Al Qaida still holding American contractor hostage in Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 25, 2012 

WORLD NEWS USPAKISTAN MCT

Warren Weinstein, 70, of Rockville, Maryland, was kidnapped August. 13, 2011, in Lahore, Pakistan. The aid contractor, shown in this undated photo, is being held by militants with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani al Qaida affiliate.

HANDOUT — Mike Redwood/MCT

ISLAMABAD — A kidnapped 70-year-old American aid contractor is alive and in good health, being held by a Pakistani al Qaida affiliate that's likely to use him as a bargaining chip, according to militants, security officials and analysts.

Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped in August from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, is in the custody of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants in North Waziristan, a ranking Pakistani militant told McClatchy. The militant said he'd seen Weinstein last month and at that point "his health was fine."

"He is being provided all available medical treatment, including regular checkups by a doctor and the medicines prescribed for him before he was plucked," the militant, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said last week in an interview.

Little has been revealed publicly about Weinstein's status since December, when Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaida, said in a video that the terrorist network was holding him. Weinstein, who's from Rockville, Md., had heart surgery in 2009 and suffers from high blood pressure and asthma.

Weinstein had spent several years as the Pakistan country manager for J.E. Austin Associates, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Reportedly in ill health, he'd packed his bags and was within hours of leaving Pakistan for good on Aug. 13 when militants kidnapped him from his home in the affluent suburb of Model Town.

Mohammed Imran, a security analyst in Islamabad who maintains contact with Pakistani militant groups, said he'd received messages from militants indicating that Weinstein's captors had no plans to harm him, and that he was being provided with medical care.

"Al Qaida won't kill Weinstein. It will keep him as healthy as is possible in the circumstances, and use him as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Pakistani authorities," he said.

Militants and security analysts said Weinstein might be traded for al Qaida members who were in Pakistani custody, or used as a human shield to prevent security forces from striking its camps in North Waziristan.

They said retired Pakistani militant commanders were acting as interlocutors to negotiate Weinstein's release, but they predicted a drawn-out process that could take years.

U.S. officials said they had no information about Weinstein's status or condition. The American government, including the FBI, is assisting in a Pakistani investigation into the kidnapping, a U.S. official based in Islamabad said.

"We remain concerned for his safety and well-being," said the official, who also spoke only on the condition of anonymity due to the issue's sensitivity. He declined to provide additional information about the case, citing privacy considerations.

A woman who answered the phone this week at Weinstein's Maryland home declined to comment. A family friend, John Bestic, said, "Because of the psychological impact to the family, the position we are taking is no comment until evidence or proof of life can be corroborated."

A daring rescue — such as the Navy SEAL operation announced Wednesday that freed two aid workers, including an American woman, who'd been held captive by Somali pirates — appeared highly unlikely in Weinstein's case. Pakistan remains furious over the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden near Islamabad last May, calling it a breach of its sovereignty that badly damaged its relationship with Washington.

Militants, criminal groups or separatists have abducted seven foreigners over the past six months in Pakistan, underscoring deteriorating security conditions in the country.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group is the "chief handmaiden of al Qaida" in Pakistan, said Christine Fair, an expert on Pakistan at Georgetown University. She added that the group's operatives have "overlapping memberships" in other Pakistani radical Sunni Muslim organizations, including the Pakistani Taliban.

The group, which the United States and Pakistan consider a terrorist organization, formed in 1996. It's mostly staged spectacular attacks on Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims. But it was blamed for the 1997 killings of four U.S. oil workers in the port city of Karachi and a suicide bombing against Shiites on Dec. 6 in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

A judicial review board in the Pakistani province of Punjab refused this month to grant a government request to extend the house arrest of one of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi's founders, Malik Ishaq, because of what it said was a lack of evidence of his involvement in terrorist activities.

Ahmed Omar Farooq assumed charge of the group after a U.S. drone strike killed its leader, Ilyas Kashmiri, in North Waziristan last June. He's also succeeded Kashmiri as the chief of al Qaida's military operations in Pakistan, making him the only Pakistani who's trusted enough to be included in the terrorist network's hierarchy, the militants and security officials said.

Pakistani security analysts said Farooq fit the profile of an al Qaida ideologue. Unlike Kashmiri, he's a member of Pakistan's social elite: His mother, Amira Ehsan, was a member of Parliament in the 1980s under the Islamist military regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Farooq graduated from the International Islamic University, Islamabad, which was a hive of militant Islamism in the 1980s and '90s. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Osama bin Laden's Palestinian mentor, taught there in the 1980s and may have influenced Farooq.

Farooq went underground in December 2009, after four militants whom he'd housed stormed a Rawalpindi mosque used by military families and killed 40 people — including many active and retired servicemen and 17 of their children — during Friday prayers.

Farooq also is holding captive Amir Aftab Malik, the son-in-law of a former chairman of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Tariq Majeed. Malik was kidnapped from Lahore a year before Weinstein was, from an adjacent suburb and in similar circumstances.

Security analysts said it wasn't yet clear whether Weinstein's captors were involved in the kidnapping last week of two Western aid workers — an Italian and a German — from the central city of Multan, where they were working to help Pakistanis recover from the massive 2010 floods that rendered 20 million people homeless.

As the country manager for J.E. Austin for the past seven years, Weinstein had piloted the creation of public-private companies to develop the dairy, granite and marble, and gems and jewelry sectors of Pakistan's struggling economy.

Some of his work took him to Pakistan's militant-infested tribal areas, prompting him to don the local garb, the shalwar kameez, and to acquire a working knowledge of the regional Pashto language in addition to his fluent Urdu, the national language, a former colleague said.

"He did everything it took to make the distrusting tribesmen and administrators comfortable with what he was doing," said Steve Manuel, a former colleague of Weinstein's in Pakistan who now lives in San Jose, Calif.

"Amazingly, Warren said he never felt in danger in this most unpredictable and dangerous area of Pakistan."

(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay and intern Kelsi Loos contributed to this article from Washington.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.

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