3:40 a.m. June 28, 2013

The War Nerd: Who Killed Gilgit?

You don’t get too many whodunits in the terrorism business. Most of the time, it’s pretty clear who dun what, and to whom. But something very weird happened last week (June 23, 2013), and nobody’s sure who’s responsible.

It sounds familiar enough: Ten people in Pakistan get rousted out of bed at gunpoint, taken outside and kicked around for a while, searched for valuables, then lined up and shot to death while the guys with the guns shout religious slogans.

That’s just another day at the office for Pakistan, you’d think. But nine out of the ten people killed were foreigner tourists — mountain climbers, which means rich foreigners. Russians, Ukranians and Chinese. They were killed at a base camp about 4,000 meters up the slope of Nanga-Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, AKA “The Killer Mountain” and “The German-Slayer” — an affectionate nickname the climbing world gave it after it killed off several Third Reich alpine teams in the 1930s.

For decades now the world’s richest and most easily bored people have been coming to try their luck against this peak, usually dying in the attempt, but in a way they consider proper, like hypothermia or falling a few hundred feet. Not by getting dragged out of the local hotel and shot.

The reason these rich, cautious people felt safe going to this part of Pakistan is that Gilgit is far up in the Karakoram Range, south of the Wakhan Corridor — that weird appendix-looking bulge of Afghan territory squirming toward China. The KKH, the one road over the Pamirs to China, has been blocked for the past three years by a 27-km long lake that formed after a landslide dammed the river in 2010.

Gilgit is one of the few places in Pakistan that’s escaped the constant ethnic/political/sectarian killing that’s kept most of Pakistan busy ever since Zia ul Haq “Islamized” the country in 1979. Gilgit is closer to Kashgar in China than to any place in Pakistan, and the people of Gilgit would just as soon keep it that way. They’re your classic “hill tribe” mix — small ethnic groups that have been forced to live in the mountains when more powerful tribes took the flat lands away from them. (It’s a mistake to think that “hill tribes,” in SE Asia or Pakistan, just like to live on the diagonal. They’ve almost always retreated to the high country to escape a bigger enemy tribe.)

The Gilgit-Balti groups retreated from the flats around Peshawar when the Pashtun swept over them. They took to the hills where they still speak their own languages, like Burushkashi, which is so weird that nobody’s been able to link it up to any other language, though they’ve tried Dene, Basque and even Phrygian. This was always one of the poorest regions of Pakistan, totally overshadowed by Kashmir-Jammu to the southeast, where the big border wars between India and Pakistan were focused. There was room to fight in Kashmir and populations big and rich enough to be worth fighting over, but nobody really cared about the poor, isolated minorities of Gilgit.

In Pakistan, it’s usually a good thing to be ignored and bad news to be noticed. The Gilgit peoples are Shia, which is a death sentence in the new, Taliban-ized Pakistan — another reason for them to be grateful for all those high mountains screening them from the Punjabi and Pashtun to the south and west.

And then the mountains gave the starving farmers around Gilgit their biggest gift: Hundreds of rich, free-spending mountain-climbing tourists from Russia, Europe, Japan, America, and China. I can’t explain the urge to crawl up vertical rockfaces myself; stairs give me enough trouble as it is. The people who climb mountains all seem to be over-achievers who think the ordinary horizontal world is for wimps. They can’t even explain the climbing urge themselves, which is why that old cliché “Why climb Everest? Because it’s there” line got started. Always hated that line. Yeah, it’s “there.” “There” is a good place for it, as opposed to “here,” where I am. The there-r the better.

These visitors probably didn’t make any more sense to the terrace farmers of the valley than they do to me, but one thing the peasants found out very quickly is that the climbers had big money. The locals turned out to be natural entrepreneurs, and in the past ten years they’ve been opening lodges, B&Bs, tour companies and anything else the visiting lunatics could want. They had help from the Aga Khan, the quasi-deity running their branch of Shia Islam. Yep, the local people here are Shia — and hardcore Shia too, with photos of Khomeini in their houses and a deep link to Iran.

It’s not safe to be Shi’ite in Pakistan, of course, and there were occasional attacks by the Pashtun TTP from the Swat Valley, and the Punjabi Lashkar e Jhangvi from the South and Kashmir. But these attacks killed locals; nobody thought either TTP or LeJ would kill tourists because even the most insane Jihadis knew Pakistan needs tourist dollars. And it’s a tough trip up to Gilgit. You wanna slaughter a few Shia kids, just send a suicide bomber on a Quetta bus full of female Hazara students, like the LeJ did a few weeks ago.

Quetta’s easy to reach, and the Hazara make easy targets for reasons I explained in another article.

When the LeJ kills Hazara in Quetta, the men who run Pakistan just laugh. But if you kill tourists — rich, cash-paying tourists — in the mountain-climbing zone, where those same bigwigs have investments…well, the theory used to go that no one would be crazy enough to do that. Pakistan is one of those places very sharply divided into those with whom you absolutely can and absolutely cannot fuck. And mountain-climbing tourists are non-fuckable, unless they call down to the desk and request it, in which case arrangements can be made.

That was the theory, up to June 23, 2013, when some group went to all the trouble of getting a commando team across the mountains, up the slope of Nanga-Parbat, to the front door of that climbers’ hotel. And that’s where the whodunit starts. All around the world, mountain climbers, who all seem to know each other, are texting and twittering, trying to guess whether it was the Pashtun TTP or the Punjabi LeJ. It’s like a game of Clue played long-distance by skinny, fit billionaires.

The TTP claimed responsibility right away, but if you’ve been following this kind of story for a while, you know that doesn’t mean much. Those meatheads are dumb enough to dirty up a paying tourist area just to avenge their boy Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who was droned a few weeks before the Gilgit attack. But why kill Russians and Chinese? There are other mountain camps full of rich Americans, the natural target if you’re actually trying to retaliate for a drone attack.

They may have done it. No one knows yet. But my money is on the Lashkar e Jhangvi. It’s hard to explain why I’m leaning that way unless you follow the patterns of murder in Pakistan pretty carefully. The Pashtun thugs in TTP are brutal, but the Punjabis in LeJ are much more cruel and vindictive. They target Shia civilians, and although foreign tourists were killed, this killing was definitely aimed at the Shi’ites of the Gilgit-Baltisan region. The people of the valley have put everything they have into building hotels and restaurants and guide businesses for the tourists, and now, from what I hear, the cancellations are coming in fast. No one is going to climb Nanga-Parbat this year except the Russians. Seriously, I have a source in Gilgit and he says the only climbing teams still planning to come are the Russians, because those magnificent bastards are just not afraid of death. I thought the fear of death was Darwinian but believe me, you hang around Russians for a while and you find out nope, it’s cultural. And their culture doesn’t have it.

But everyone else has cancelled. They don’t mind hanging a hundred meters over jagged rock by their fingernails but for some reason they don’t like being shot at. Don’t ask me; I’m fat and poor and sensible, their opposites in every possible way.

So with ten tourists dead in one blow, the shooters have wiped out the economy of the region. That’s an effective strike. The Gilgit folks have been holding demonstrations to tell the world they had no part in this killing — which is true — but it won’t do any good. Somebody has very cruelly and cleverly put those uppity Shia in their place.

It’s very similar to what the LeJ has been doing to the Hazara, another Shia minority that’s been trying to make something of itself. That striving offends the Punjabi jihadists of the LeJ, which is why LeJ targets the Hazara of Quetta over and over. They especially love to kill Hazara women on their way to school, for two reasons: (a) being women; (b) going to school. The men in charge of the LeJ, like Malik Ishaq — who gets my vote for worst person on the planet — always try to kill Shia who are rising out of poverty. They hate those uppity bastards for daring to link up to the wider world, China and Russia.

So killing Chinese and Russian tourists at the very beginning of the tourist season is the perfect LeJ crime. This is only a guess; it could have been either. Hell, it could have been Col. Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick; we may never find out. But to my mind it’s just got the LeJ’s signature stench to it, more cowardly and cruel than the Pashtun who tend to just go in blasting until everybody’s dead. This was a mission devised by some fat smiling monster like the LeJ boss, Ishaq. You know, when I think about the LeJ I realize something: There are some terrorist groups I just don’t like.

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UPDATE: I filed this story at 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 26. Two hours ago, at 9 a.m. June 28, I got an email from a source in Gilgit confirming that my guess was correct. It was LeJ, not TTP, that killed the ten climbers at Nanga Parbat Base Camp. Here's the email:

"Nanga Parbat massacre suspect identified and it looks like we were right - they're Sunni locals from Diamer and lo and behold, the others are from Mansehra and Kohistan and have ties with LeJ. They've been caught because the Diamet jirga turned them to the authorities."