They pitifully masquerade as the Taliban, using their feared name to do their dirty work. For criminal gangs there is nothing easier than sending a letter, pamphlet, note or text message to the rich and unprotected in Swat, where a mere whiff of militancy loosens purse strings.
“There are groups of criminals and extremists who send letters to rich people asking them to pay a fixed amount of up to one million rupees,” explained Zahir Khan, a social activist. People silently pay up. The fear is well established.
If a text message doesn’t work, recounted a woman in upper Swat, the gangs follow it up with paperwork. “First they used to send me messages to pay them Rs300,000 and threatened to kill my son,” she said. “Later they sent me a warning letter with references to Taliban commanders.” Fortunately, even though the family was scared, they went to the police who arrested three men from their own village who confessed. And now the entire village is relieved the formula worked.
The gangs lend their efforts an illusion of authenticity by even using rubber stamps that carry the Taliban symbol or insignia. “Many people have them made in the market,” civil society member Niaz Ahmad Khan told The Express Tribune. It’s really not that hard.
For their part, the district administration and Swat police have urged the public to inform them immediately if they receive any such threats or extortion slips. “The major problem is that people go silent and pay which in turn encourages the criminals,” said an official from the Matta police station who did not want to be named. But as long as they tell the police it is possible to nab the criminals, he stressed.
If the Taliban tactic doesn’t work criminals sometimes even disguise themselves as army personnel to loot people. For example, on June 18, Mingora police arrested three men and seized weapons and military uniforms from them.
The key is awareness and a resolve to face the gangs head-on. “First of all, we are sure that there are no extremist elements in Swat,” said Itbar Ali, a peace committee member in Manglawar. “And if anybody tried to sabotage our peace they will face the music this time.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2014.