NEW YORK - A campaign of high-profile kidnappings has armed the Pakistani Taliban and its allies with millions of dollars in ransom being used by them to galvanise a sophisticated network of jihadi gangs whose reach spans the country, according to a US media report.

Citing unnamed Pakistani security officials, The New York Times said wealthy industrialists, academicians, Western aid workers and family members of military officers have been targets in a spree that began three years ago, that has now spread to every major Pakistani city, reaching the wealthiest neighbourhood.

For many hostages, the Times said in a dispatch from Lahore, the experience means a harrowing journey into the heart of Waziristan, the fearsome Taliban redoubt along the Afghan border that has borne the brunt of a CIA drone-strike campaign.

Though kidnappings have been a centuries-old scourge in parts of Pakistan, the newspaper said what has changed now is the level of Taliban involvement and involves raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Citing cases of 70-year-old German aid worker and his 24-year-old Italian colleague who disappeared from the city of Multan on January 20, Pakistan officials confirm now that they are being held in Waziristan. Quoting a young Punjabi businessman who spent six months in Taliban captivity in Waziristan described his ordeal as terrifying time of grimy cells, clandestine journeys, brutal beatings and grinding negotiations with his distraught family. The businessman said that his captivity brought him face to face with suicide bombers undergoing indoctrination and training with mock explosive vests. “Their mantra was: ‘one button and you go to heaven’,” he recalled.

Hostages include Shahbaz Taseer, son of assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, two Swiss tourists, the son-in-law of a retired four-star general and Warren Wienstein, a 70-year-old American snatched from his home last August and said to be held by Al-Qaeda.

The business is run like a mobster racket. Pakistani and foreign militant commanders, based in Waziristan, give the orders, but it is a combination of hired criminals and ‘Punjabi Taliban’ who snatch the hostages from their homes, vehicles and workplaces.

Ransom demands typically range between $500,000 and $ 2.2 million although the final price is often one-tenth of the asking amount, security experts say.

The kidnappers’ methods are sophisticated: surveillance of targets that can last months; sedative injections to subdue victims after abduction; video demands via Skype; use of different gangs for different tasks, often with little knowledge of one another.

Victims tend to be wealthy - the police have recovered lists of prominent stock market players from kidnappers.

In captivity, the hostages are offered strange privileges like a treatise by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, also made to watch on laptops, videos of Pakistani soldiers being executed and carefully chosen excerpts from Hollywood titles: Muslims killing Christian crusaders in Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, or Sylvester Stallone battling Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan in ‘Rambo 3’.

“Waziristan is very safe for the Taliban; the place is crawling with them. Even the non-Taliban carry weapons so it’s hard to know who is who,” a freed hostage said.

Not all militant kidnappings are Taliban-related, the Times said. In 2009, nationalist rebels in Balochistan held an American United Nations official for two months; Baloch nationalists are also suspects in the case of a British Red Cross doctor snatched from Quetta in January.

But no group can match the Taliban’s reach, it said. In Karachi, kidnappers lurk in the sprawling slums, targeting rich business families.

Sharfuddin Memon, an adviser to the home minister of Sindh, said militants recently demanded $6.6 million in return for a wealthy industrialist. But in December, the police cornered the kidnappers on the city outskirts; after a shootout, three were killed and the hostage walked free.

“We’ve learned to tell the difference,” Memon said. “With local criminals, it can take six weeks to resolve a case; with the Taliban it’s more like six months.”

The Taliban’s extended range is most striking, however, in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where it has allied with criminal gangs to mount daring abductions, often in broad daylight, the report said.