KARACHI, Pakistan — Taliban fighters seeking money, rest and refuge from U.S. missile strikes are turning up in increasing numbers in this city, Pakistan's largest and its economic hub, according to militants, police officials and an intelligence memo.
The Taliban presence in this southern port city, hundreds of miles from the Islamist extremists' strongholds in the northwest, shows how quickly their influence is spreading throughout the country.
Karachi is especially important because it is the main entryway for supplies headed to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the city most critical to Pakistani commerce. Few believe the Taliban could actually take over this diverse metropolis of more than 16 million, but there is fear that they could destabilize it through violence and rock the already shaky national economy.
Karachi is a place where plenty of Western-dressed young men and women mingle in swanky malls, listen to Britney Spears and cruise through neighborhoods that feel like wealthy U.S. suburbs.
But it is also where U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and found beheaded in 2002. Al-Qaida operatives, including suspected Sept. 11, 2001, attack plotter Ramzi Binalshibh, have been found here. And the city is believed to have been a launching pad for militants who killed 164 people in India's commercial capital of Mumbai last year.
As the Pakistan military intensifies its attacks in the northwest and the United States keeps launching missiles there, more insurgents are seeking safety in Karachi and other urban areas, militants said.
Shah Jahan, 35, who said he commands about 24 Taliban fighters in the South Waziristan tribal region, said militants are scattering throughout Pakistan to avoid the U.S. missile strikes. He said groups of 20 to 25 fighters would fight for a few months, then take leaves of up to one month in cities including Karachi.
A report from the police's Special Branch says militants linked to Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's top Taliban commander, are arriving in batches of 20 to 25 every 30 to 35 days "for rest as well as for generating funds." It adds that the militants make money "through criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes."
For Karachi residents, all the talk of the Taliban has brought confusion and nervousness. Some said they thought twice about what they wore or where they went, but that they still felt generally safe.
Hadia Khan, a human resources consultant, said she joined a letter-writing campaign against the Taliban after seeing a video that apparently showed militants flogging a young woman in the Swat Valley.
"The thought that went through my mind was that this could be me, this could be my daughter, or people that I know of if it is brought into my part of the world," Khan said.