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By M. Ibrahim
KHYBER AGENCY – Owais Khan, 24, once hoped selling high-tech gadgets would be a good business in Pakistan; four months later, he found his business in the crosshairs of militants.
“I lost the shop, the merchandise and the little cash I had due to the destruction of the building where my shop was situated,” he said after militants blew up the Khalid Mobile Centre in Landi Kotal the night of January 10. The complex, housing at least 12 mobile shops and seven single-room flats, was flattened.
It was only in September that Owais dropped out of college, abandoning his dreams of a medical career, and rented a shop in Landi Kotal to support his wife and two children.
Now, he said, he can either move out of his native town, if he wants to stay in the mobile phone business, or he can find another line of work.
A local militant group, Abdullah Ezzam Brigade, an auxiliary of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast. The group had earlier warned mobile and computer dealers in Landi Kotal to either shutter their business or face reprisal.
“The warning was vague as militants had not cited any specific reason for closing our business,” Owais told Central Asia Online.
The attack was a continuation of the Taliban’s latest focus, as the militants contend that cell phones (especially those with cameras) and computers are un-Islamic because they can be used to transmit and share pornography. One of the first reported attacks on cell phone and computer businesses occurred in Wana in December.
“Militants alleged that they had information about some mobile and computer dealers dealing in un-Islamic, objectionable and obscene material in these shops,” Zar Bacha, a local official in Landi Kotal, told Central Asia Online.
Threats force businesses to fold
Landi Kotal political administrator Khalid Mumtaz Kundi told Central Asia Online that his administration was ready to protect all business owners.
But that promise apparently hasn’t given businessmen the confidence they need. Threats from militants have so far compelled almost half of the 108 mobile dealers in Landi Kotal to either switch professions or relocate.
A number of the mobile and computer dealers have opened shops elsewhere, such as in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan, Owais said. He said he doesn’t have enough money to do that, but said the boom in mobile business in the region is tempting enough for him to consider a joint venture with one of his colleagues, who is also wary of militant threats, in Khyber Agency.
Elsewhere in Khyber Agency, the banned militant group Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) in Bara has long banned camera-equipped phones and musical ring tones on cell phones.
“It’s almost five years that the ban is in place and mobile dealers have long abandoned their businesses in Bara,” Ihsanullah, a resident of Shalobar in Bara, told Central Asia Online.
LI activists publicly lashed and even shaved the heads of those who had violated the ban in Bara, he said.
Militant threats are far-reaching
Even business owners who have escaped attack are suffering.
Muhammad Wahab, a computer software dealer in Landi Kotal, said his business was on the verge of closure.
“It was almost a year ago that pamphlets were distributed in our market by the militants, cautioning us against uploading musical ring tones in mobile sets and selling obscene CDs and English movies,” he told Central Asia Online.
“It is hard to understand the rationale behind militant opposition to the mobile and computer business,” Wahab said. “Most of the unemployed educated tribal youth had invested whatever capital they had in these two trades as they consider it a clean and less objectionable activity.”
Almost 200 families in his area are dependent on computer and mobile businesses and most of them are now in financial difficulties, Wahab said.
Wahab said he was contemplating a fresh beginning in a safer place, maybe in Peshawar.
Long history of threats
Threats by militants are not new - but the target has changed.
In August 2007, four successive explosions at three CD centres destroyed nearly a dozen shops and forced the CD business to shut down in Landi Kotal.
Sabr Wali, owner of Sabr Wali music centre, is now a taxi driver in Torkhum because he left the music business after receiving personal threats from terrorists in 2007.
“We have to pack up in haste as extremist groups warned of more such attacks, even at our houses, if we failed to adhere to their warnings,” he said. “Some of us did try our luck in religious CDs, but they attracted very few buyers.”