KARACHI, Pakistan — The holy month of Muharram is a dangerous time in Pakistan. It marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar but is also a period of mourning for Shiite Muslims. Each year, in the overflowing metropolis of Karachi, they take to the streets in processions by the thousands to observe Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, and one of the holiest days of the year for Shiite Muslims. It is often a bloody affair, and not just because of the ritual self-flagellation in which many of the devout partake. Over the past four years, with astonishing punctuality, Shiite processions and mosques have been brutally attacked by Sunni supremacist militants bent on starting a sectarian war.
In 2009, two bombs exploded along the parade route, splattering the concrete street with human entrails and shredded clothing, and killing 43. The following year, on Nov. 11, the Pakistani Taliban drove a car bomb right up to Karachi's elite counterterrorism Crime Investigation Department, destroying the building and killing 18. And in late November 2012, in Orangi Town neighborhood, two bomb blasts killed five people, as the city's undaunted Shiites continued with their mourning processions.
Understandably, Karachi's streets were tense on the ninth night of Muharram last year, as final preparations were being made for the Ashura festivities. Nervous government officials had cut cell-phone service across the city for 11 hours that day, hoping to prevent attacks. Some 10,000 police officers had been dispatched to the main parade route, though in a city with an estimated 20 million people, even this show of force was only a drop in the bucket.
As night fell on Saturday, Nov. 24, the deputy superintendent of police, Zameer Abbasi, was out making the rounds. He had decided to take one last patrol when he received a phone call around 9:20 p.m. about a small explosion at a nearby apartment building. "My first thought was that this might be a high-value target, a terrorist who had planned to target the procession but had made a mistake with the bomb," Abbasi later told me. When he arrived at the scene, smoke was pouring from a third-floor apartment window.
Abbasi didn't wait for the bomb squad to arrive. He quickly cordoned off the street and raced inside, fearing that there might be more explosives or a suicide bomber. When he got to the apartment, however, the scene was unlike anything he had seen before. A red chemical had been sprayed across the white walls. There was what seemed to be a laboratory: conical flasks connected by rubber tubing, sacks and boxes labeled with the names of chemicals, a small centrifuge. A silvery blue powder was spilled across the bathroom floor, and blood-red footprints crisscrossed the living room. "I thought this might not be the kind of blast I thought it was," Abbasi said. "It looked like some kind of chemical reaction had happened." He didn't know it at the time, but he had just made the first bust of a Pakistani meth lab.
IT'S HARD FOR AN OUTSIDER to understand the pace of change in Karachi these days. Statistics don't really do it justice. But here's one: From 2000 to 2010, Karachi's population grew more than 80 percent. That's roughly equivalent to adding more than New York City's entire population in just a decade. (For all the talk of the staggering boom of Chinese metropolises, the world's next fastest-growing city -- Shenzhen -- grew only 56 percent, adding fewer than 5 million people.) Over the past decade, millions of Pakistanis have fled the fighting and terrorism in their country's northwest to settle in Karachi, Pakistan's pulsing commercial heart -- home to banks and corporations, shipping and transport, entertainment and arts. But the flood of migrants in search of jobs and opportunity has also brought Karachi some less savory additions.
Gangs tied to political parties have long operated in the poorer parts of the city, running extortion rings and land-grab schemes. More recently, Pakistani Taliban militants have also gained a foothold in the city, carving out territory in neighborhoods like Manghopir, where they run criminal and smuggling rackets, rob banks, and administer a cruel and terrifying justice. From restive Baluchistan province, in Pakistan's west, a war economy driven by more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan has opened Karachi and its ports to narcotics and weapons smuggling. Pitched firefights that go on for days between gangs, or between gangs and the police, are not uncommon.