An American aid worker kidnapped last year by al Qaida militants in Pakistan has made an impassioned video appeal to President Barack Obama to save his life.
Seventy-year-old Warren Weinstein, abducted by a squad of armed men from his home in the eastern city of Lahore in August, begged Obama to meet his captors’ demands in the video released by al Qaida’s media arm – the first footage of Weinstein to surface since his capture.
“My life is in your hands, Mr. President. If you accept the demands, I live. If you don’t accept the demands, then I die,” Weinstein said in the recording, which was released late Sunday and made available on YouTube.
The video – whose recording date was unclear – followed an audio recording released in December in which al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri acknowledged holding Weinstein and demanded that the United States end air strikes against his group and release its prisoners being held in American jails. Among those held is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was arraigned at the Guantanamo Bay detention center Saturday along with four other defendants accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Weinstein spoke calmly, dressed in a traditional Pakistani outfit of baggy trousers and shirt, and appearing against a plain white backdrop. He said that he’d like his wife, Elaine, to know that he was well and receiving his medication for heart problems he suffered from before his capture. In front of him was a table with books and some food, which Weinstein ate as he spoke, as if to show he was being fed.
Addressing Obama directly in the video, Weinstein said, “I know that you have two daughters that you enjoy. You are with them, you spend time with them, but I get the feeling that you’re not paying any attention or care about my problem or my needs, and you’re not paying attention and you don’t give much importance to my situation.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama was aware of the video but didn’t believe that he had seen it. He said that the White House was “greatly concerned for Mr. Weinstein’s safety and his well-being” and called for his immediate release, but he said, “We cannot and will not negotiate with al Qaida.”
Humanitarian work in Pakistan has been rocked by a series of kidnappings of locals and foreigners, including the beheading last month of a captured British aid worker in the western city of Quetta, who was presumed also to have been in the hands of Islamic extremists. While the abductions often have ideological motives, they’re also a means for Pakistani militants to raise money.
American aid professionals in Pakistan help oversee a wide array of programs funded by $1.5 billion in annual U.S. civilian assistance to a country that’s supposed to be a key strategic ally of Washington.
Weinstein, who has a home in Rockville, Md., and was working at the time of his capture for a private American aid contractor, J.E. Austin Associates, also spelled out a career in public service that includes a stint with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government body dedicated to humanitarian assistance.
“I’ve done a lot of service for my country, and I would hope that my country will now look after me and take care of me and meet the demands of the mujahedeen,” or holy warriors, Weinstein said. “I think that it is important that you act quickly.”
Analysts believe that Weinstein is being held in Pakistan’s tribal area, the lawless border zone that runs along the border with Afghanistan and where U.S. officials have suggested that Zawahiri also is hiding. Missile strikes by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft in the tribal belt, which continue despite opposition from Pakistan, have killed more than three dozen high- and mid-ranking al Qaida operatives in recent years.
Last week marked the anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in a town north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Speaking Monday during a visit to India, Pakistan’s archenemy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called al Qaida’s presence in Pakistan a top concern.
“We want to disable al Qaida and we have made a lot of progress in doing that,” Clinton told an audience in the eastern city of Kolkata. “There are several significant leaders still on the run. Zawahiri, who inherited the leadership from bin Laden, is somewhere, we believe, in Pakistan.”
In response, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said that Pakistan had no information on Zawahiri’s whereabouts.
“Al Qaida is a mutual enemy of Pakistan and the U.S.,” Khar told a parliamentary committee.
Al Qaida works closely with the Pakistani Taliban and other domestic extremist groups, which analysts say are more likely to carry out kidnappings. While Pakistan’s government cooperates in the fight against al Qaida, it has a more ambivalent attitude toward other jihadist groups and is currently seeking a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban.
Separately, on Sunday, Pakistani militants captured soldiers and executed two of them, sticking their severed heads on poles in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, part of the tribal area.
Steven Thomma of the Washington Bureau contributed from Washington.