PESHAWAR: Shortly after a grenade hit his home in Peshawar three months ago, Ihsan Khan, a well-known trader in the capital of northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, received a phone call.
“Next time the whole house will explode if you don’t pay 300 million rupees ($1.2 million),” said the voice on the other end of the line.
The threatening call was taken seriously in a pocket in the north of the country where the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in recent years and where officials as well as Local residents widely say activists are trying to regain a foothold.
Over the next few days, Khan held a series of telephone negotiations with the caller and eventually brought down the claim with the help of middlemen, subsequently paying a lesser sum.
Arab News last week interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and businessmen who had received requests for protection money in recent months. Six said the callers identified themselves as TTP activists. We don’t know how many paid.
Growing demands for money have raised fears of the return of insurgents to the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad and drawn-out negotiations that began last year.
On September 20, the TTP said it was unrelated to the extortion claims and issued a statement calling on the public not to pay.
“If anyone asks you … on behalf of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), please contact us so that we can unmask him,” the statement read, offering a contact number.
In comments to Arab News, Abu Yasir, the head of the TTP’s grievance committee, said the group had a “clear and firm stance” against extortion.
“We have not allowed or will not allow anyone to do this,” Yasir said. “We arrested a lot of them. And in some cases, members of the Tehreek have also done it individually, but we have arrested them… We have arrested our colleagues and asked others too when a complaint has been lodged with us.
‘THE TOP OF THE ICEBERG’
Attacks and threats of violence have been a part of life in northern Pakistan since at least 2010, including the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and the attack on a military-run school in 2014, during which at least 134 children were killed.
Although thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence over the past two decades, attacks have declined in recent years after a series of military operations pushed most TTP insurgents into northwestern Pakistan to seek refuge in neighboring Afghanistan.
But many analysts and officials warn that militants are trying to come back and are actively carrying out kidnappings and extortion to hoard money for the upcoming fight if peace talks with Islamabad fail. Their reach and ability to carry out attacks was shown in chilling fashion earlier this month when eight people were killed in a roadside bomb attack that targeted the vehicle of an anti-Taliban village elder in the Swat Valley, in what was the first major bombing in the region for over a decade.
This month, Taliban militants also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecommunications company and demanded 100 million rupees for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counter-terrorism department.
Concerns about a resurgence of the TTP have grown since August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took control of Kabul after the departure of American and foreign forces. Since then, Pakistani officials have repeatedly expressed their fears that fighters from the Pakistani Taliban group, separate but affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, cross Afghanistan and launch deadly attacks on its territory.
The Afghan Taliban assured their neighbor that they would not allow their territory to be used by anyone planning attacks on Pakistan or any other country. Still, the TTP has managed to step up attacks in recent months, and police and government officials as well as residents report that hundreds of insurgents have returned – as have demands for extortion.
Mohammed Ali Saif, spokesman for the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said anonymous calls asking for money for protection had been made both from Afghanistan and inside Pakistan.
“Different people received extortion calls, some recorded FIRs [police reports] and some don’t,” Saif told Arab News, saying the counter-terrorism department and the police take immediate action whenever such cases are reported.
Not all calls, he said, were from TTP activists.
“Some calls are also made by criminals and extortionists,” the spokesperson said.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police Inspector General Moazzam Jah Ansari, CTD Chief Javed Iqbal Wazir and spokespersons from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry and Army and the Afghan Ministry of Information did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
But a senior Peshawar-based police official with direct knowledge of the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the provincial police department had recorded at least four cases of extortion a day in the city. since July.
“It’s just the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Previously, traders, transporters and businessmen were the targets. Now, members of national and provincial assemblies as well as government officials are also asked to pay protection money… The situation is very bad and deteriorating day by day.
Another police official based in the Swat Valley said: “Wealthy people, including lawmakers, regularly receive phone calls. Few report it and the majority of them pay the money.
Since early August, Swat police have recorded four cases of extortion, citing TTP as a suspect in their reports. In one such case, the Swat official said, activists were paid 25 million rupees as protection by a provincial legislator.
“Activists have asked lawmakers to remove the CCTV cameras from his home before they arrive to collect the money at midnight,” the official said. “The legislator chose not to report the incident.”
Malik Imran Ishaq, president of the Peshawar Industrialists Association, said militancy and extortion had caused “serious damage” to the business fraternity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
In Peshawar, extortionists targeted wealthy families, he said, with residents regularly finding small bombs outside their homes or businesses.
“Many members of our association received extortion calls and many of them were hit, targeted by rocket launchers and hand grenades,” the industrialist said.
Police have increased patrols in the Hayatabad industrial area of the city, but that hasn’t solved the problem, Ishaq said.
“I don’t know how this problem will be solved,” he said, lamenting that businesses worth billions of rupees in Hayatabad’s industrial zone are about to close.
“Twenty-eight of our members closed their industrial units in Peshawar and moved to Punjab to set up factories there,” Ishaq said, attributing the move to a resurgence in militancy and increased demands for money from the Taliban.
“There has been an obvious increase over the past year, especially over the past two months.”
The crime wave means the government and military could face a well-armed insurgency if the TTP is able to fully return to the country’s northern belt, experts warn.
Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based activism expert, said an increase in requests for protection money was a telltale sign that militants were making serious attempts to regain control of northwest Pakistan.
“Activists need financial support for their operations,” he said, “and in this context, the increase in incidents of extortion in these areas is a predictable phenomenon.”