New York: Pakistani Taliban and its aligned terror groups have embarked upon a campaign of high-profile kidnappings which has armed the insurgents with millions of dollars in ransom being used to galvanise a sophisticated network of jihadi gangs whose reach spans the country.
Wealthy industrialists, academics, Western aid workers and kin of military officers have been targets in a spree that began three years ago, the New York Times reported quoting Pakistani security officials saying it has now spread to every major Pakistani city, reaching the wealthiest neighbourhood.
For most of the hostages, the officials said the kidnappings entails a harrowing journey into the heart of Waziristan, dubbed by Americans as the most lawless region in the world.
The kidnappings have reached figures of 467 last year, according to the Interior Ministry figures.
Though kidnappings have been a centuries old scourge in parts of Pakistan, the NYT said what has changed now is the level of Taliban involvement and involves raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Citing cases of 70-year-old German aid worker and his 24-year-old Italian colleague who disappeared from the city of Multan on January 20, Pakistan officials confirm now that they are being held in Waziristan.
Quoting a young Punjabi businessman who spent six months in Taliban captivity in Waziristan described his ordeal as terrifying time of grimy cells, clandestine journeys, brutal beatings and grinding negotiations with his distraught family.
The businessman said that his captivity brought him face to face with grim going on like suicide bombers undergoing indoctrination and training with mock explosive vests. "Their mantra was: `one button and you go to heaven`," he recalled.
Hostages include Shahbaz Taseer, son of assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer, two Swiss tourists, the son-in-law of a retired four star General and Warren Wienstein, a 70-year-old American snatched from his home last August and said to be held by al Qaeda.
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 USD 500,000 and USD 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.
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, Shias and Ahmadi Muslims.
In captivity, the hostages are offered strange privileges like a treatise by al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, also made to watch on laptops, videos of Pakistani soldiers being executed and carefully chosen excerpts from Hollywood titles: Muslims killing Christian crusaders in Ridley Scott`s "Kingdom of Heaven," or Sylvester Stallone battling Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in "Rambo 3".
"Waziristan is very safe for the Taliban; the place is crawling with them. Even the non-Taliban carry weapons so it`s hard to know who is who," freed hostages said.
Aiding Taliban`s reach into Punjab is its alliance with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a vicious Sunni terrorist group whose cadres dominate the Punjabi Taliban and which has developed strong ties with al Qaeda.
"We see the nexus between the two groups in most cases," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
Sometimes the kidnappers demand more than money. When the son-in-law of Gen Tariq Majid, a former chairman of the military`s Joint Cheifs of Staff Committee, appeared in a hostage video last year, he reportedly called for the release of 153 prisoners as well as USD 1.4 million in cash.
The hostage identified his captors as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.