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A lawmaker in Pakistan’s rugged northwest was drinking tea with constituents when his phone rang alive – the Taliban calling with a demand for “donations”.
“We hope you will not disappoint,” reads the chilling text from a shadowy intermediary of the Pakistani branch of the Islamists, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A second message flashed across the screen: “Refusal to provide financial support will make you a problem,” it warned.
“We believe a wise man will understand what we mean by that.”
After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, TTP extortion plagued Pakistan’s borderlands, locals say, with the group emboldened by its sister movement’s success.
Since July, the provincial legislator – who asked to remain anonymous – has been encouraged to send the TTP amounts totaling 1.2 million rupees (more than $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 of the elite pay the extortion money. Some pay more, some pay less. But no one talks about it.
“Everyone is afraid for their lives.”
– ‘Open shelter’ –
The TTP shares ancestry with the Afghan Taliban but was at its strongest from 2007 to 2009, when it swept out of the winding belt dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan and overran the Swat Valley just 140 kilometers (85 miles) north of Islamabad .
Pakistan’s military was hit hard in 2014 after militants attacked a school for children of army personnel, killing nearly 150 people, mostly pupils.
The TTP was largely routed, their fighters fleeing to Afghanistan where they were hunted by US-led forces.
With Afghanistan back under Taliban rule, it has become an “open haven” for the TTP, according to Imtiaz Gul, an analyst at Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies.
“They now have freedom of action while living in Afghanistan,” he said.
“This is a simple explanation why the TTP attacks have increased.”
In the year since the Taliban’s return, militant activity has increased in Pakistan, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, with around 433 people killed.
– ‘Same Old Game’ –
“They started the same old game: target killings, bomb blasts, kidnappings – and calls for extortion,” said Swat community activist Ahmad Shah.
The extortion network is bankrolling the TTP, but also sowing a crisis of confidence in the local government, the militants are trying to increase in favor of Islamic rule.
Provincial MP Nisar Mohmand estimates 80 to 95 percent of wealthy residents in surrounding districts are now extortion victims.
Fellow legislators have been targeted for refusing to pay out, and some are too afraid to visit their constituencies.
“They have their own system of reward and punishment,” Mohmand said. “They 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 taking Kabul have vowed not to host international jihadist groups.
But the first sign of a TTP extortion attempt is the phone number – starting with the +93 international code indicating an Afghan SIM card.
Then comes a suggestive text, or voice message in Pashto — spoken with a Pakistani lilt.
AFP heard one 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 we are a spent force,” it warns.
The sum “due” is then rushed, usually by an intermediary, before being sent to the ragged groups of TTP fighters whose silhouettes haunt the mountain slopes.
Victims expect to be “listened to” up to five times a year, the anonymous MP said.
Since the 2014 school massacre, which left Pakistanis horrified, even mildly sympathetic to their cause, the TTP has vowed to avoid civilian targets, claiming extortion by criminals who borrow their brand.
But a civilian intelligence officer in the area insisted they were “the root cause of the threat”.
– ‘Life stands still’ –
Swat – a snow-capped mountain valley cleft by turquoise flowing water – is one of Pakistan’s most famous beauty spots, but its reputation has a dark side.
In 2012, the then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the TTP while campaigning for girls’ education, a campaign that later earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
This summer things seemed to slip irretrievably back to those dark days.
After a decade-long hiatus, the anonymous MP started receiving blackmail messages again.
“The situation was so bad that many people thought about migration,” said Shah. “Life stood still.”
But there has been backlash, and several protests against the TTP have been held since the group’s high-profile kidnapping of three officials in August.
Businesses closed and thousands poured into the streets in rallies up and down the valley.
Pakistan’s military claimed reports of strong TTP in the area were “grossly exaggerated and misleading”.
Yet, in Pakistan’s borderlands, attacks and extortion continue unabated – despite an alleged deadlock between the TTP and Islamabad.
The Taliban’s return to Kabul, despite being defeated by the world’s strongest armies for 20 years, shows that the military may not end the ordeal.
“We have to look for a solution acceptable to both sides,” said government negotiator Muhammad Ali Saif. “A lasting settlement will have to be found.”