Well over a year before the shooting in the Orlando gay nightclub, a police official in Karachi told me that Islamic State-inspired youths wanted to kill Pakistani gays.
Raja Umar Khattab has interrogated hundreds of militants from different groups, including al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundullah and the Taliban. He says gays had never been on the hit lists before but they are now.
“Every group had a hit list; the most common would be journalists – but not LGBT,” he said.
Khattab last year busted a group of university graduates and students who had been involved in an attack on an American professor, the murder of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud and the Karachi bus shooting that left 46 men and women of the Shia-Ismaili minority sect dead in May 2015.
The prime suspect was Saad Aziz, a graduate of the prestigious Institute of Business Administration, which is the alma mater of Pakistan’s president, Mamnoon Hussain, and former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, among other leaders. Aziz, a bright student, joined a network of highly educated youths studying in different colleges and universities in Karachi, a city roughly the size of Stanislaus County with 23 million residents.
Khattab defines the group as Islamic State-inspired youths who formed their own terror network after parting ways with al-Qaida, which later gave birth to its south Asian offshoot al-Qaida in Indian Subcontinent. Khattab said the Islamic State-inspired group had specific targets – Americans, minorities, media persons, rights activists and gays.
In April 2015, they shot Debra Lobo, an American professor from California who was vice principal of the Jinnah Medical and Dental College in Karachi. She survived.
Mahmud – director of The Second Floor, which works on behalf of the marginalized and missing persons in Balochistan province – did not survive; she was killed a week after the Lobo shooting while with her mother as they walked home from the cafe where she worked. Less than a month later, in May 2015, the Aziz group savagely killed 46 members of the Ismaili community who were traveling to work on a bus in Karachi.
Just a week after that deadly attack, members of the group were arrested. Investigators found a list of potential targets, including those they perceived as gay or who were “promoting homosexuality at the behest of America.”
Among those targeted was a TV actor who dressed as a woman to parody former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Several fashion designers were also listed, police said, because they were promoting “deep neck” shirts, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses – all deemed obscene.
Aziz told interrogators that one of the fashion designers was selected because of his “homosexual features.”
The arrested militants said they believe most fashion designers and actors are gay and guilty of “spreading homosexuality.”
“By killing the selected ones we wanted to make them a lesson for others who are bent upon making Pakistan a vulgar and obscene country and like the west, in most parts of which the homosexuality has been legalized,” Aziz told interrogators.
Having seen media reports concerning the fight to legalize gay marriage in the U.S., Aziz wanted to halt the spread of homosexuality in Pakistan.
“A number of recent terrorist acts were the brainchild of well-educated and affluent militants, such as Saad Aziz,” says Zia Ur Rehman, Karachi-based security expert and author of “Karachi in Turmoil.” That gave them access to places and targets the Taliban could not reach.
Though homosexuality is not new in Pakistan, Islamic religious groups are fighting against it.
One Karachi homosexual, who did not want to be identified, said LGBT people often seek relationships through the internet.
“Gays and lesbians in Pakistan have to be highly discreet of their sexual orientation,” says Furqan, which is not his real name. The reason is simple. A Pew Research Center survey in June 2013 noted that of 39 countries studied, Pakistan was among the least gay-tolerant.
Under the 1860 colonial laws enforced in Pakistan after it was carved out of India, same-sex sexual acts were punishable by prison sentences of 2 to 10 years. But when Islamic laws were introduced, punishments such as 100 lashes and stoning were added.
An LGBT Pakistani may face either secular or Islamic, or in some cases both, types of punishment. A study of punishment of LGBT Pakistanis suggest that it is more common for there to be police harassment and fines or jail time rather than the more extreme punishments.
On May 25, a transgender woman succumbed to her wounds after being shot eight times by a disgruntled customer. Alisha was the victim of the fifth reported case of violence against transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province this year.
According Trans-Action Alliance, there have been 46 transgender people killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over the last few years. But in Alisha’s case, she was refused treatment in a health facility when other male and female patients demanded she not be admitted.
Many expected that when the case drew the attention of the media, it would force authorities to halt attacks on transgender people. However, another transgender person was critically injured after being shot multiple times for allegedly resisting the sexual advances of a group of armed men in Mansehra district just this week.
“Though militant groups are busted by law enforcers, whether gays or transgender they will remain vulnerable to indifferent attitude of the society which is ironically highly intolerant to them,” Rehman said.
Naimat Khan is a Karachi-based journalist who spent a month in Modesto as part of a journalist exchange program. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.