HomeBusinessHow Pakistan’s Most Feared Power Broker Controlled a Violent Megacity From London

How Pakistan’s Most Feared Power Broker Controlled a Violent Megacity From London

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  • Accused of murder, money laundering, and terrorism, Altaf Hussain spent decades pulling the strings of Karachi from his British exile. Today it is down, but not outside.
How Pakistan’s Most Feared Power Broker Controlled a Violent Megacity From London
How Pakistan’s Most Feared Power Broker Controlled a Violent Megacity From London (Image: Alexander Coggin)
A Muttahida Qaumi Movement protest in 2016. Photographer: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A Muttahida Qaumi Movement protest in 2016. Photographer: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But in the months leading up to the Press Club protest, the MQM had been under intense pressure. Pakistan’s military, the country’s most powerful institution, had locked up and allegedly “disappeared” dozens of MQM workers, part of a broader effort to make Karachi a safer environment for Chinese investment. A Lahore court had banned the press from publishing Hussain’s image or speeches, ruling that his tirades against the government were a form of treason. For the first time in decades, MQM seemed at risk of losing its grip.

Hussain was already in his early 60s, with his face drooping and a wide belly, but the shop was decorated with portraits of him at his best: a square-jawed young man with a bushy mustache and aviator sunglasses. It was a source of inspiration for those present. Amid cheers of “long live Altaf,” some vowed to lay down their lives for his Bhai, the Urdu word for brother. That afternoon, Hussain began launching a nearly 100-minute tirade against the army and government. He reserved some of his harshest words for the media that refused to cover the MQM.

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“Why,” he asked the audience, “haven’t you gone and finished your broadcasts?”

Someone responded immediately. “We will break your cameras right now, Bhai. Give us the order.”

Around the corner, a mob soon broke through the reception doors of the local channel ARY News and began smashing furniture, chasing security guards, and beating them with sticks. The burst of gunfire could be heard outside, and soon several vehicles were on fire. At the end of the day, one person was dead and more injured, including a policeman who was beaten unconscious. ARY and another station were off the air.

Pakistani paramilitary troops at a demolished MQM protest camp. Photographer: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani paramilitary troops at a demolished MQM protest camp. Photographer: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Hussain was not around to witness the damage. He delivered his speech by phone from London, where he has lived in exile for 30 years despite allegations ranging from money laundering to murder. For most of that time, he has maintained firm control of the MQM, directing its operations from the leafy suburb of Mill Hill. Pakistani officials and some British lawmakers have repeatedly complained about their presence, demanding that the UK government act prevent what they see as a ruthless militant force from operating from its territory.

But for the most part, he has been able to operate freely, remaining little known to the British public while commanding a huge network of lieutenants through phone calls throughout the day. Even in London, long a home for political exiles of all stripes, Hussain’s case is exceptional. Instead of planning a return to power like many of those émigrés, he exercised it, keeping one of the world’s largest cities and often the balance of national power in Pakistan in its enslavement. “How can you run a big city, or lead a party that runs a big city, sitting in London?” asked Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2007 to 2010. “It was still a question in my mind.”

This story of how Karachi’s top power broker came to pull his strings from some 4,000 miles away is based on government documents, court evidence, and interviews with two dozen people involved, many of whom asked not to be identified due to legal sensitivities or concerns for their safety. Hussain has repeatedly denied engaging in criminal activity and publicly apologized for his role in the TV station attacks, saying his incendiary speech was the product of mental anguish.

However, there is little doubt that the event served Hussain, as did other turbulence he has fostered during his long career. “I wouldn’t call it violence,” Nadeem Nusrat, then one of Hussain’s top lieutenants, said in an interview shortly after at the Grandly Named International Secretariat of MQM, an office in Edgware on the northern outskirts of London. “It’s called realpolitik.”

Even by the standards of South Asian megacities, Karachi is a complicated place. Home to barely a million people in 1950, its population increased with refugees from India, who fled their homes after their partition of what became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and later millions of rural migrants. Growth quickly overwhelmed Karachi’s infrastructure, and there is no organized mass transit system, no real city center, and no green space. Countless percent of the population lives in slums.

Although born in Karachi in 1953, Hussain has always been identified as a Mohajir, a term that refers to those, like his parents, who left India after the partition. In Agra, about 140 miles south of Delhi, Hussain’s father had a prestigious job as a railway station manager. In Karachi, he was only able to find work in a textile factory and then died when Hussain was just 13, leaving his 11 children dependent on Hussain’s brother’s civil service salary, as well as what his mother earned sewing clothes. Such downward mobility was common among the Mohajirs, who were subject to discrimination by native residents of Sindh, the Pakistani state of which Karachi is the capital. Hussain was enraged by the plight of his community. He and a group of other Mohajir students founded the MQM in 1984, and Hussain gained a reputation for intense devotion to the cause. After a protest, when he was 26, he was imprisoned for nine months and given five lashes.

Hussain in 1988.Photographer: Chip Hires/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Hussain in 1988.Photographer: Chip Hires/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Religiously moderate and focused on reversing discriminatory measures, the MQM built a large following in Karachi, winning seats in national and provincial parliaments. It did not hurt, according to diplomatic cables from the United Kingdom and two former Pakistani officials, that he received support from the military, which saw the party as a useful bulwark against other political factions. Although Hussain never ran for elected office, he was the inescapable face of the MQM, his portrait was glued in all the areas he dominated.

From the beginning, MQM’s operations went far beyond the political organization. As communal violence between ethnic Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Pashtuns worsened in the mid-1980s, Hussain urged his followers at a rally to “buy weapons and Kalashnikovs” for self-defense. “When they come to kill you,” he asked, “how will you protect yourself?” The party set up weapons caches around Karachi, stocked with assault rifles for its large militant wing. Meanwhile, Hussain was solidifying his control over the organization, lashing out at anyone who challenged his leadership. In a February 1991 cable, a British diplomat named Patrick Wogan described how, according to a high-level MQM contact, Hussain passed the names of dissidents to police commanders, with instructions to “deal severely with them.” (Hussain denies giving instructions to injure or kill anyone.)

Even the privileged were under direct threat. An elite Pakistani, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, recalled angering the party by arresting the thieving manager of his family textile factory, unaware that the employee was an MQM donor. One afternoon in 1991, four men with guns got into the rich man’s car, driving him to a farm on the outskirts of town. There, they cut him with razor blades and nailed an electric drill to his legs. The MQM denied being behind the kidnapping, but when the victim’s family asked political contacts to lean on the party, he was released, arriving home in blood-soaked clothes.

A civilian caught in the crossfire between the MQM and police in 1995. Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/The Chronicle Collection/Getty Images
A civilian caught in the crossfire between the MQM and police in 1995. Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/The Chronicle Collection/Getty Images

In 1992, with Karachi becoming increasingly unstable, the military sent a large force to the city, which soon entered open battles with MQM gunmen. Thousands of people would eventually be killed, including Hussain’s nephew and older brother. Hussain left for the UK, claiming to have been the target of a failed assassination attempt, and was granted asylum. Thereafter he would run the MQM by phone and fax from a dilapidated townhouse on a quiet street on Mill Hill, which was crowded with other exiles. Across the line in Pakistan, his voice was squeezed into rallies of huge speakers.

“Four men with guns forced themselves into the rich man’s car, taking him to a farm. They cut him with razor blades and drilled into his legs.”

He sought help anywhere he could find her. Meeting Wogan, an MQM official reminded the Briton with disgust that Hussain had asked for help in arranging a “clandestine meeting” with a senior diplomat from India, Pakistan’s archrival. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Hussain sent a formal letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, offering to help in the fight against al Qaeda in exchange for protection from the ISI, Pakistan’s feared intelligence agency. He had received British citizenship in early 2001, prompting speculation in Pakistan and beyond that, he was being rewarded for helping the UK government. In Parliament, left-wing MP George Galloway demanded to know why Hussain was being “allowed from a sofa in Edgware to carry out a terrorist campaign and a campaign of extortion of businesses and citizens” in Pakistan. According to two former British officials, the decision to accept their naturalization application was a processing error on the part of immigration staff, rather than a reflection of its usefulness. Still, his passport was never revoked, and Hussain remains a UK citizen today. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to comment, as did the Home Office, which handles immigration matters.

Despite attempts by the military to shut it down, the MQM maintained firm control over much of Karachi, particularly after General Pervez Musharraf took control of Pakistan in a coup in 1999. A Mohajir himself, Musharraf took a hands-off approach to MQM. But allegations that the party engaged in extortion and other illegal activities never stopped, and whatever their source, MQM funds flowed into London. Over the years he acquired at least seven British properties, including a large red-brick house for Hussain, bought for more than 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in 2001. He seemed untouchable, safe enough in London that the MQM could hold a dazzling 25th-anniversary party there in 2009. “It was a colorful and happy night,” recalled one attendee. “There were no cracks in the MQM then.”

On September 16, 2010, a founding member of MQM named Imran Farooq left the Edgware subway station with a bag of groceries, heading home with his wife and two young children. Farooq had gone into hiding during the military crackdown of the 1990s, reappearing in London just before the turn of the millennium. Initially, Hussain greeted him like a long-lost brother, hugging Farooq tightly in front of the cameras. But subsequent court documents in Pakistan alleged that Hussain saw Farooq as a threat to his leadership. Their relationship soon withered, and Farooq was suspended from the MQM.

Farooq with Hussain at a press conference in London. Photographer: Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images
Farooq with Hussain at a press conference in London. Photographer: Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images

Two Pakistani men, Kashif Khan Kamran and Mohsin Ali Syed were watching Farooq and followed him as he left the station. When he was just a few steps from his house, Syed ran towards Farooq, holding him in place as Kamran hit his head with a brick, and then stabbed his chest and belly. The two men dropped Farooq’s body and went straight to Heathrow Airport, where they boarded a flight to Sri Lanka. Along the way, Kamran made a brief call to Karachi, which Syed would later describe to the police. The job was done, Syed remembered saying.

London has seen more than its share of violence motivated by distant political vendettas. The murder still crossed a line. Eventually, British police raided several properties linked to the MQM, finding hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. In addition to piles of money, at Hussain’s house, they discovered what appeared to be a shopping list of weapons and other weapons, named, curiously, in Indian rupees.

According to people with knowledge of the investigation, as well as transcripts of interviews reviewed by Bloomberg News, Metropolitan Police detectives believed some of the funds could have come from the Research and Analysis Wing, the Indian intelligence service, allegations that would prove explosive when aired in Pakistan. (The Indian prime minister’s office, which RAW reports to, did not respond to a request for comment; the Met declined to comment.) Even if that weren’t true, the cash was clearly of uncertain origin, and the police opened a money laundering investigation.

The financial investigation never led to a prosecution, nor was Hussain charged in connection with Farooq’s death, prompting another MP, Naz Shah, to ask the Met commissioner at a hearing whether British police were “taking the matter seriously”. The commissioner resisted, saying only that investigations were ongoing.

But events in Pakistan were beginning to turn against Hussain. In 2013, China’s new leader Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan in Asia and beyond. As a traditional Chinese ally, Pakistan would receive up to $60 billion. Spending all that money productively would require more stability in Karachi, and an MQM could no longer stop trading. The subsequent military crackdown, which prompted Hussain’s calls in 2016 for his followers to attack TV studios, led the party into a political nadir. His senior officials in Karachi resigned from Hussain’s leadership, leaving it unclear who was really in charge: those bosses on the ground, or an émigré who still had considerable loyalty from the rank and file. The Karachi wing sought control of the party’s British assets, alleging in a lawsuit that Hussain had diverted millions of pounds of MQM funds into his pocket. (Hussain denied wrongdoing.) Amid infighting, the MQM won just seven seats in the 2018 national elections, its lowest total in history. Without Hussain’s involvement, the Karachi estranged wing entered Imran Khan’s coalition government.

Meanwhile, Hussain was back on the radar of the British police. In June 2019, officers broke into his home, arresting him and then charging him with “fomenting terrorism” for his role in the TV station’s violence.

Hussain in 2021.Alexander Coggin for Bloomberg Businessweek
Hussain in 2021.Alexander Coggin for Bloomberg Businessweek

Late on a cloudy afternoon in the summer of 2021, Hussain was waiting inside his Mill Hill property with a small phalanx of followers, dressed in a dark suit and his signature airmen. Arranging a meeting with him had not been easy. He had repeatedly rescheduled, citing the demands of his court cases, as well as a Covid-19 attack. During the long postponements, Hussain’s aides had mailed loads of literature: books on his early life, philosophy, and reflections on love, along with pamphlets showing bloody photos of alleged military atrocities against MQM members.

During the four-hour hearing that followed, Hussain swayed generously between the complaints, arguing that his legal troubles were caused by shady actors, most notably the military and the ISI. “For the last 30 years, I’ve been in exile,” he said, pausing to the effect. “I’m paying the price.” The charge of terrorism, the police investigations, and the demand of his estranged comrades: he planned to fight all of them to the end. “I would rather die in jail than beg and surrender,” he said.

When asked about allegations of murder, extortion, and other crimes attributed over the years to MQM and Hussain himself, he asked his followers to bring a Quran. Two of them stepped forward to swear on the holy book. “Mr. Hussain never, ever uttered a single word to attack any locality, to loot, to surrender, to order any person to kill,” said one of them, Qasim Ali Raza.

“Mr. Hussain never uttered a single word to attack any locality, loot, surrender, order anyone to kill.”

Hussain elaborated, rejecting each accusation in turn. Suggestions of money laundering and funding from Indian intelligence were “all rubbish,” he said, while cash found by police in his home was simply there for safekeeping. In particular, Hussain denied any responsibility for Farooq’s murder. The killers had eventually been arrested in Pakistan, where they told investigators that MQM leaders had instructed them to commit the crime. Although they later retracted those statements, an Islamabad court ruled in 2020 that they had been acting on Hussain’s orders. “I don’t know them,” Hussain said sternly. Instead, he said Farooq’s death was the work of Pakistani intelligence, like so many other things. (Pakistan’s military did not respond to requests for comment.)

Hussain’s denials came just weeks after another incident in which someone who crossed him found himself in danger. Nusrat, Hussain’s former assistant, had moved to the United States in 2017 after becoming disillusioned with Hussain’s leadership, establishing a separate Mohajir advocacy group. In July of last year, he traveled to Houston to give a speech. On the way back to his hotel, Nusrat’s driver suddenly stepped on the brakes. A black sport utility vehicle had stopped. Someone inside fired several rounds before speeding away. Nusrat was unharmed. He wasn’t sure if the gunman missed, or if the shots were meant only to serve as a warning.

Hussain arrives at Kingston Crown Court on Jan. 31.Photographer: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Hussain arrives at Kingston Crown Court on Jan. 31.Photographer: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

With another court battle just a month or so away, this time a civil lawsuit filed by some of his former MQM allies, Hussain’s future still looks bleak. Divided by infighting and under pressure from the military, the party that once dominated Pakistan’s economic heartland seems severely weakened. But MQM has recovered before. In April, Hussain’s London faction tentatively revived its operations in Karachi, appointing two Pakistan-based leaders to serve as its lieutenants. A supporter is also asking a Pakistani court to remove the ban on his speeches.

Before getting into a chauffeured Range Rover to drive home from court, Hussain made it clear that he wasn’t done trying to shape events in the city of his birth. “Inflation has skyrocketed,” he declared, and poor Pakistanis cannot afford fuel or electricity. “Today, I appeal to all institutions as well as to the politicians of Pakistan who, for God’s sake, think of poor people.” –with Ismail Dilawar.


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