KARACHI, Pakistan — Taliban fighters have long used this city of 17 million as a place to regroup, smuggle weapons and even work seasonal jobs. But recently they have discovered another way to make fast money: organized crime.
The police here say the Taliban, working with criminal groups, are using Mafia-style networks to kidnap, rob banks and extort, generating millions of dollars for the militant insurgency in northwestern Pakistan.
“There is overwhelming evidence that it’s an organized policy,” said Dost Ali Baloch, assistant inspector general of the Karachi police.
Jihadi-linked crime has surfaced in other Pakistani cities, like Lahore. But Karachi, the central nervous system of Pakistan’s economy, and home to its richest businessmen, is the hub. It has been free of the bombings that have tormented Pakistan’s other major cities this year, and some officials believe that is the result of a calculated strategy.
“This is where they come to hide, where they raise their finances,” said a counterterrorism official in Karachi. “They don’t want to disturb that.”
The danger is not of a Taliban takeover — Karachi is run by a powerful secular party that despises the Taliban — but of an urban sanctuary for financing and equipping the insurgency from this southern port.
These criminal syndicates helped drive kidnappings in Pakistan last year to their highest numbers in a decade, according to the police, and they have also generated a spike in bank robberies. Eighty percent of bank heists are now believed to be related to the insurgency and other militant groups, authorities say.
“The Taliban are a group of thieves,” said a currency exchange owner here who was robbed of nearly $2 million last year and who did not want to be identified for fear of further trouble. “If it was God, they’d steal from him, too.”
Pakistani counterterrorism officials say they believe that kidnapping for ransom may have been the single largest revenue source for the Taliban’s top commander in the country, Baitullah Mehsud, before he was killed this month in an American drone strike.
Last year, Mr. Mehsud’s network may have held as many as 70 hostages, said a Pakistani counterterrorism official who did not speak for attribution for reasons of protocol. Control over these criminal networks and the money they generate may have been at the center of what seemed to be the struggle over who would succeed Mr. Mehsud.
“The world thinks this is about religion, but that’s a mistake,” said Sharfuddin Memon, director in Karachi of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, a crime watch group run by members of the business community. “It’s about money and power. Faith has nothing to do with it.”
The kidnappers who took Shawkat Afridi, a prominent businessman, last year, did not make a single mistake, the family said. A caller breathed his demands into the phone in a bewildering array of accents. First he sounded like an Afghan. Then like a Mehsud tribesman. After more than 50 phone calls over five months, Mr. Afridi’s family finally agreed to pay $2.5 million for his release.
“We understood he was not an ordinary kidnapper,” said Gul Afridi, the victim’s brother. “There was no way out.”
Typical of such cases, the group, which the police said was Taliban-related, had chosen its target carefully: the Afridis are rich businessmen who supply fuel to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Other recent cases include a prominent film distributor, the owner of a textile mill and a personnel manager at a pipe manufacturer.
Though just 10 percent of kidnappings are connected to the Taliban, according to the police, the ransoms they generate — generally $60,000 to $250,000 each — collect more money than all the other cases combined.
“They’re real professionals,” said Ahmed Chinoy, a textile manufacturer who is the deputy head of the citizens committee, which was established in 1989 by the business community to protect against encroaching crime. “They know for sure that whoever they take can afford to pay.”
The same goes for bank robberies. Raja Umer Khattab, a senior police officer in Karachi’s Special Investigations Unit, noticed something strange early last year. The robbers had beards and bigger than usual guns, and, unlike ordinary thieves, they tended to kill the security guards. They were taking the banks’ surveillance systems, along with the cash.
“We started seeing a different kind of crime — more professional, more aggressive,” he said in an interview. “We realized these criminals were linked to jihadis.”
Mr. Khattab dug further. These criminals switched cellphone SIM cards like bus tickets, and had a code word for every neighborhood. Last August he made a series of arrests and a bomb exploded under his car. Shrapnel scars still mark his neck.
A recent influx of people in Karachi displaced by the military’s offensive in the northwest has expanded opportunities for the Taliban. Many are Pashtuns, the ethnic group most closely associated with the Taliban. Fanned by local politicians, ethnic tensions erupted in clashes that killed dozens this spring in Karachi. The authorities say Taliban-related crime has dropped greatly since then, with the arrests of the crime leaders breaking networks, among them, the gang that kidnapped Mr. Afridi.
But many of the networks are still in place, crisscrossing the city like a web, with strong links to Taliban sanctuaries in the northwest.
In the case of the heist at the money exchange last year, two security guards, who were from the Mehsud tribe, carried out the robbery. The exchange’s owners believed the men were working directly for Mr. Mehsud. They were uneducated and had been told that the exchange was taking money from the C.I.A. and that its dollars were the proof.
“They were brainwashed,” said one of the owners, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “They were told, if you do this, it’s good for Islam.”
In many ways, it is the Pashtuns who suffer most. Militants extort money from the biggest oil traders to the smallest house servants, and Pashtuns can do little to resist, because their families remain in areas that the militants control.
Shahid, 22, a shy servant in Karachi, squirms when he describes how half of his $100 monthly salary goes to the local militant commander in his village, near the Afghan border. He did not want his full name used for fear of Taliban retribution. The commander was once a bus conductor, but has grown rich in his position, hoarding more than 200 sport utility vehicles, Shahid said.
Refusing has consequences: Four who recently fought the extortion turned up dead, Shahid said. Their bodies were not allowed a burial in the village, a sign of shame.
“If we give, we’re in trouble, and if we don’t give, we’re in trouble,” said Abzal Khan Mehsud, a member of the Oil Tanker Owners Association, who said he had not been able to go to his village for years out of fear of the militants who control it. “We’re being ground down in between.”
In a gritty industrial area of north Karachi, businessmen have taken matters into their own hands. Idrees Gigi, a textile manufacturer, is building a tall cement wall along the edge of his property. On the other side is Sorabgoth, a bone-poor Pashtun neighborhood.
The hope is that the wall will help shield his factory from crime, but security precautions do nothing to address the real problem, which Mr. Gigi believes is poverty. Parts of Sorabgoth lack roads and running water.
On a recent Saturday, young men scrambled past the wall over a river of red wastewater across a footbridge made of drainage chutes. Mr. Gigi employs thousands of residents, and has built four schools, but it is not enough.
“The worse the economy is, the more jihadis it will create,” he said. “This is a money war.”