Supporters of the religious party Jamat Ehl-e-Sunnat chant slogans to condemn a suicide blast at the tomb of Sufi saint Syed Usman Marwandi in Karachi. Photo: Akhtar Soomro, Reuters
Supporters of the religious party Jamat Ehl-e-Sunnat chant slogans to condemn a suicide blast at the tomb of Sufi saint Syed Usman Marwandi in Karachi. Photo: Akhtar Soomro, Reuters

There exists a “nexus” of political and religious parties and terrorists, Pakistan’s former chief justice, Anwar Zaheer Jamali, said in September 2016 during a hearing on a Karachi law-and-order case – a fact that is crucial to understanding the anatomy of violence in Pakistan’s biggest city and its commercial hub.

Not only was that a bitter assertion of the truth of what really goes into the making of militant groups in Pakistan, it equally points out that a jihadist ideology and mindset cannot, on its own, simply explain the many forms of militancy Pakistan has been facing for almost two decades.

Although jihadist ideology is one of the main drivers, a great deal of militancy occurs in Karachi, for instance, because of its peculiar demographics and the related ethnic conflict.

Every major ethnic group has a significant presence in that city. Economically driven waves of rural Sindhis, Pashtuns, southern Punjabis, and those displaced by conflict in tribal areas and natural disasters continue to add to the population. Karachi is Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, generating 90% of Sindh province’s and around 50 per cent of the nation’s revenue, thus attracting new migration from every major ethnic and linguistic group.

And among the new arrivals are those who profess jihad and are affiliated with notorious outfits such as al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Much of the ethnic conflict and criminal activity in Karachi results from the fight over control of the city’s scant resources, particularly land, a source who is closely affiliated with a political party in the city told me.

Political parties, in fact, are directly involved in land grabs and often use coercion through their militant wings, he added. Parties with a strong ethnic base use this land to house their political workers, often in the form of irregular settlements, and thus establish their electoral constituencies.

A report on Karachi released on February 15 by the International Crisis Group notes that low-income groups “prefer irregular settlements closer to the densely populated city centre. Many irregular settlements, often high-rises run on informal rental arrangements, have become sanctuaries for criminality, gang recruitment and jihadist groups.”

It further notes: “Public land has commonly been illegally regularized and sold. In the process, it has become the city’s most prized and contested commodity, with federal, provincial and local land-owning agencies, military cantonments, corporate entities and formal and informal developers competing to extract as much value as possible.”

As political parties rely on militant wings, which are in turn a complex mix of both jihadist and criminal gangs, the so-called nexus becomes the main driver of violence in Karachi, as Jamali noted.

While militant wings have been operating in the city since the early 1990s, a recent influx of extremists from other areas of Pakistan have added to the already explosive situation.

What adds to the problem is the fact that political parties have been found to be involved in appropriating Islamists in their ranks.

According to details presented in the Supreme Court of Pakistan during the Karachi law-and-order case, leaders of the nation’s ruling party have, according to one report, “hobnobbed with the leaders of banned sectarian outfits during election time, while suspects linked to al-Qaeda have been recovered from Lahore and other Punjab cities, reportedly provided shelter by Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) cadres, and those of Jamiat, the JI’s student wing”.

Islamists – that is, groups involved in religious terrorism of all sorts – have mushroomed in the city because of operations launched in their erstwhile strongholds such as the Swat Valley and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

By 2013, notes the ICG report, “the TTP threat had grown considerably, with an estimated 8,000 members operating in the city. Forcibly acquiring land for supporters and sympathizers, they drove residents out of strongholds in Karachi West and Malir. TTP factions hired local criminals to help finance their activities, who in turn leveraged TTP links against rivals. Karachi thus changed from a city in which jihadist combatants mainly rested and recuperated from fighting elsewhere to one that also generated vital funding.”

The TPP is the latest addition to the already complex jihadist and militant mix in Karachi. The anti-Shia Lashkare- Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammed have umbilical links with the city’s large, well-resourced madrassas. With Karachi’s large Shia population, sectarian conflict nationwide typically echoes in the city, with more than 100 sectarian killings occurring in 2012 alone.

While regulation of madrassas is part of Pakistan’s anti-terror strategy (National Action Plan), a number of right-wing religious parties have been opposing it.

What thus explains militancy in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi, which is Pakistan in miniature, is the crucial “nexus” of religious, political and extremist groups – a nexus that cannot simply be broken through military or Rangers (Sindhi paramilitary) operations.

It also requires steps that demand much more than counter-terror field operations, which in themselves don’t guarantee success.

Notwithstanding the considerably reduced number of militant attacks in Karachi, numbers in themselves also don’t guarantee success. The ICG report goes on to quote a senior Sindhi police officer as saying, “Police believe jihadist operatives and criminal gang members have gone underground to form sleeper cells, while better-known masterminds and facilitators fled to other provinces before the operation began,” and are likely to return to the city when the Rangers subside.

This is precisely what happened in Karachi when an operation of a similar nature was conducted in the 1990s. While militancy did decline for a while, it returned to the city just as forcefully once the operation ended.

Indeed, Karachi has not seen a qualitative change, and as the ICG report claims, the city continues to be the bedrock of “ethno-political and sectarian interests and competition, intensified by internal migration, jihadist influx and unchecked movement of weapons, drugs and black money”.

Elimination of terror outfits will not and cannot eliminate militancy. Unless a counter-terror strategy that aimed to break the “nexus” were envisaged and implemented, and unless political parties were expropriated of their militant wings, violence would return to Karachi, and to other urban and non-urban centers of Pakistan as well.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at

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