KARACHI, Pakistan – It started with a robbery, but the gang that burst into a branch of Al-Habib Bank in this teeming port city had no interest in striking it rich, and the university graduate driving the getaway car was just getting started on a master plan for terror.
The heist, carried out in daylight and with AK-47 assault rifles, is emblematic of a new brand of Islamic militant — more educated but less established and largely cut off from traditional sources of terror funding, Pakistani police and intelligence officials told The Associated Press.
Atta-ur Rehman and his Jundullah (search) gang walked away from the bank in Karachi on Nov. 18 with just under $70,000, enough to finance an eight-month wave of attacks against the U.S. Consulate, a Christian Bible studies group, a peace concert by an Indian singer, a police station and a senior Pakistani military general.
At least 17 people died in the assaults, all carried out in the urban sprawl of Karachi (search), a city of 15 million that's honeycombed with terror hideouts and Al Qaeda safehouses. There's no indication Al Qaeda had a hand in Jundullah's spree, but some gang members are believed to have spent time at training camps with top members of Usama bin Laden's network.
"Normally, when robbers loot a bank they split the cash and go their separate ways, but the Jundullah gang only spent about 500,000 rupees [$8,600] from their heist and they stuck together," said Fayyaz Leghari, chief of operations for the Karachi police. "They were not ordinary robbers. They saw the bank job as a way to fund their holy mission."
Leghari said police recovered the rest of the money when they arrested 10 members of the gang following a June 10 assassination attempt on Ahsan Saleem Hayat, the city's military commander and a close aide to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search). Hayat survived but 11 others were killed.
The group, whose name means Allah's Brigade, was apparently saving the cash to finance more attacks.
"They have a record of each penny spent, all of it they believe in a noble cause, and they are not denying what they have done," said another police investigator involved in the interrogations of Jundullah suspects, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Police and intelligence officials believe there are about a half dozen other militant bands operating in Karachi, each with about 15 to 20 members.
In addition to Jundullah, officials say they are aware of two cells that call themselves Khuddam Uddin, meaning Servants of The Religion, and al-Furqan — The Distinguisher. Other group names aren't known.
Most of the new groups are offshoots of Al Qaeda-linked Sunni sectarian organizations like Lashkhar-e-Jhangvi (search) and Sipah-e-Sihaba (search), which have killed hundreds of Shiite Muslims, or Kashmiri militant organizations like Jaish-e-Mohammed (search) and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (search). They're motivated by centuries-old Shiite-Sunni feuding, and more recent anger over the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unlike their parent organizations with well-established networks for raising money — from Arab sympathizers, Al Qaeda, and jihadi-linked charities — the smaller groups have improvised.
Robberies, drug trafficking and other crimes have long been used by militant groups across the globe — such as during the abduction of heiress Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (search) in 1975 — but an increased reliance on them in Pakistan may be a sign that Washington's push to shut terrorists off from their financing is having an effect.
Jameel Yusuf, the former head of a civilian-police counterterrorism task force who now runs a private firm dedicated to fighting carjackings, said there have been several other suspicious robberies in the province linked to militant groups.
He said a truck filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of tobacco was hijacked in October 2003 and found outside a mosque known as a haven for militants.
In August, thieves made away with thousands of dollars from an electronics market in another suspicious case. A police official said authorities were also looking into a militant link to a recent holdup at a Karachi moneychangers office.
"It's a totally new phenomenon," Yusuf said.
Pakistani news reports have said the new groups are working together, and have formed a leadership committee called Brigade 313. Leghari, however, said authorities have seen no evidence of such coordination.
The new groups are much smaller than the militant groups authorities dealt with in the past. "That means that if you arrest one guy, he might lead you to one or two others, but that's it," said a senior police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Most of the militants that comprise the new groups trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan as guests of the former Taliban regime, which was then an ally of Pakistan.
They are motivated by a hatred for the United States and for Musharraf, who they see as abandoning their cause following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
"We nurtured them for years, and then the government did a U-turn," said one senior Karachi police official. "If you adopt a son and then you throw him out when he is 23 years old, of course he is going to be angry."
He spoke on condition he not be further identified.
Musharraf survived two assassination attempts in December, and his choice for prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, was nearly blown up in July.
Security ties to the militants may not be entirely broken. Several army officers have been detained in the attacks on Musharraf, and police and intelligence sources say an army major and several other officials are being interrogated on suspicion they helped Jundullah carry out the attack on the Karachi general. The government has not confirmed any such arrests.
Authorities say the fledgling militant groups are gaining in sophistication, aided by highly educated, deeply committed leaders.
Ur-Rehman, who personally participated in the bank heist and several carjackings, has a master's degree in statistics from the University of Karachi. Other group members were also university graduates, and two doctors have been arrested for alleged links to the group and for treating alleged terrorists.
In addition, Pakistani authorities in June arrested a Karachi computer expert, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan (search), on suspicion of links with thousands of Al Qaeda terrorists worldwide. That arrest helped lead to the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (search), a Tanzanian with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
"You can recruit an illiterate man to do a suicide bombing," Yusuf explained. "But you need an educated man to lead him."