STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Okay. Most of the world's population now lives in cities. Some live in mega cities, metropolitan areas of 10 million or more. And while many of those giant cities are shimmering centers of economic growth, some are also centers of corruption and violence and social unrest, places where many different kinds of people come together and open fire. Karachi, Pakistan just finished a year marked by sectarian killings, kidnappings and extortion.
Police say crime is growing more professional and more lethal and they think that maybe due to a new alliance between local militia groups in the Pakistani Taliban. Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The sad truth about Karachi today is that whatever your religion, your ethnicity or your political party, someone wants to kill you for it. And Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says last year, killings were almost entirely about religion.
ZOHRA YUSUF: It's a good day for Karachi when there are only, let's say, five or so people killed, because on an average, it would be eight to 10. There are days of (unintelligible) you know, it goes beyond that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: 2,500 people died in violent crimes in Karachi in 2012. That's a 50 percent increase over the year before. And Yusuf says part of the reason is because religious extremist groups, local anti-Shia organizations, have joined forces with the Pakistani Taliban to devastating effect. Targeted killings used to just involved drive-by shootings, which was bad enough. Now there are car bombs and suicide vests.
Yusuf says the Taliban have spent time in Karachi before, but this time it's different. This time, they're staying.
YUSUF: They used to come here for rest and recreation when they were fighting, and they would come here for fundraising.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The new entrenchment is one of the things that worries Chaudhry Aslam, a senior counter-terrorism officer at the Crime Investigation Department of the Karachi Police. He's been a Taliban target. The group had sent suicide bombers to his office, to his home and almost succeeded in assassinating him last year.
CHAUDHRY ASLAM: (Through translator) It's not that there are a huge number of Taliban and they've somehow captured Karachi. But they are coming to meet with the local people and plan operations, and in some cases, when we haven't arrested them, they have succeeded in attacking the city.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He says the Pakistani Taliban slip into the city of 18 million in small hard-to-track cells. It's only been recently, Chaudhry said, that they've been able to confirm that the Pakistani Taliban is playing a role in the targeted killings in the city. Sectarian killers they've arrested have admitted that they were working with the terrorist group.
ASLAM: (Through translator) They told us that they had united with the Taliban in the name of jihad.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Aktari Beygum is a 65-year-old mother of eight. Her 20-year-old son, Shahzad, was a victim of sectarian violence. He and his friends went to protest against an anti-Shia march wearing what they usually wear, the traditional Shia dress, a black shawa(ph) chemise with a colorful piece of thread around their wrists. Beygum says she watched Shahzad's murder from her doorstep.
AKTARI BEYGUM: (Through translator) The protesters came and started shouting, Shias are kaffirs, Shia are infidels. And Shazad got so angry, he started pelting the protesters with stones.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Then, she said, a van appeared from nowhere and the men inside opened fire on her son. And in her words, he joined his imam.
BEYGUM: (Speaking foreign language)
TEMPLE-RASTON: He fell into her arms just before he died. No one was arrested for his killing. The judge said it was a riot, so no one person could be held responsible. On the other side of the city in a mixed neighborhood known as Arafat Town, Gul Mohammed Khan is sitting cross legged on the floor. He's a big man with a white beard down to his chest.
Although he's Sunni, the sectarian violence has touched his family as well. In the past two years, he has lost three sons to targeted killings. Two were gunned down in October and it all began with a threat.
GUL MOHAMMED KHAN: (Through translator) four guys told my brother, we've already killed two of your nephews, and we will kill them all.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Two days later, he says, men on motorcycles drove by the family shop and sprayed it with bullets. His 25-year-old son Abul Wahed was killed on the spot. His 30-year-old son Ismael was shot seven times but survived. Now, Khan says, he's raising his sons' children.
KHAN: (Through translator) Your loved ones are your loved ones. These were simple guys earning their livelihood honestly. It is too difficult to put into words. When I look at my grandchildren, I see my sons.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He has four sons left, but he has sent them all away. Karachi, he says, is too dangerous. Chaudhry, the Karachi police department's top terrorism cop, says they're trying. Police raided an area in Karachi known as mini Waziristan several months ago and found explosives and bunkers. But these operations are rare because police feel outgunned.
We're fighting them with limited resources, he said, and trying to tie the noose around their necks. The Taliban's role in the sectarian violence is only part of the picture. In order to fully understand what kind of year 2012 was for Karachi residents, you have to know about this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a real recording of an extortion call caught on a wire tap by the Karachi police last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) You have one more chance, this night only. This is the last chance. What did you decide?
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to the Karachi Chamber of Commerce, phone calls like this one have rattled nearly every small business owner in the city. Last month, in one day, four remote control blasts were detonated within hours of each other in various parts of the city, destroying store fronts and a hotel. Two people were killed and 10 others hurt.
Authorities linked the attacks to extortionists. Anjum Nisar is the former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I asked him to estimate just how many extortion cases there were in Karachi last year. He didn't hesitate.
ANJUM NISAR: Thousands of cases, thousands.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thousands of cases in every sector of the economy, from textiles to heavy industry. Nisar said the complaints about extortion began flowing into his office in 2008, but local authorities ignored the problem. Now, he says, they can't control it. Many of the gangsters now shaking down local businessmen are part of the establishment in Karachi. They represent the armed wings of Pakistan's political parties.
Originally, he said, they were all about keeping order in the neighborhoods and getting out the vote. Then they began to solicit political contributions. Eventually, they demanded them. He says the government needs to step in.
NISAR: It's the job of the government to curb or kill this menace, once and for all.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Karachi's Pakistan's commercial hub and the engine of its economy, so the trouble here ripples across the country, which is why the lawlessness worries more than just local officials. Economists say the law and order problem is knocking between two and three percentage points off Pakistani's overall GDP. What's more, the unending violence is creating a more psychic change. People in Karachi are genuinely scared.
Beygum, the Shia woman whose son died at the rally, says that she's always on edge, just waiting for something bad to happen. Her one remaining son, Syed Abbas Hussein, says the constant tension wears on everyone.
SYED ABBAS HUSSEIN: (Speaking foreign language)
TEMPLE-RASTON: If they have to kill us, he says, they should just do it all at once instead of one at a time. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Islamabad.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.