Militants from a Pakistani insurgent group with ties to the Taliban are forcing victims to pay exorbitant fees or risk facing mortal consequences. In light of the current developments in Afghanistan, immediate intervention from Pakistani authorities must be a priority.

Calls from telephone numbers starting with the Afghanistan dialling code +93 instil fear in ethnic Pashtun traders in major cities in Pakistan, particularly in Peshawar. Militants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani terror group, have been calling and threatening traders and affluent people in a bid to extort them.

After the Pakistani military launched an operation targeting the TTP in the country’s tribal areas in 2014, the militants crossed the border and established hideouts in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan – near Peshawar – with help from the Afghan Taliban. ‘Since then, hundreds of traders and affluent people have been paying huge amounts of extortion money to the TTP after receiving threatening calls from Afghan numbers,’ said a leader of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a provincial-level body of industrialists and traders in Pakistan.

Their threats are not empty. If traders refuse to pay extortion fees, the militants place small bombs near their homes to frighten them into succumbing to their demands. If they continue to refuse, militants either kill them in public or bomb their houses.

And traders are not the only targets: doctors, parliamentarians and shopkeepers from religious minorities in Peshawar have been extorted, forcing them to either pay costly fees or relocate.

An offer that can’t be refused

The militants usually demand between 1 million to 10 million Pakistani rupees (around US$5 800 and US$58 000, respectively) and businessmen speaking on condition of anonymity told the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) that they had become used to having to make the payments. In an effort to protect themselves, many have hired gunmen, installed CCTV cameras and stopped their children from going to school or attending social gatherings. Still, they fear for their safety, and a number of victims who had taken these precautions were nevertheless attacked.

Wealthy people in Peshawar have been forced to keep a low profile to avoid becoming targets, as most victims are owners of large houses, expensive cars or successful businesses. ‘We lost our uncle for refusing to pay 5 million Pakistani rupees (around US$30 000) in extortion money,’ said Khan, a scrap dealer in Peshawar. ‘The militants were calling him … and saying that if he didn’t pay, they would bomb his house, and kill him and his children.’

Khan said that his uncle had contacted the police but instead of providing help, they advised him to install CCTV cameras at home and restrict his movements. ‘But one night, the militants hurled two grenades at his house. Luckily, no one was killed or injured,’ said Khan. After the attack, Khan’s uncle hired a group of 12 armed bodyguards to protect his family. It was to no avail – two weeks later, a militant shot him while he was attending a funeral.

Law enforcement cooperation?

Senior police officials interviewed by the GI-TOC in Peshawar confirmed that cross-border extortion calls have become the most serious crime issue in the city, and admitted that it is hard for them to crack down on the militants.

The counter-terrorism department, a special unit of the Pakistani police, has set up a dedicated anti-extortion desk and provided its field units with new technology to identify and verify militants on the spot through information found on their smartphones. ‘We can arrest the local criminals who are helping the TTP, providing information on the traders and collecting money on their behalf,’ said a police officer in Peshawar. ‘But without carrying out an operation against the militants [themselves], the issue will not be resolved permanently.’

Pakistani authorities do not compile statistics on extortion, but anecdotal evidence suggests few cases are reported to the police, who are largely seen as corrupt and ineffective. Many traders believe that if they report extortion incidents to police officers, some of them will pass the information on to the TTP, who will then become more violent.

To counter cross-border extortion, in the past, the Pakistani government has contacted the government in Kabul. ‘If no other action can be taken against the callers and their hideouts, at least blocking the phones being frequently used for extortion could give relief to the victims,’ said the police officer in Peshawar. ‘But the Kabul administration had no [authority] in the bordering provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar,’ he added.

Now, with the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of the administration in Kabul and the formation of its interim government in Afghanistan, traders fear a rise in cross-border extortion calls from TTP militants, emboldened by this victory. The TTP has increased attacks on Pakistani military personnel patrolling the border and bordering towns. ‘The situation is not clear, but traders are expecting a new wave of extortions,’ said the chamber of commerce manager.

Looking to the immediate future, it is unlikely that the Afghan Taliban will take any action against the TTP at the behest of Islamabad. In light of the latest developments occurring in their neighbouring country, Pakistani authorities should form a task force for an effective border-management system with strict regulations on cross-border movement; block Afghan telephone numbers, and crack down on the local criminal networks that help the TTP militants extort Pakistani citizens. To increase communication between extortion victims and the police, and instil trust in law enforcement institutions, the Pakistani government should set up a secure extortion reporting scheme that guarantees victim protection and support.

photo: Adam Cohn