This seaside metropolis is no stranger to gangland violence, driven for years by a motley collection of armed groups who battle over money, turf and votes.
But there is a new gang in town. Hundreds of miles from their homeland in the mountainous northwest, Pakistani Taliban fighters have started to flex their muscles more forcefully in parts of this vast city, and they are openly taking ground.
Tehreek-e-Taliban gunmen have mounted guerrilla assaults on police stations, killing scores of officers. They have stepped up extortion rackets that target rich businessmen and traders, and shot dead public health workers engaged in polio vaccination efforts. In some neighbourhoods, Taliban clerics have started to mediate disputes through a parallel judicial system.
Already, the militants have reshaped the city’s political balance by squeezing one of the most prominent political machines, the Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party, off its home turf. They have scared Awami operatives out of town and destroyed offices, gravely undercutting the party’s chances in national elections scheduled for May.
“We are the Taliban’s first enemy,” said Shahi Syed, the party’s provincial head, at his newly fortified office. “They burn my offices, they tear down my flags and they kill our people.”
The Taliban drift into Karachi actually began years ago, though much more quietly. Many fled here after a concerted Pakistani military operation in the Swat Valley in 2009. The influx has gradually continued, officials here say, with Taliban fighters able to easily melt into the city’s population of fellow ethnic Pashtuns, estimated to number at least five million people.
In the last six months, there have been signs that the Taliban have become a force on the street, aggressively exerting their influence in the ethnic Pashtun quarters of the city.
In joining Karachi’s street wars, the Taliban are upending a long-established network of competing criminal, ethnic and political armed groups. The difference is that the Taliban’s agenda is more expansive — it seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state — and their operations are run by remote control from the tribal belt along the Afghan border.