A lawmaker in Pakistan’s rugged northwest was sipping tea with constituents when his phone rang – the Taliban were calling with a request for ‘donations’. “We hope you won’t be disappointed,” reads the chilling text from a sleazy go-between in the Pakistani section of Islamists, known as Tehreek–e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A second message appeared on the screen: “Refusal to provide financial support will cause you a problem”, he warned.
“We think a wise man will understand what we mean by that.”
After the Taliban took over neighboring Afghanistan, TTP racketeering plagued Pakistan’s border regions, locals say, with the group emboldened by the success of its sister movement.
Since July, the provincial legislator – who asked to remain anonymous – has been bullied into sending the TTP sums totaling 1.2 million rupees (over $5,000).
“Those who don’t pay must face the consequences. Sometimes they throw a grenade at their door. Sometimes they shoot,” he told AFP.
“Most elites pay extortion money. Some pay more, others pay less. But nobody talks about it.
“Everyone is afraid for their life”
The TTP shares a lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but was strongest from 2007 to 2009, when it spilled out of the jagged belt separating Pakistan and Afghanistan and invaded the Swat Valley just 140 kilometers (85 miles) north of Islamabad.
Pakistan’s military was hit hard in 2014, after militants raided a school for military children and killed nearly 150 people, mostly students.
The TTPs were largely routed, with their fighters fleeing to Afghanistan where they were driven out by US-led forces.
With Afghanistan’s return to Taliban rule, it has become an “open shelter” for the TTP, according to Imtiaz Gul, an analyst at the Islamabad Center for Security Research and Studies.
“They now have freedom of action while living in Afghanistan,” he said.
“It’s a simple explanation of why TTP attacks have increased.”
In the year since the return of the Taliban, militant activity in Pakistan has increased, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, with an estimated 433 people killed.
“The Same Old Game”
“They started the same old game again: targeted killings, bombings, kidnappings – and calls for extortion,” said Ahmad Shah, a Swat community activist.
The blackmail network funds the TTP, but also sows a crisis of confidence in the local government that militants seek to usurp in favor of the Islamist regime.
MLA Nisar Mohmand estimates that 80-95% of wealthy residents in surrounding districts are now being blackmailed.
Fellow lawmakers have been targeted for refusing to pay, and some are too scared to visit their precincts.
“They have their own reward and punishment system,” Mohmand said. “They’ve set up an alternative government, so how are people supposed to resist?”
“Days of Cruelty”
The Afghan Taliban have long-standing differences with their Pakistani counterparts and, since the capture of Kabul, have pledged not to host international jihadist groups.
But the first telltale sign of a TTP blackmail attempt is the phone number – starting with the international code +93 indicating an Afghan SIM card.
This is followed by suggestive text, or a voice message in Pashto – delivered with a Pakistani cadence.
AFP heard a message threatening that an “action squad” would be sent to a landlord if he refused to pay.
“The days of cruelty are near. Do not think that we are an exhausted force,” he warns.
The amount “owed” is then debited, usually through an intermediary, before being sent to the tattered bands of TTP fighters whose silhouettes haunt the mountain slopes.
Victims expect to be “exploited” up to five times a year, the anonymous MP said.
Since the 2014 school massacre, which horrified even marginally sympathetic Pakistanis, the TTP has pledged to avoid civilian targets and says extortion is practiced by criminals impersonating their brand.
But a civilian intelligence official in the region insisted they were “the root cause of the threat”.
“Life at a standstill”
Swat – a snow-capped mountain valley divided by turquoise waters – is one of Pakistan’s most famous beauty spots, but its reputation has a dark side.
In 2012, then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the TTP while campaigning for girls’ education, a campaign that later won her the Nobel Peace Prize.
This summer, things seemed to have slipped irretrievably towards those dark days.
After a ten-year hiatus, the anonymous MP has started receiving blackmail text messages again.
“The situation was so bad that a lot of people were thinking about migration,” Shah said. “Life was at a standstill.”
But there has been a pushback and several protests against the TTP have taken place since the group’s high-profile kidnapping of three officials in August.
Businesses closed and thousands of people spilled onto the streets in rallies in the valley.
The Pakistani military claimed that reports of a strong TTP in the region were “grossly exaggerated and misleading”.
Yet in Pakistan’s border regions, attacks and extortion continue unchecked, despite an alleged truce in negotiations between the TTP and Islamabad.
The return of the Taliban to Kabul, despite having been pounded for 20 years by the strongest armies in the world, shows that military might will not end the test.
“We must seek a solution acceptable to both parties,” said government negotiator Muhammad Ali Saif.
“A lasting settlement will have to be found.
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