On Sept. 2, The Long War Journal reported on a curious story published in Al Masra, an al Qaeda newsletter. Masra’s authors claimed that Ayman al Zawahiri’s two daughters, a third jihadi widow and their children were exchanged for the son of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s former spymaster who also served as the Chief of Army Staff until 2013. As we noted, the claim could not be independently verified, there was no public reporting saying Kayani’s son had been abducted and al Qaeda may be making up the details of what transpired.
Anonymous “Pakistani military sources” have now reportedly denied Masra’s story, but their denial only raises additional questions.
The update was published by Praveen Swami of The Indian Express. In addition to the anonymous Pakistani officials, Swami also cites an “Islamabad resident familiar with the family” who said the younger Kayani “had been attending work regularly in recent months, and was also seen at social events.”
According to “intelligence and military sources” contacted by Swami, the women “were released in return for the life of Ali Haider Gilani, son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was held by the al Qaeda since 2013, before being rescued in a raid this summer.”
However, this version of the story only adds to the mystery and the timing is inconsistent with other details.
As we originally reported, Ali Haider Gilani was rescued in a joint US-Afghan raid in May. “Four enemy combatants were killed as a result of the operation,” NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement at the time. “No other injuries or damage was observed or reported.”
The Defense Department didn’t describe the raid that freed Gilani as part of a hostage exchange. “I want to commend the US Special Operations personnel and the Afghan special operations forces for the professionalism and skill they demonstrated in the raid this morning in Paktika Province, Afghanistan,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in a statement. Carter described the raid as a “counterterrorism operation targeting Al Qaeda operatives.”
Gilani confirmed afterwards that al Qaeda had been trying to exchange him for Zawahiri’s daughters. But the three al Qaeda widows were not released in May or June. In fact, al Qaeda threatened the Pakistani government over the matter in July, claiming that all negotiations had failed. Al Qaeda said in a statement that it would hold the Pakistani government and its “American masters” responsible “for their criminal behavior” in holding the women and their children.
Therefore, the following reasons all make the claim that Gilani was part of a hostage swap especially curious: US and Afghan sources claimed that Gilani was rescued in a counterterrorism raid; NATO said four jihadists were killed, Afghan officials added that they didn’t know Ali Gilani was there, Al Qaeda publicly threatened the Pakistani government two months later for failing to negotiate the release of the women, and al Qaeda’s women and children weren’t released until early August.
If al Qaeda’s women and their children were really exchanged for Ali Haider Gilani, then the joint US-Afghan raid in May and the details provided by officials were part of a ruse.
The fact that Masra published an account of Kayani’s alleged abduction is significant. The Indian Express notes that Masra is “published by a media house linked to the Jama’at Ansar al-Shari’a, a Yemeni jihadist coalition that includes several al-Qaeda linked groups.” But Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is simply an alias for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the US State Department announced in 2012. The Indian Express also claims that Masra is “not an official al Qaeda publication.” But this isn’t really true. Masra is clearly produced by AQAP media operatives and possibly other al Qaeda members. The Long War Journal has tracked the newsletter for months and it routinely publishes stories from across al Qaeda’s global network, even providing the perspective of al Qaeda’s senior leadership on events.
The reason that The Long War Journal found the story newsworthy in the first place is that it was promoted by Masra, which is an al Qaeda publication. The Twitter feed that published the account (WARNING: graphic images) appears to have been set up solely to push the claim that Kayani’s son had been kidnapped and exchanged for Zawahiri’s daughters. Masra’s editors then promoted this story on the front page after the Twitter feed’s quick suspension. Therefore, the story isn’t just the product of al Qaeda’s online supporters. It was promoted by an al Qaeda media shop.
According to The Indian Express, “some in the intelligence community speculate” that al Qaeda’s “cyber-supporters” may have conflated the story of Zawahiri’s daughters’ release with an earlier kidnapping of “Amir Aftab Malik, son of Lieutenant-General Tariq Majeed, in 2013.” Like Kayani, Majeed is a former senior Pakistani military official.
But this seems unlikely. Malik, who was kidnapped in 2010, was reportedly freed from captivity in early 2012. That is, Malik was freed more than two years before al Qaeda says Zawahiri’s daughters were detained by the Pakistani government and more than four years before the women were released in August of this year.
Of course, the Pakistani officials contacted by Swami may very well be right and Masra is making up key details about the whole matter. Al Masra’s story may be erroneous, even if there are a number of reasons to doubt the version offered by anonymous Pakistani officials in the press. Then again, we’d expect the Pakistanis to deny the story even if it is true.
We are left with a series of questions:
Why were the al Qaeda women and their children held in the first place? And how were they freed? Was anyone exchanged for them?
If Ali Haider Gilani was swapped for the three women and their children, then why weren’t they released earlier and why did al Qaeda threaten the Pakistani government two months after Gilani was freed?
Were US and Afghan officials lying to the press when they described the “counterterrorism raid” that recovered Gilani? If Gilani was part of a hostage exchange, then why did NATO’s Resolute Support say four al Qaeda operatives were killed in the process?
Can al Qaeda or Masra provide any proof that Kayani’s son was really kidnapped? Or is Masra’s story an example of jihadi fiction?
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