Wealthy industrialists, academics, Western aid workers and relatives of military officers have been targets in a spree that, since it started three years ago, has spread to every major city, reaching the wealthiest neighborhoods, Pakistani security officials say.
For many hostages, the experience means a harrowing journey into the heart of Waziristan, the fearsome Taliban redoubt along the Afghan border that has borne the brunt of a C.I.A. drone-strike campaign.
One young Punjabi businessman who spent six months there in Taliban hands last year described it as a terrifying time of grimy cells, clandestine journeys, brutal beatings and grinding negotiations with his distraught, distant family.
For all that, his captors betrayed glimpses of humanity, even humor: small acts of kindness; quirky after-dinner games; shared confidences and reminiscences. But their ruthless intent was never in doubt, the former hostage said, speaking anonymously because he feared reprisals against his family.
During his captivity, four teenage suicide bombers were undergoing instruction, taking indoctrination classes in the morning and carrying mock explosive vests equipped with push-button detonators in the afternoon.
“Their mantra was: ‘One button and you go to heaven,’ ” he recalled.
Kidnapping is a centuries-old scourge in parts of Pakistan, from the tribesmen who snatched British colonists in the 19th century to the slum gangs that have preyed on Karachi business families since the 1980s. The national total has varied only slightly in recent years: from 474 kidnappings for ransom in 2010 to 467 last year, according to Interior Ministry figures.
What has changed, however, is the level of Taliban involvement.
In one case, a 70-year-old German aid worker and his 24-year-old Italian colleague, who disappeared from the city of Multan on Jan. 20, are being held by militants in North Waziristan, a senior security official confirmed.
Others in militant captivity include Shahbaz Taseer, son of the assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer; two Swiss tourists who vanished as they drove toward the Iranian border; the son-in-law of a retired four-star army general; and Warren Weinstein, a 70-year-old American snatched from his home last August, days before he was due to leave Pakistan, and said to be held by Al Qaeda.
The Pakistani Taliban are unapologetic, saying the kidnappings earn valuable funds, offer leverage to free imprisoned fighters and are a political statement against longstanding American efforts to drive Al Qaeda from the tribal belt. “We are targeting foreigners in reaction to government demands that we expel the foreign mujahedeen,” said the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Wali ur-Rehman, during an interview at his North Waziristan stronghold.
The kidnappings are continuing even as Pakistani security forces have seemed to blunt the militants’ ability to inflict mass casualties: suicide attacks fell by 35 percent in 2011, according to the annual report of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, while the number of people killed in attacks fell from 3,021 in 2009 to 2,391 last year.
But the lull may be temporary, experts warn, and meanwhile the militants are filling their coffers with ransom money.
The business is run like a mobster racket. Pakistani and foreign militant commanders, based in Waziristan, give the orders, but it is a combination of hired criminals and “Punjabi Taliban” who snatch the hostages from their homes, vehicles and workplaces.
Ransom demands typically range between $500,000 and $2.2 million, although the final price is often one-tenth of the asking amount, security experts say. The kidnappers’ methods are sophisticated: surveillance of targets that can last months; sedative injections to subdue victims after abduction; video demands via Skype; use of different gangs for different tasks, often with little knowledge of one another.
The victims tend to be wealthy — the police have recovered lists of prominent stock market players from kidnappers — and, often, from vulnerable sectarian minorities such as Hindus, Shiites and Ahmadi Muslims. NYT