Altaf Hussain: How a feared power broker controlled Karachi from London
The hunger strikers had been sitting for six hot days outside the Karachi Press Club, sheltering under a canvas tent as fans blew the sticky summer air. The Victorian sandstone pile in the heart of Pakistan’s commercial capital was an easy place to get media coverage, and some organization or other held a demonstration there almost every week. Few, however, could match the scale and reputation of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, the secular political party whose adherents were camped out in August 2016. Since storming to power in the 1980s, the MQM and its leader, Altaf Hussain, had been a dominant force in Karachi, a metropolis of 20 million on the Arabian Sea. Everyone from CEOs to shopkeepers had felt its wrath, manifested in aggressively enforced strikes that Hussain called whenever a senior MQM figure was killed or arrested, or a political decision went against the party’s wishes. The ensuing turmoil could crash Karachi’s stock market and disrupt almost every aspect of daily life. It didn’t seem to matter that the MQM was as much a street gang as a political party, widely assumed to be funding its activities, and its leaders’ lifestyles, by extorting businesses and smuggling drugs. In Pakistan’s cutthroat political scene, it’s long held the power to make or break careers—most recently engineering the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan by pulling out of the former cricketer’s government.
But in the months leading up to the Press Club protest, the MQM had been under intense pressure. Pakistan’s army, the country’s most powerful institution, had locked up and allegedly “disappeared” dozens of MQM workers, part of a broad 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 anti-government tirades were a form of treason. For the first time in decades, the MQM appeared to be at risk of losing its grip.
Hussain was already in his early 60s, with a drooping face and ample belly, but the tent was decorated with portraits of him in his prime: a square-jawed young man with a bushy mustache and aviator sunglasses. He was clearly a source of inspiration to those present. In between cheers of “long live Altaf”, some pledged to lay down their lives for their bhai—the Urdu word for brother. That afternoon Hussain began delivering a nearly 100-minute tirade against the military and government. He reserved some of his harshest words for media outlets that refused to cover the MQM.
“Why,” he asked the audience, “have you not gone and terminated their broadcasts?”
Someone replied immediately. “We will smash their cameras right now, bhai. Give us the order.”
Around the corner, a mob soon broke through the reception doors of local channel ARY News and began trashing furniture, chasing down security guards and beating them with sticks. The pop of gunshots could be heard outside, and soon several vehicles were on fire. By 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.
Hussain wasn’t around to witness the damage. He delivered his speech by phone from London, where he’s lived in exile for 30 years despite allegations ranging from money laundering to murder. For most of that time he’s remained in firm control of the MQM, directing its operations from the leafy suburb of Mill Hill. Pakistani officials and some British lawmakers have complained repeatedly about his presence, demanding the UK government act to prevent him from operating what they see as a ruthless militant force from its territory. But for the most part he’s been able to operate freely, remaining little known to the British public while commanding a huge network of lieutenants via round-the-clock phone calls. Even in London, long a home for political exiles of all persuasions, Hussain’s case is exceptional. Rather than plotting a return to power like many such emigres, he actually wielded it, holding one of the world’s largest cities—and, often, the balance of national power in Pakistan—in his thrall. “How can you run a huge city, or run a party that runs a huge city, sitting in London?” asked Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2007 to 2010. “It was still a question in my mind.”
This story of how Karachi’s most important power broker came to pull its 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 because of 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 that his inflammatory speech was the product of mental distress.
There’s little doubt, however, that the event served a purpose for Hussain—just like other turmoil he’s fomented during his long career. “I wouldn’t call it violence,” Nadeem Nusrat, then one of Hussain’s top lieutenants, said in an interview soon afterward at the MQM’s grandly-named International Secretariat–a tatty office in Edgware, on London’s northern fringe. “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 swelled with refugees from India, who fled their homes after its partition from 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 few green spaces. An uncountable percentage of the population lives in slums.
Though he was born in Karachi in 1953, Hussain has always identified as a Mohajir—a term that refers to those, like his parents, who left India after partition. In Agra, about 140 miles south of Delhi, Hussain’s father had a prestigious job as a railway-station manager. In Karachi he could only find work in a textile mill, 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 their mother earned sewing clothes. Such downward mobility was common among Mohajirs, who were the target of discrimination by native residents of Sindh, the Pakistani state of which Karachi is the capital. Hussain was enraged by his community’s plight. 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 one protest, when he was 26, he was jailed for nine months and given five lashes.
Religiously moderate and focused on reversing discriminatory measures, the MQM built a large following in Karachi, winning seats in the national and provincial parliaments. It didn’t hurt, according to UK diplomatic cables and two former Pakistani officials, that it received support from the military, which saw the party as a useful bulwark against other political factions. Although Hussain never stood for elected office, he was the inescapable face of the MQM, his portrait plastered all over the many areas it dominated.
From the beginning, the MQM’s operations went well beyond political organizing. 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 yourselves?” The party set up weapons caches around Karachi, stocked with assault rifles for its large militant wing. Meanwhile, Hussain was solidifying his grip on 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 had the names of dissidents passed to police commanders, with instructions to “deal severely with them.” (Hussain denies ever giving instructions to injure or kill anyone).
Even the privileged came under direct threat. One elite Pakistani, who asked not to be identified due to fear of retribution, recalled angering the party by having the thieving manager of his family textile factory arrested, unaware the employee was an MQM donor. One afternoon in 1991, four men with guns forced themselves into the wealthy man’s car, driving him to a farmhouse on the edge of the city. There, they slashed him with razor blades and plunged a power drill into 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 clothes soaked with blood.
In 1992, with Karachi growing more unstable, the military sent a large force into the city, which soon entered open battles with MQM gunmen. Thousands would ultimately be killed, including Hussain’s nephew and eldest brother. Hussain left for the UK, claiming to have been targeted in a failed assassination attempt, and was granted asylum. From then on he would be running the MQM by phone and fax from a run-down semi-detached house, on a quiet street in Mill Hill, that was crammed with other exiles. At the other end of the line in Pakistan, his voice was blasted across rallies from huge speakers.
Four men with guns forced themselves into the wealthy man’s car, driving him to a farmhouse. They slashed him with razor blades and plunged a drill into his legs.
He sought assistance anywhere he could find it. Meeting with Wogan, one MQM official recalled to the Briton in disgust that Hussain had asked for help setting up 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 assist in the fight against Al Qaeda in exchange for protection from the ISI, Pakistan’s feared intelligence agency. He had received British citizenship earlier in 2001, prompting speculation in Pakistan and beyond that he was being rewarded for aiding the UK government. In Parliament, the left-wing MP George Galloway demanded to know why Hussain was “being allowed from a sofa in Edgware to conduct a terrorist campaign and a campaign of extortion of businesses and citizens” in Pakistan. According to two former British officials, the decision to accept his naturalization application was a processing mistake by immigration staff, rather than a reflection of his usefulness. Still, his passport was never revoked, and Hussain remains a UK national today. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office declined to comment, as did the Home Office, which handles immigration matters.
Despite the military’s attempts to snuff it out, the MQM retained a firm hold on much of Karachi–particularly after General Pervez Musharraf took control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup. A Mohajir himself, Musharraf took a hands-off approach to the MQM. But allegations that the party engaged in extortion and other illegal activities never stopped—and whatever their source, the MQM’s funds were flowing to London. Over the years it acquired at least seven British properties, including a grand, redbrick house for Hussain, purchased for more than 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in 2001. He appeared untouchable, secure enough in London that the MQM could hold a glitzy 25th-anniversary bash there in 2009. “It was a colorful and happy evening,” one attendee recalled. “There were no cracks in the MQM then.”
On Sept. 16, 2010, a founding MQM member named Imran Farooq walked out of the Edgware tube station carrying a bag of groceries, heading home to his wife and two young sons. Farooq had gone into hiding during the 1990s military crackdowns, re-appearing in London just before the turn of the millennium. Initially Hussain greeted him like a long-lost brother, embracing Farooq tightly in front of cameras. But later court filings in Pakistan alleged that Hussain saw Farooq as a threat to his leadership. Their relationship soon withered, and Farooq was suspended from the MQM.
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 rushed at Farooq, holding him in place while Kamran bludgeoned his head with a brick, and then stabbed at 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. En route, Kamran made a brief call to Karachi, which Syed would later describe to police. The job was done, Syed recalled him saying.
London has seen more than its share of violence apparently motivated by faraway political vendettas. The murder still crossed a line. Eventually, British police raided a series of properties linked to the MQM, finding hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash. In addition to piles of money, in Hussain’s home they discovered what appeared to be a shopping list of guns and other weaponry, denominated, curiously, in Indian rupees. According to people with knowledge of the investigation, as well as interview transcripts reviewed by Bloomberg News, Metropolitan Police detectives believed some of the funds might 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, to which RAW reports, didn’t respond to a request for comment; the Met declined to comment). Even if that wasn’t true, the cash was clearly of uncertain origin, and the police opened a money-laundering investigation.
The financial probe never led to prosecution, and 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 law enforcement was “taking the matter seriously.” The commissioner demurred, saying only that investigations were ongoing.
But events in Pakistan were beginning to turn against Hussain. In 2013 China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, had unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan across Asia and beyond. As a traditional Chinese ally, Pakistan was to receive as much as $60 billion. Spending all that money productively would require more stability in Karachi—and an MQM no longer able to bring commerce to a halt. The subsequent military crackdown, which prompted Hussain’s 2016 calls for his followers to attack TV studios, brought the party to a political nadir. Its top officials in Karachi renounced Hussain’s leadership, leaving it unclear who was really in charge: those on-the-ground bosses, or an emigré who still commanded 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 siphoned millions of pounds of MQM funds into his own pocket. (Hussain denied wrongdoing). Amid the infighting, the MQM won only seven seats in the 2018 national elections, its lowest total ever. Without input from Hussain, the estranged Karachi wing entered Imran Khan’s coalition government.
Meanwhile, Hussain was back on the radar of British police. In June 2019 officers burst into his house, arresting and then charging him for the “encouragement of terrorism” for his role in the TV station violence.
Late on an overcast afternoon in the summer of 2021, Hussain was waiting inside his Mill Hill property with a small phalanx of followers, wearing a dark suit and his trademark aviators. Arranging a meeting with him hadn’t been straightforward. He’d rescheduled repeatedly, citing the demands of his court cases as well as a bout of Covid-19. During the long postponements, Hussain’s aides had sent stacks of literature by mail: books on his early life, philosophy, and musings on love, along with pamphlets displaying bloody photos of alleged military atrocities against MQM members.
During the four-hour audience that followed, Hussain swung liberally between grievances, arguing that his legal troubles were caused by shadowy actors–above all the army and ISI. “For the past 30 years, I’m in exile,” he said, pausing for effect. “I’m paying the price.” The terrorism charge, police investigations, and lawsuit by his estranged comrades: he planned to fight them all to the end. “I will prefer to die in jail rather than to beg and surrender,” he declared.
Asked about the allegations of murder, extortion, and other crimes attributed over the years to the MQM, and to Hussain himself, he called for his followers to bring in a Koran. 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, render, to order any person to kill,” said one of them, Qasim Ali Raza.
“Mr. Hussain never, ever uttered a single word to attack any locality, to loot, render, to order any person to kill.”
Hussain elaborated, rejecting every allegation in turn. Suggestions of money-laundering and funding from Indian intelligence were “all rubbish,” he said, while the cash found by police in his house was simply there for safekeeping. In particular, Hussain denied any responsibility for Farooq’s murder. The assassins had eventually been arrested in Pakistan, where they told investigators that MQM leaders had instructed them to commit the crime. Though they later recanted those statements, an Islamabad court ruled in 2020 that they’d been acting under orders from Hussain. “I don’t know them,” Hussain said sternly. Instead, he said Farooq’s death was the work of Pakistani intelligence, like so much else. (Pakistan’s military didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Hussain’s denials came just a few weeks after another incident in which someone who crossed him found himself in harm’s way. Nusrat, Hussain’s former aide, had relocated to the US in 2017 after becoming disillusioned with Hussain’s leadership, setting up 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 slammed on the brakes. A black sport-utility vehicle had pulled up. 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’s terrorism trial began in January at Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Court in southwest London. There, prosecutors played the jury enraged speeches Hussain had delivered before the TV station attacks, and presented transcripts of his agitated discussions with MQM comrades, captured by a system the party used to record phone calls. In his closing statements, prosecutor Mark Heywood argued the evidence showed that what Hussain “asked and commanded were acts of terrorism.” Hussain’s lawyer, Rupert Bowers, asked the jury to evaluate Hussain’s words with the “yardstick” of Pakistan’s violent political culture, pointing out that his client had apologized for what ensued. Hussain, he said, “intended no serious violence to come from his speeches at all.” After deliberating for three days, a majority of jurors agreed that Hussain wasn’t guilty. He emerged jubilantly from the courthouse, blowing kisses to the small crowd of supporters.
With another court battle just a month or so away—this time a civil suit brought by some of his erstwhile MQM allies—Hussain’s future still looks bleak. Riven by infighting and under pressure from the army, the party that once dominated the economic heart of Pakistan appears severely weakened. But the MQM has bounced back before. In April, Hussain’s London faction tentatively revived its operations in Karachi, naming two Pakistan-based leaders to serve as his lieutenants. A supporter is also petitioning a Pakistani court to remove the ban on his speeches.
Before climbing into a chauffeured Range Rover to drive home from court, Hussain made clear that he wasn’t finished trying to shape events in the city of his birth. “Inflation has skyrocketed,” he declared, with poor Pakistanis unable to afford fuel or electricity. “Today, I call upon all the institutions as well as the politicians of Pakistan that, for God’s sake, think about the poor people.”–with Ismail Dilawar