Originally Published 2004-01-20 09:03:26 Published on Jan 20, 2004
Just as Lebanon's capital Beirut was under the thumb of an unbridled reign of crime, terrorism, sectarian and religious fundamentalism in the 1980s, Pakistan's port city of Karachi has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons during the decade of the 1990s.
Pakistan's Beirut, Karachi: A Terror Capital in the Making by Wilson John
Just as Lebanon's capital Beirut was under the thumb of an unbridled reign of crime, terrorism, sectarian and religious fundamentalism in the 1980s, Pakistan's port city of Karachi has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons during the decade of the 1990s. Journalist Wilson John's pithy new book probes the reasons why and the processes how Karachi turned into a potpourri of fanaticism and mayhem. Rife with heroin, hired killers, extortionists and jihadi groups, Karachi "reflects the times and tribulations of a nation that is increasingly becoming hostage to forces of terror". John's sole objective in collecting diverse facts about Karachi's descent into chaos and joining them with the analytical thread is "to focus world attention on a very real threat that lurks in the shadows of this metropolis".

In 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked by the Abu Nidal terrorist group and landed in Karachi. When asked why Karachi was chosen as the venue, one of the hijackers replied: "It's so easy here." (p 37) With fundamentalists as perfect allies and covers and a warren of ghettos and "no go" areas offering anonymity, Karachi's labyrinths are terrorists' favorite hiding spots. Ramzi Yousef, the first well-known international terrorist, took full advantage of Karachi's infrastructure and set up an import-export firm first. Then he started a school for "terrorists in transit", boasting students such as Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid. With his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's help, Ramzi planned the 1993 World Trade Center blast and flew back to Karachi with Pakistan Airlines.

Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-i-Muhammad (JIM), studied at the Binori mosque complex in Karachi and went on to don the mantle of ideologue of jihad against India, aiming to recruit a million holy warriors for Kashmir. Azhar's aims were complemented by the decision of an Islamist international meeting in Khartoum to nurture Karachi as a "center for terrorist operations in Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Albania-Kosovo". (p 42) The Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, another adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, like Azhar, acted as the hub for holy war stretching from Grozny to Manila.

In December 1999, Muhammad Atta and Ziad Jarrah flew to Karachi on their way to Afghanistan for preparing the attacks that took place in the United States on September 11, 2001. Sheikh Omar Syed, another Karachi resident, part-financed the attacks by wiring $100,000 to Atta via the ISI network. Syed and Ramzi Binalshibh, aided by agent handler Abu Zubaidah, ran al-Qaeda's top-secret Karachi cell before and after September 11. To camouflage the presence of al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres in the city, the cell coopted Harkat-ul-Ansar, JIM and LIJ activists as foot soldiers. On October 1, 2001, the cell executed a deadly attack on the Jammu Kashmir assembly in India. The December 13, 2001, attack on India's parliament can be traced back through telephone records to the same Karachi contacts.

The ISI was alarmed at Daniel Pearl having an inkling of the major al-Qaeda regrouping in Karachi and sent its "man for all missions", Sheikh Omar Syed, to lure him into a ghastly murder. In May 2002, the Karachi cell activated a devastating blast killing French technicians outside the Sheraton Hotel, followed by the US Consulate bombing in June. The author feels that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's newly discovered Harkat-ul-jihad-al-Aalami is nothing but the al-Qaeda Karachi cell.

City of omens

Despite recent raids, holdups and arrests, John concludes that the revival of the al-Qaeda cell is inevitable as Karachi's support base is unshaken. "Dawood Ibrahim and his associates remain unaffected by the war on terrorism and will provide the new cell with logistics." (p 73) His syndicate has reportedly shipped Osama bin Laden's sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri to safety in Chittagong. Airport alertness having been pepped up, terrorists will rely more and more on the sea route, again roping in Karachi as the epicenter of the next wave of terrorist strikes. Al-Qaeda is said to have purchased a fleet of freighters and tested them out in the October 2002 French oil-tanker explosion off the coast of Yemen.

Karachi's image as a launch pad for terrorism endures. The city is a warehouse of forged travel documents and credit cards. Several fake passports were mailed from Karachi to terrorists who carried out the 1998 East African US embassy bombings. According to intelligence inputs, several hundred al-Qaeda terrorists are hiding in quarters of Karachi such as the Defense Housing Society and Korangi. They are, in the words of the United Nations Monitoring Committee on al-Qaeda, "poised to strike again, how, when and where they choose".     

This book is highly recommended for terrorism-studies junkies and governments pursuing misdirected "wars on terrorism". Its most valuable contribution is to highlight the guilt of the Pakistani establishment in converting Karachi, once the magnificent City of Lights, into another Beirut.
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