U.S. government on sidelines of talks over aid worker’s kidnapping

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.
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. Mike Redwood/MCT

More than a year after his al Qaida kidnappers provided proof that American hostage Warren Weinstein was still alive, the case of the 73-year-old aid contractor rests in the hands of three Pakistani intermediaries who are negotiating for his release, people privy to the negotiations say.

With the U.S. government adamant it won’t negotiate with al Qaida for Weinstein’s release, the Obama administration is a spectator to the talks. American diplomats and FBI officials receive periodic briefings from Pakistani police and security agencies investigating the kidnapping, and from the three Pakistani intermediaries.

But as in the case of American hostages who were held by the Islamic State in Syria, two of whom were executed over the summer, the U.S. government appears unwilling to engage directly in meeting whatever demands Weinstein’s kidnappers have made. Some critics of the policy have suggested it dooms kidnapped Americans to likely death in captivity, while other countries’ citizens go free after ransoms have been paid.

The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan declined to discuss Weinstein’s situation, citing U.S. privacy laws.

Weinstein, who has a home in Rockville, Md., was kidnapped in August 2011 from his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, just hours before he was scheduled to depart the country. Proof that he was still alive last came in a video posted in December 2013 on militant Islamist websites, the third showing him. In it, Weinstein could be seen eating at a table, upon which a selection of books had been placed. He said he was receiving medication for a heart condition.

Addressing President Barack Obama, Weinstein complained he was being ignored by the U.S. government.

“I get the feeling that you’re not . . . paying attention and you don’t give much importance to my situation,” he said.

Since then, the only public communication from his al Qaida captors was a statement posted online in August, which urged the Weinstein family to pressure the U.S. government to negotiate for his release or risk his “dying a lonely death.”

Interest in the case was revived this week when an anti-terrorist court Wednesday ordered the execution of one of the alleged kidnappers, al Qaida operative Hafiz Imran Yousaf. The court found Yousaf guilty of terrorism, kidnap for ransom and trespass with murderous intent, and said he should be hanged.

The people knowledgeable about the Weinstein negotiations spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they, too, feared they could be held liable for prosecution under U.S. privacy laws. They said that the three Pakistani go-betweens are frequently contacted by the captors, who call from different Pakistani cellphone numbers, indicating Weinstein is likely still being held in the North Waziristan tribal area bordering eastern Afghanistan.

That area has become a war zone since June, when the Pakistani military launched a campaign against insurgents. The campaign, however, was widely expected, and Weinstein’s captors had plenty of time to make pre-emptive arrangements to avoid detection, according to Pakistani militants who in January 2012 helped McClatchy confirm that Weinstein was alive and in good health.

The people knowledgeable about the talks said the campaign has not disrupted the parleys between the intermediaries and Weinstein’s captors, nor have they been upset by Pakistan’s declaration of a national war against terrorism after militants massacred 132 children Dec. 16 at an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar.

They said Weinstein’s kidnappers had broken contact last March with other militants who’d previously been allowed access to where Weinstein was being held. By cutting off contact, the captors sought to avoid disclosure of their location by militants captured by the Pakistani military, according to the Pakistani militants, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from al Qaida and arrest by the Pakistani authorities.

The militants said Weinstein may have been moved before the June launch of the military campaign in North Waziristan but was likely still kept in a mountainous area not unlike where he had been held. The facility likely would be lighted and powered by banks of vehicle batteries, they said; the facility also would have rooms for militant leaders and confidential meetings and an infirmary staffed by trained medics.

Weinstein’s health would be monitored regularly by a dedicated medic and he likely would be examined regularly by a physician brought in from Afghanistan, to prevent an intelligence leak to the Pakistani authorities, the militants said.

Weinstein’s mental health also would be monitored, they said, and he would have access to books and other non-electronic items to pass his time. He would be kept company by noncombatant militants, with whom the Pashto-speaking Weinstein would chat and play board games, they said; the noncombatants also would accompany him on walks through the caves.

The captors have told the Pakistani intermediaries that Weinstein remained alive and well and would not be harmed as long as his high political and monetary value to them remains, those familiar with the contacts said.