ISLAMABAD–The miraculous rescue of Ali Haider Gilani, the abducted son of a former Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gialni, was made possible when US Navy SEALS carried out a covert raid in the Gayan district of the Paktika province of Afghanistan on May 10, 2016 to target a key al-Qaeda linked Pakistani Taliban leader from South Waziristan, Khalid Mehsud alias Saeed Khan Sajna and his deputy, Zia Mehsud.

While Sajna was lucky to have survived the raid, Zia and another hostage taker were shot dead by the SEALS.

Ali Haider Gilani
Ali Haider Gilani

The US State Department had tagged Sajna as a global terrorist on Oct. 21, 2014 and slapped sanctions on him under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists. Sajna had been involved in fighting against the US-led allied Forces in Afghanistan which was the prime reason for his being tagged by US State Department. Giving reasons for tagging him a key global terrorist, the US State Department notification said that Sajna, who has had experience fighting in Afghanistan, was not only involved in the May 2011 attack on the Mehran Naval base in Karachi, but is also accused of masterminding the April 2012 Bannu jail break in which 400 al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked terrorists were freed.

The fedayeen attackers who targeted the Mehran Naval base in Karachi had destroyed two precious US-supplied P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes, worth billions of rupees. While strongly criticizing Sajna’s tagging by the US State Department, his spokesman Azam Tariq had said in an audio message: “The American decision is recognition of our jihad against Jews and Christians. We thank Allah Almighty that infidels are offering bounty for our leaders.”

Stealth helicopter raid

US Navy SEAL (US gov. photo)
US Navy SEAL (US gov. photo)

As the American drones had spotted the suspicious hideout of the Sajna group on the Afghan side of the Pakistani border in the day time on May 10, 2016, the navy SEALS were dispatched in a stealth Chinook helicopter the same night to possibly capture them alive. While Sajna was away at the time of the US raid, Zia Mehsud and the other hostage taker decided to abandon their hideout at dusk along with their captive to go atop a high rocky mountain, in a preemptive move to seek refuge.

The party of three started climbing the steep cliff-like mountain which took them almost two hours. As their feet touched the mountain top, which was an expanse of a flat surface, a stealth helicopter suddenly appeared in the dark sky. The rest is history as both the Taliban militants were eventually shot by the raiding party after they offered resistance and tried to use their weapons.

To jog memories a bit, it might be recalled that Ali Haider Gilani, son of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, was abducted from the historic Multan district of Punjab province on May 9, 2013 during the general election campaign. The abductors killed Ali’s accompanying bodyguard and driver before forcefully pushing him into their vehicle. Ali was contesting a seat in the Punjab provincial assembly, while three other members of the family, including his two elder brothers, were running for the national assembly seats.

Armed US MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis in Afghanistan
Armed US MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis in Afghanistan

Al-Qaeda-linked abduction

During subsequent investigations by Pakistani intelligence agencies, it transpired that Ali Gilani was seized in a joint operation conducted by al-Qaeda-linked Punjabi Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants who took their hostage to Faisalabad district of Punjab the same day by road. They kept him in Faisalabad for the next three months and then decided to shift him to the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan. He was made to wear a burqa and stuffed into a car along with two other burqa-clad men.

The purpose of the camouflage was to keep him shrouded from the 48 military check posts that would not dare demand a woman lift her veil for identification. The men accompanying them had pistols to combat any misadventure from Ali Haider Gilani and his inmates. The heavily forested ravines of the Shawal Valley are home to Taliban hideouts and the valley itself is a key smuggling route into neighbouring Afghanistan. The area is a stronghold of Khan Saeed Sajna.

Once in the Shawal area, Ali Gilani found himself in the custody of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) led by Maulana Asim Umar, a former commander of the Punjabi Taliban. The launching of AQIS had been announced by none other than the al-Qaeda ameer, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, on Sept. 3, 2014, in a 55-minute video posted online. In the middle of August 2013, a hitherto unknown militant outfit — “Mujahideen Al-Mansuri Brigade” — claimed that Ali Haider Gilani was in its captivity.

The group leader Abu-Yazeed contacted the mother and wife of Ali Haider Gilani separately on phone and told them that he was in their custody, adding that he wouldn’t be released unless his demands are met. The major demand was the release of 22 militants belonging to al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Punjabi Taliban.

Other foreign hostages taken

However, it was quite hard for the Pakistani authorities to fulfil the demand given the fact that the Pakistan Army had already launched a massive military operation against the TTP in North Waziristan in June 2014. Once in Shawal area of South Waziristan, Ali Gilani came to know that there were several other foreign hostages too including an American, a Chinese, a German and an Italian. Their chief captor or jailer was the deputy ameer of AQIS, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who actually belonged to Islamabad and had completed his masters’ degree in Islamic Education from the International Islamic University (IIU), Islamabad.

US hostage Warren Weinstein
US hostage Warren Weinstein

His real name was Raja Mohammad Salman. The Chinese and German abductees were subsequently freed after their governments paid heavy ransom but the American national, Warren Weinstein and Ali Haider Gilani remained unlucky because their governments had refused to release prisoners to ensure their freedom.

Ali Gilani spent his next 18 months of captivity in the highly uninhabited Shawal area on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border along with Warren Weinstein. Both captives experienced the bitter-sweet twist of fate in different ways. Warren, a US Aid worker and director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates who was kidnapped from the Model Town locality of Lahore in August 2011, had reportedly converted to Islam and had changed his name from Warren to Ishaq.

The two were provided books to read and Gilani and Weinstein found a common interest in the novel series Vampire Diaries by L. J. Smith. They both shared the books and discussed them. However, in the end, he remained unlucky to have been killed accidentally by none other than the American CIA in a Jan. 14, 2015 US drone strike in the Shawal, as announced by President Barack Obama at a White House press conference on April 23, 2015. The drone strike also killed Ustad Ahmed Farooq and an Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto.

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.”

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