some political heavyweights want to destabilize Karachi to keep the MQM occupied, and divert their attention from development activities.
On October 7, 2010, eight persons were killed and over 60 injured in a suicide attack at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Karachi. On November 11, another major attack targeting a police installation in Karachi killed 20 persons and injured 150 in a suicide car bomb blast at the Crime Investigation Department. On December 28, an explosion wounded several students at Karachi University. In many areas of the city, there is resentment toward outsiders. Electrical power outages (“load shedding”) for many hours a day are commonplace and have led to sporadic demonstrations and violence in some parts of the city. Non-essential travel to these cities is strongly discouraged.
From the start of 2011, armed factions linked to certain political parties engaged in the targeted killings of their opponents. In these targeted killings, it is not uncommon for bystanders to become victims. On January 25, two police officers were killed near a Shia procession in Karachi. On April 21, an explosion in the Birch Club by the Grass Market in the Lyari area of Karachi left approximately 15 people dead and 35 injured. On May 22-23, militants attacked the Pakistan Naval Station Mehran in Karachi. During the 16-hour siege, the gunmen killed 18 and injured 16 others. In July, 324 people were victims of targeted killings. On September 19, militants bombed the residence of a senior police chief in Karachi, killing eight people.
By mid-2011 Karachi was caught in a wave of violence that by some estimates has killed more people in the past three years than terrorist attacks in all the rest of Pakistan during that same period. It was the worst violence the city has seen since 1995, driven by a complex web of ethnic, political, and social tensions. Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission said the country’s largest city is in the grip of what it calls “a multi-sided wave of insecurity-driven political, ethnic and sectarian polarization that has greatly undermined its tradition of tolerance and good-neighborliness.”
There were significant reports of politically motivated killings by political factions or unknown assailants in the city of Karachi, Sindh during the year 2011. According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 1,138 persons were killed in political violence in Karachi during the first six months of the year, 490 of which were targeted killings. On August 28, the National Assembly formed a 17-member all-party committee headed by Minister for Religious Affairs Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah to probe the killings and violence in Karachi and Balochistan and submit its report in two months. No report had been submitted by year’s end; however, the Supreme Court heard a case on its own motion regarding Karachi violence from August 26 to October 6.
Political, sectarian, and ethnic violence in Karachi worsened during 2011. The tenuous balance between political parties and the ethnic and sectarian groups they represent was broken by significantly altered demographics in the city. The 2005 earthquake that devastated the North and the 2010 floods that affected seven million Sindhis resulted in a large influx of citizens from different ethnic groups to Karachi. Although there was no precise total of new city residents, the growth of illegal settlements, both within the city and along its outskirts, suggested a tremendous rise in Sindhi, Baloch, and Pashtun migrants. Political parties and their affiliated gangs vied for political and economic control of these new populations by independently assessing their “allegiances.” The parties engaged in a turf war over “bata” (extortion) collection privileges and “ownership” over katchi abadis (illegal/makeshift settlements). The flashpoints of violence in Karachi were Lyari, Orangi, Katti Pahari, Qsba Colony, Pak Colony, and Shah Faisal Colony. HRCP estimated that between 925 and 1,400 persons died in sectarian and political violence between January and August 2011.
MQM wants to divide Karachi along ethnic lines. The debate over the future of local governance in Sindh Province continued without resolution in 2009. Conflicting positions among the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) prevented the Sindh government from passing an amendment to the local body ordinance. The MQM seeks a continuation of the current system established under President Musharraf, putting elected Nazims (Mayors) at the forefront of local leadership - particularly critical for MQM in the urban centers of Karachi and Hyderabad.
During 2011, on some university campuses in Karachi, armed groups of students, most commonly associated with the All Pakistan Mutahidda Students Organization (affiliated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement) and the Islami Jamiat Talaba (affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islam), clashed with and intimidated other students, instructors, and administrators over issues such as language, syllabus content, examination policies, grades, doctrines, and dress. These groups frequently influenced the hiring of staff, admissions to universities, and sometimes the use of institutional funds. They generally achieved such influence through a combination of protest rallies, control of campus media, and threats of mass violence. In response university authorities prohibited political activity on many campuses, but the ban had limited effect.
According to testimony by Major General Aijaz Ahmed Chaudhry, "the problem in Karachi is very serious, rather more serious than that of South Waziristan," and "[t]here is polarization to an unprecedented level on the political, ethnic, and/or religious divides." In Chaudhry's view, "The problem can only be solved through application of special means as well as requesting political leadership to eliminate militancy from their wings. The political face of the city has been taken hostage by militant groups of political parties. Political parties are penetrated by the criminals under the garb of political groups who use party flags. The militants and criminals are taking refuge in the lap of political and ethnic parties which use the flags of these parties to commit illegal activities with impunity."
The Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a judgment on October 6, 2011, calling upon political parties to disassociate themselves from criminals responsible for recent violence in the city of Karachi, to whom the parties have provided financing as well as political support. The ruling made a number of recommendations in connection with various aspects of the case. The Court observed in connection with this issue: "… as per material brought before the Court, there are criminals who have succeeded in making their ways in political parties notwithstanding whether they are components or non-components of government, and are getting political and financial support allegedly from such parties, therefore, the political parties should denounce their affiliation with them in the interest of the country and democratic set up and they should not allow them to use their names as militant outfits of the political parties. Failure to do so may entail consequences of a penal nature against the party or person responsible, whether in office or not … ."
Although the overall incidents of violence and casualties in Pakistan in the year 2012 decreased, the number of terrorist attacks in 2012, including those of sectarian natures, went up markedly in the country’s commercial hub Karachi, by 224 percent, according to the Pakistan Security Report 2012 produced by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 1,450 people including children were killed in Karachi in the first six months of 2012. That’s an average of about 6 people a day.
On March 30, 2012 A 24-hour span of violence and killings shut down Pakistan's largest city. Most shops and businesses in Karachi closed Saturday, after gangs of gunmen shot and killed 14 people in a spree that started Friday and continued through the overnight hours. The leader of one of the city's biggest political parties, Waseem Ahmed with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, placed the blame on the government. "The way in which, with the government's support, murderers, thieves, robbers, and kidnappers are given privileges in police stations and their hideouts are known to everyone, but the dilemma is that those whose sons are being murdered and kidnapped are being raided by police," said Ahmed. On 25 December 2012, violence spread across Karachi after a recent attack in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal district of Karachi left six people, including four police officers, dead. Observers reported sporadic shooting and other violence in Landhi, Bin Qasim, FB Area, Gulshan e Iqbal, Saddar, Shah Faisal Colony, and Nagan Chowrangi.
Karachi and interior Sindh were the only regions where incidence of terrorist attacks increased in 2012. The number of terrorist attacks in KP fell by 11%, in Balochistan by 26%, in FATA by 42% and in Punjab by 43%. Over 500 members of the Shia Community had been killed in 2012. Of the total number, 136 were killed in Karachi alone. According to the data compiled by a think-tank, Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), in Karachi almost 991 persons were dead in 791 violent attacks. Among these 917 were civilians and 74 security forces’ men. The 49 drone attacks conducted on Pakistan’s territory in 2012 claimed 345 lives.
Political, sectarian, and ethnic violence in Karachi did not abate during 2013. According to the HRCP, 1,726 persons were killed in Karachi. The tenuous balance between political parties and the ethnic and sectarian groups they represented shifted due to significantly altered demographics in the city. The 2005 earthquake that devastated the northern part of the country and the 2010 floods that affected seven million Sindhis resulted in a large influx of citizens from different ethnic groups to Karachi. Although there was no estimate of the number of new city residents, the growth of illegal settlements, both within the city and along its outskirts, suggested a tremendous rise in Sindhi, Baloch, and Pashtun migrants. Political parties and their affiliated gangs vied for political and economic control of these new populations by independently assessing their “allegiances.” The parties engaged in a turf war over “bhatta” (extortion) collection privileges and “ownership” over katchi abadis (illegal/makeshift settlements). The flashpoints of violence in Karachi were Lyari, Orangi, Katti Pahari, Qasba Colony, Pak Colony, and Shah Faisal Colony.
Despite highly publicised and much touted operations by law enforcement agencies (LEAs), 2013 has gone down in history as the bloodiest year so far for Karachi with 2,700 people killed and crime soaring past 40,000 reported incidents.
Ghulam Haider Jamali, Inspector General of Police Sindh, while highlighting the progress of ongoing target operation in Karachi, claimed September 2, 2014 that improvement had been witnessed in law and order situation of Karachi as they have witnessed substantial reduction in incidents pertaining to murder, kidnapping for ransom and bank robberies etc. during the past three months. “However, street crimes, particularly incidents pertaining to phone snatching are still high and the police department is making efforts to effectively eradicate this threat from the society”, he added.
Incidents of sectarian/ethnic violence in Karachi, the remainder of Sindh province, and Balochistan province continued unabated. A variety of groups representing extremist elements associated with Sunni and Shia sects carry out bombings and assassinations in Karachi with grim regularity. Minority religious sects and groups are frequently targeted. In 2014, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported 2,909 people were killed in Karachi as a result of sectarian violence. These violent incidents often lead to retaliatory acts and demonstrations that can spiral out of control quickly.
Incidents of terrorism and politically-motivated violence in Karachi, the remainder of Sindh province, and Balochistan province occur with regular frequency. A variety of groups, ranging from extremist religious elements to criminal gangs associated with local political organizations, orchestrate bombings, assassinations, and other acts of violence in Karachi with grim regularity, to include attacks on police and security forces. Over 142 police and Rangers were killed in Karachi in 2014.
There has been a dramatic turnaround in targeted killing cases in Karachi since the authorities launched an operation against criminals, the government claimed on 31 July 2015, noting that the homicide rate was down by almost half. Briefing the National Assembly on the Karachi crackdown, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said that the once dreaded targeted killings in the port city had gone down by 43%. Similarly, he added, incidents of murder and terrorism had fallen by 37% and 6.7%, respectively, during the period.
The Inspector General of police Sindh, Ghulam Hyder Jamali said on 24 November 2015 that there had been improvement in Law and Order and crime rate was declining in Karachi. The report added that since July 6, 2014, 998 criminals were killed and 16,583 arrested, 287 terrorists killed and 87 arrested, 7 target killers killed and 41 arrested, 96 kidnappers killed and 60 arrested and 6 extortionists killed and 328 arrested.
The Kidnapping for ransom is almost eliminated and killings in Karachi was down to two murders per day, on an average. Almost all major terrorist groups were confronted and 300 hard core terrorist ring leaders were neutralized in a period of just one year. Kidnappings for ransom had been a routine in the interior of the Province and Karachi city previously was witnessing around 7 to 8 killings/murders per day. Robberies continue unabated in the metropolis while the authorities claim the law and order situation has improved. Citizens of the metropolis now expect to be deprived of their valuables at any hour of the day. Cases where citizens have been looted by armed gunmen when returning home from weddings were common.
Many areas in Karachi can be considered unsafe due to high crime, lack of police control, and the presence of extremist elements, and thus, should be avoided. The areas in Karachi least prone to safety issues include the neighborhoods of Clifton, D.H.A., and PECHS, but even these areas experience serious crimes and thefts. Major areas of northern and eastern Karachi are not recommended for travel due to the frequency of criminal activity and neighborhoods that are controlled by criminal and/or political gangs or sympathetic to extremist religious organizations that are suspicious of, or hostile to, Westerners.
Karachi and other areas of Sindh and Balochistan provinces continue to experience high levels of violence characterized by bombings, targeted killings, sectarian strife, extortion, kidnappings for ransom, and frequent demonstrations that can turn violent without warning. Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) remain the most active terrorist organizations and demonstrate the capability to plan and execute major attacks.
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