US wants to recover remains of hostage killed by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
ISLAMABAD–Almost 16 months after the tragic death of Dr Warren Weinstein – a US national who was abducted from Pakistan to bargain the release of key al-Qaeda and Taliban militants arrested by the American and Pakistani authorities, US military and intelligence sleuths are still making frantic efforts to recover his remains. They’re seeking to take them back to his widow who had severely criticized the Obama administration for its failure to ensure his release and then for killing him in a CIA-led drone attack.
Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old Urdu-speaking aid worker who was on contract with the USAID, was abducted by a group of ten armed men from his J-Block residence in Model Town area of Lahore on Aug. 13, 2011, just four days before he was supposed to return to the US after completing his tenure. At the time of his abduction, Weinstein was helping Pakistani families escape poverty. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) helped facilitate a $250,000 ransom payment to kidnappers from the Weinstein family in a bid to secure his release and safe return to the US. However, the kidnappers didn’t release Weinstein and instead traded him to another group in North Waziristan, which wanted to trade him for prisoners held in Pakistani jails.
The Pakistani authorities had arrested two Uzbek kidnappers of Weinstein two years later in July 2013 who had told their interrogators that they had already sold out the USAID executive to Waziristan-based al-Qaeda. The abduction was masterminded by two al-Qaeda-linked Uzbek brothers – Mohammad Ali Uzbek and Naimatullah Uzbek – who belonged to the Waziristan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The arrested Uzbeks are believed to be the relatives of Tahir Yuldashev, the former IMU leader who had been killed in a CIA drone strike in South Waziristan in August 2009. Pakistani intelligence agencies had concluded that the key reason behind kidnapping Weinstein was his being a “Jewish American,” just like Daniel Pearl, a US journalist who was abducted from Karachi in January 2002 and then slaughtered a few days later by al-Qaeda’s then chief operational commander, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
Kidnapped after Abbottabad
Three months before Warren Weinstein’s kidnapping – President Barrack Obama had announced that the US Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden in the Abbottabad area of Pakistan close to a military cantonment. Al-Qaeda released a video through its publicity arm on Dec. 1, 2011, almost four months after the kidnapping, which is the first significant communication from anyone claiming to be holding Dr Weinstein. “I tell the captive soldiers of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, we have not forgotten you,” so said the al-Qaeda ameer Dr Ayman al-Zawahri in a statement. “In order to free you, we have taken hostage a Jewish American, Warren Weinstein, who is a former employee and current contractor with the American government in the US aid program in Pakistan.” But the al-Qaeda video showed no picture of Weinstein at that time for unknown reasons.
In a subsequent letter addressed to the family members of Weinstein, al-Qaeda had stated: “Your government wants Warren Weinstein to die in prison so that it may absolve itself of responsibility regarding his case. Your government has not made any serious efforts for the release of the prisoner,” the letter read. The al-Qaeda men holding Weinstein had not only demanded the release of militants, they had also demanded putting an end to US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen in exchange for Weinstein’s release which had killed several top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The truth remains that the White House never negotiated his release. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, had made it clear in September 2013: “We have long said that we don’t make concessions to people who kidnap US citizens.”
But the fact remains that contrary to its stated policy, the Obama administration did strike a deal with the kidnappers of a US soldier, Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken hostage by the Haqqani Network from Afghanistan in June 2009 and was finally freed in May 2014 in a prisoner swap deal in which several high profile Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo were released.
Weinstein’s family was hoping against hope, that he would be the next American to return home. But their hopes were shattered in April 2015 when the Obama administration announced that Weinstein was accidentally killed, along with captive Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, in a Jan. 14, 2015 US drone strike against an al-Qaeda compound in the Shawal area of North Waziristan. He was being held hostage along with Ali Haider Gilani, the son of the former Pakistan Prime Minister [Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani] who was finally rescued by the US Navy SEALs in a commando operation in Afghanistan on May 10, 2016.
Convert to Islam?
Al-Qaeda had published photos of Dr Warren Weinstein after his death, asserting online that the Jewish aid worker had converted to Islam in captivity before being killed by an American drone. The statement added: Warren Weinstein was a “hard-working student of Islam,” who was treated as a “beloved elder” by the mujahedeen and whose corpse emitted a “mysterious but pleasant fragrance that mesmerized everyone.” In the two photos posted on Twitter by al-Qaeda after his death, Weinstein was shown in a prayer pose. In a third photo, his body was shown wrapped in a traditional white shroud reserved for Muslim burial.
During debriefing by senior US intelligence officials at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan after his rescue, Ali Haider Gilani reconfirmed to the interviewing American officials that one of their drone strikes had caused the death of Weinstein who had changed his name to Baba Ishaq after converting to Islam. Ali Haider Gilani, who had lived to see the day despite being a few meters away from the droned site in the Shawal valley, was asked by a senior US official George Fletcher to provide him all possible information about Weinstein’s kidnappers since they wanted to recover his remains.
Ali Haider Gilani told the American official that Weinstein was being held by the North Waziristan-based Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) which is led by Commander Asim Omar. Warren and an Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, an aid worker, were killed by an American drone strike on Jan. 14, 2014, along with four al-Qaeda militants that had been targeted after months of surveillance. According to Ali Gilani, the prime target of the US drone hit was Ustad Ahmed Farooq, the deputy ameer of AQIS. Gilani told the American official that Weinstein’s body was disposed of as per Islamic rituals, i.e., in a grave in the Datta Khel area of the Shawal Valley, since he had converted to Islam.
In fact, ever since his death, the Americans have been in contact with the Pakistani authorities for aid in looking and locating the part of that area where Warren’s remains can be found. But the problem with the Pakistani authorities was that despite having launched a massive military operation in North Waziristan in June 2014 against the network of al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, they were not able to get hold of the Shawal Valley as it was hard to dispatch ground troops there. It was only in April 2016 that the Pakistan Army finally announced having cleared an 800 kilometer area in Shawal in the last phase of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Waziristan. Therefore, US efforts to recover the remains of Warren Weinstein have also intensified, not only at the government-to-government level but also privately.
‘Spider Group’ seeks body
The Americans are said to have engaged members of the Spider Group, which consists largely of retired Pakistani military and intelligence officers. Most of the Spider Group members, who are hired by American diplomats stationed in Pakistan, have had a long experience dealing with militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Based in the border city of Peshawar, which is a gateway to Afghanistan, the Spider Group members are paid handsome money and charged with tracking the activities and movements of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants that operate in a largely autonomous belt of tribal areas nearby. According to the findings of the Spider Group members, Weinstein’s body had been taken out from his original place of burial and shifted to another grave.
In a strange development shortly after the news of Weinstein’s death was made public by the US government, a Pakistan-based militant group had secretly contacted his family members in the United States, demanding ransom payment for the return of his body. The Wall Street Journal had reported on Aug. 20, 2015 that the Obama administration not only ruled out the chances of paying the ransom but it also advised the family against doing so to get the body back. The US administration was of the view that paying ransom for a dead body could encourage militants to think they could get paid even if they kill their hostages. On the other hand, however, the Italian government had successfully recovered the dead body of its national — Lo Porto — who was killed along with Weinstein. The Italian government had announced that it took unspecified steps to bring the body to Rome from Pakistan and declined to explain whether that included paying a ransom.
The retrieval of the Italian’s dead body and the failure of the American administration to recover the remains of Weinstein almost 16 months after his death is extremely painful for his family members, especially for his widow. Mrs Elaine Weinstein, said in her April 2015 statement after Warren’s death: “Unfortunately, the assistance we received from the US government to recover my husband was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years. We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies will finally prompt the US Government to take its responsibilities to supporting hostages and their families. I am disappointed in the government and military in Pakistan. Warren’s safe return should have been a priority for them based on his contributions to their country … I do not understand why the US and Pakistani governments did not immediately go to the location of the strike to claim the bodies when it became apparent that an American and Italian were killed.”
The killing of Weinstein was more tragic in the sense that the blame for his death was accepted by the same person – US President Obama – to whom he had been making fervent video appeals for years to save his life. In his last video message released by al-Qaeda on Dec. 25, 2013 Weinstein had pleaded with Obama to negotiate with the captors for his release, saying he felt “abandoned and forgotten” by his country. “My life is in your hands, Mr. President,” Dr Weinstein had stated in another video message released in September 2012. “If you accept their demands, I live. If you don’t accept their demands, then I die,” he had stated. However, Weinstein would have hardly imagined that he would be killed in a CIA-sponsored drone attack one day under the orders of the same person to whom he is making appeals to save his life. The American media had described Dr Warren Weinstein as “the forgotten man of the American war against al-Qaeda.”
Shortly after his staff issued a statement announcing Weinstein’s death, a visibly upset Obama came to the White House briefing room to make a rare personal apology: “As President and commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all counter terrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the life of Warren Weinstein,” President Obama said in a press conference at the White House on April 22, 2015 while announcing that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in January 2015 had killed two hostages held by al-Qaeda. Obama gave few details of the operation that killed them, saying: “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes – sometimes deadly mistakes – can occur.” Obama defended the legality of the drone strike, adding that there had been no evidence that the two hostages were present at what the intelligence determined was an al-Qaeda compound.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.”