One of the Most Dangerous Places on Earth: Transnational Crime in the FATA

in Program

By Umar Riaz – The death of Osama bin Laden has refocused the world’s
attention to the importance of building Pakistan’s capacity to prevent and
combat violent extremism in that country. Yet while international attention is
captivated by the high profile victory in Abbottabad, such a focus threatens to
divert our focus from the underlying factors that have pushed Pakistan to the
front lines of the “war on terrorism”: namely, the nexus between transnational
crime, poverty, and terrorism. Perhaps no region better typifies this dangerous
linkage than does the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)-a region
garnering for some the dubious distinction as “the most dangerous place on

Crime in the FATA

A semi-autonomous tribal region in the northwest of Pakistan,
the FATA is by far the poorest and least developed part of the country. With
literacy rate of only 17 percent and a per capita income of around $250 per
annum, it is estimated that two-thirds of local households live below the poverty
line. Stretched over a 2,400 kilometer area and administratively divided into
seven agencies and six frontier regions, the FATA is governed through an
informal system of “collective responsibility” with
the traditional Pakistani government institutions of taxation, law enforcement,
and courts having been suspended. In its place, judicial and administrative
functions are supervised by a French prefect-type office called the “Political

Though tribal and parochial, native Pashtuns as a
group have proven both agile and entrepreneurial in keeping all political and
economic activities outside of formal state control. Compounding this
challenge, a flourishing Hawala system
in the FATA handles on average US$4.6 billion in foreign remittances. This cash
influx is the heart of an informal economy which has been found to be robust,
defying inflationary pressures and adverse exchange rates. The uniform yet
physically inhospitable environment of the FATA thus ensures “invisibility” for
an array of criminals, terrorists, and foreign jihadis to blend into the
local population.  As a result, a vibrant,
effective and interconnected black economy has developed in the region owing
in part to tax evasion and widespread illicit smuggling facilitated by the
Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) agreement. For instance, narcotics and drugs have
become a lucrative source of income in the tribal areas. According to casual
estimates, as much as quarter of the drugs produced in Afghanistan pass through the border

The FATA region is also historically abundant in arms
and ammunition, but in the last two decades, illegal and highly sophisticated
weaponry has tilted the balance in favor of non-state actors against the State.
The political economy of these multifarious contraband networks is further
facilitated by the presence of relatively sophisticated road networks,
telecommunication facilities, and financial institutions in the area. Together,
the World Bank estimates the overall value of this “stealth” economy at over
US$30 billion-one of the largest found anywhere in the world. 

The Crime-Terror Interface

Although the tribal areas lack a formal education
system, many have a sizable presence of mostly foreign-funded Madrssahs, which
to some estimates cater to around 33 percent of school aged children.
Unfortunately, because of the confluence of poverty and criminal opportunity,
they also ensure a steady supply of volunteers for criminal enterprises and
even terrorist operations.

An emerging consensus among scholars and practitioners
suggests that following the surge in insurgent and terrorist activity of last
decade, the erstwhile governance system of the FATA has collapsed, leaving the
areas at the disposal of mullah (prayer leaders) turned warlords, and
local/foreign militants. During the 1980s around 35,000 Muslim radicals passed
through the FATA area to wage jihad against Russian Infidels. That war left behind experienced
fighters, training camps, substantial military equipment, and significantly, a transnational
network of organizational relationships. Moreover, it also yielded above all the
self-confidence of victory over a superpower.

Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from
Afghanistan, and the recession of perceived Western interests in the region, several
thousand of these Arab Afghans established their bases in the provinces
of Kunar, Nuristan, and Kandhar bordering Pakistan, ultimately spilling over to
FATA after the Operations Enduring Freedom launched by NATO forces in 2001 (in
response to the al Qaeda attacks of
September 11th). The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) was
established by forty militant commanders, having strength of an estimated 40
thousand fighters by December 2007. Subsequently, Taliban Militias have also emerged in North
Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand and Bajaur Agencies across
the FATA. 

The tribal areas and adjoining towns form the crux of the
residual al Qaeda network which is disparate,
but still able to communicate with regional affiliates around the world.
Besides al Qaeda and TTP, there has
been a visible presence in the number of these other actors in the FATA.  TTP has become a formidable threat even after
the killing of its founder commander Baitullah Mehusd in a US drone strike
on August 9 2009. He was succeeded by more ferocious Hakimullah Mehsud, who
took responsibility for a suicide attack on CIA forward operating Base Chapman
in Khost Afghanistan,
resulting in killing of 7 officers as well as executing scores of strikes
inside Pakistan
resulting in the death of hundreds of security personnel. The failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was also motivated by
Hakimullah to avenge the killing of Mehusd, as well as the Afghan born
Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty of charges of planting a bomb in New York City
Subway system. Terrorist attempts and attacks in Britain
and other parts of Europe, North Africa, and the
Gulf have also been traced to the networks operating in FATA.

Managing Across Threat Boundaries

Regrettably, coordinated efforts to counter the crime-terrorism
nexus-including targeted strikes, military operations, border controls, law
enforcement, negotiations and public diplomacy-have to date proven largely
ineffective in countering the growing threats within the FATA. Indeed, mounting
evidence suggests that all efforts ranging from accommodation to armed violence
may have only served to aid the terrorists’ cause and stimulate a surge in criminal activity.

Moreover, this militancy has resulted in the diversion
of significant human and capital resources toward counterterrorism/insurgency for
the regular security force (the Frontier Corps), with the army becoming
increasingly reliant on aerial operations. 
Many experts are also questioning the efficacy of US drone strikes, and there is now an
increasingly shared belief that the political costs of these attacks may be exceeding
the tactical gains. As a result, the destruction of productive infrastructure
has meant that opportunities for legal gainful employment have shrunk
considerably leaving fertile ground for transnational criminal networks to
flourish amidst this security vacuum.

As a part of its “soft intervention” strategy, the United States
has committed US$750 million for livelihood programs over five years, and
proposed the development of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZ). While this
is a positive policy trajectory, these measures fall far short of meeting the magnitude
of the challenge across the FATA. 

Conflicts and threats in FATA and in Afghanistan have always complemented
each other and if these “fertile conditions” are allowed to persist, the
crime-terrorism nexus will continue to thrive, ultimately pushing the region toward
greater instability. The Government of Pakistan has, over the years, set up a number
of commissions to conduct reforms in FATA, but so far little meaningful progress
can be seen. There is need for a integrated approach to the FATA by addressing
its controversial autonomous status through the introduction of regular and
robust law enforcement and judicial institutions.

Photo Credit: Shawn Woodley, Communications and Multimedia Specialist at the Stimson Center

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