By Susan Katz Keating
Four star Army General John Nicholson gave a Senate committee details last Thursday about Western hostages held by the Taliban.
The rest of the story, though, involves the Taliban’s desire for a direct swap of prisoners.
The American Media Institute can now report the fuller details to American audiences for the first time.
The hostages include two professors, American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks. They are part of a scattered group being held “at unknown locations in the Af-Pak region by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network,” said General Nicholson, who leads America’s fight in Afghanistan. Nicholson made his comments in Feb. 9 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Haqqani Network is the group that previously held controversial American soldier Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years.
In his wide-ranging testimony, Nicholson did not further address the hostages; AMI, however, has independently confirmed what the captors want in exchange for them.
The kidnappers seek the release of fundraising and social media mastermind Anas Haqqani, multiple international intelligence sources told AMI. Anas is a brother to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is listed by the FBI as a “specially designated global terrorist.” Anas Haqqani has been sentenced to death, and his compatriots fear that the sentence will be carried out by Afghan authorities, the intelligence sources said.
This intelligence, briefly reported last month in the foreign press and confirmed independently by AMI, is underscored by dramatic video in which the distressed hostages specifically say they are being held for a prisoner swap. The video, thought to have been filmed Jan. 1, is the first indication in months that the westerners remained alive after capture.
King and Weeks, English professors at the American University of Afghanistan, were abducted near the university in Kabul by armed men in uniforms Aug. 7.
Initially, intelligence analysts worked to understand what prompted this specific attack.
“When this first happened, one thing we looked at was motive,” said Baseer Khan, who worked with American-led forces in Afghanistan and who analyzes Taliban activities from his office in London. Khan has first-hand knowledge of ongoing negotiations.
Analysts considered a number of reasons why the teachers were abducted, Khan said. Now, he told AMI, the motive is clear: “The kidnappers took the teachers so they could use them to buy back one man.”
The valued man, Anas Haqqani, is a significant part of the notorious Haqqani network.
“Anas has computer and social media skills to make him valuable,” Khan said. “He is a key fundraiser. And, he is deputy to the brother. The family wants him back.”
In order to obtain the human currency to offer in exchange for the valued deputy, the international intelligence sources told AMI, Haqqani-affiliated foot-soldiers stalked and captured the two Western teachers – right when it seemed likely the Afghan government would execute the imprisoned Anas.
“Anas was sentenced to death,” said an American intelligence official who reviews events in Afghanistan. The official, who is not authorized to speak to the press, met surreptitiously with AMI in Alexandria, Virginia. The Haqqanis are desperate to keep their man alive, the official said, and sought bargaining chips in the form of the two teachers. “They wanted leverage to make sure the sentence was not carried out,” the official told AMI.
This is at least the second time the Haqqanis have tried to barter Western hostages in exchange for the imprisoned deputy.
An Afghan media outlet reported in September that the notorious network was harshly condemning Anas’ criminal conviction. In December, the terrorist group again mentioned Anas as it released a video of two other Westerners in the hands of the Taliban — Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle — along with their young children. The couple have been held for four and a half years. Their two children, who were born in captivity, never have known freedom.
Other hostages at the American University in Afghanistan were freed by a special Afghan police unit in a late August siege at the campus, Gen. Nicholson said in his Thursday testimony.
“Crisis Response Unit 222 responds to all high-profile attacks in Kabul,” Nicholson told the Senate committee. “It successfully contained the terror attack against the American University in Kabul on 24 August, saving the lives of over 60 hostages and hundreds more who were trapped on the university grounds.”
The Taliban last year claimed on their official website that Anas and a companion, Hafiz Rashid – another senior Haqqani – were illegally detained in 2014 after they visited one of the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners traded for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. In their website statement, the Taliban claimed that Anas is related to the Gitmo releasee he visited in Qatar, and therefore is entitled to see him under the terms of the trade.
The Afghan government disagreed and put Anas on trial.
The Taliban last year threatened retaliation if Anas were put to death.
If Anas is executed, the Taliban wrote in September on their website, “…it will have very disastrous and dangerous consequences for the current regime. The war and its intensity will increase in all parts of the country. A lot of blood will be spilled and the government will be responsible for all of it.”
The civilian teachers, however, were captured alive.
Shortly after the teachers were kidnapped, American commando units learned where they were being held, and launched a rescue mission. The mission was aborted mid-air when then-President Barack Obama did not have time to authorize the raid, as AMI first reported. When Obama later gave the green light for a second rescue attempt, it was too late; commandos arrived on-scene only to find that the teachers had been moved a few hours earlier.
The teachers vanished from public eye for the ensuing five months. The two resurfaced virtually in January, when they appeared in a Taliban-released video, pleading for their lives. The video is the first public proof that the two civilians remained alive after being captured in August.
In the video, Weeks referenced the prisoner-swap scenario. Without mentioning Anas Haqqani by name, Weeks said that the captors, whom he called “the Taliban,” want to trade him and King for unnamed prisoners at Bagram Airfield and in Kabul.
“They are being held there illegally and the Taliban has asked for them to be released in our exchange,” Weeks said in the video. “If they are not exchanged for us then we will be killed.”
The request sounds general, but has specific direction, the London-based analyst said.
“Anyone else they can exchange the teachers for is a bonus, but the Haqqanis are focused on this one particular man,” Khan said.
Elsewhere in the video, both Weeks and King appealed directly to Donald Trump to secure their release.
“Donald Trump, sir, please, I ask you, please, this is in your hands, I ask you please to negotiate with the Taliban,” Weeks said. “If you do not negotiate with them, we will be killed.”
Like other terrorist groups, the Haqqani Network employs hostage-taking as a way to negotiate with the West, said former Navy SEAL Commander Dan O’Shea, who served as coordinator for the Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The direct pleas from the teachers asking Trump to trade them for Taliban prisoners are meant to garner international headlines, O’Shea said.
“They want a reporter at the next press conference to ask Trump, ‘what are you doing about the prisoners?’ ” O’Shea said.
In the 13-plus minute video, filmed against what looks like a white curtain or sheet, both men appear harrowed. They blink their eyes spasmodically and frequently rub their eyes as if they are irritated. Weeks frequently breaks down in tears.
Several situations can affect the eyes as seen in the video, experts said.
“There is possibly a dust storm outside, or conditions where there is constant dust or dirt,” said Dale McElhattan, the former Director of Hostage Affairs for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and now a vice president for Amyntor Group, a security consulting firm. “If the captors gave them a shower, it could be from a pH standpoint their eyes were irritated.”
“Both hostages are obviously under stress and they were forced to make multiple ‘takes’ to ensure the right message was sent,” O’Shea said. “They were meant to look disheveled and desperate. The blinking eyes and tears indicate they both have probably been held in the dark for most of the past months.”
The video presents hope, though, that the captors are observing Pashtun rules of engagement governing noncombatants.
“In Pashtun culture, these two teachers are not enemy combatants,” McElhattan said. “They are guests, and the captors are honor bound to keep them alive.”
The hostages are under duress, McElhattan said, but are being fed and are healthy enough to speak in front of a video camera.
“The fact that they are perceived to be alive this long is a good sign,” McElhattan said.
The situation in Afghanistan overall is opaque for a number of reasons, said Daniel Markey, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Factors clouding the picture include uncertainty over how both Pakistan and the United States will proceed.
“Everything seems to be up in the air,” Markey told AMI.
The danger, however, remains clear.
“The Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan,” Nicholson told Senators on Thursday.
The statement came in the direct wake of a deadly February 8 assault on members of the International Red Cross. Six staff members were shot and two remain unaccounted for following an attack in Jawzan Province.
“Their convoy, with clearly marked vehicles, was attacked by unknown armed men,” spokesman Trevor Keck told AMI via email. “We believe that this attack might be deliberate, on clearly ICRC marked vehicles. The nature of our presence in the area and its purposes were therefore clearly known and communicated. We have no indication of who the attackers were.”
Keck also wrote, “we, unfortunately, do not have any more information on our two staff members that remain unaccounted for still.”
King’s and Weeks’ colleagues at the American University, meanwhile, have pleaded for the teachers to be released.
“We call on the Taliban to release immediately and safely Kevin and Tim and all other hostages,” said the school’s acting president, David Sedney, in a statement. “Kevin and Tim came to Afghanistan as teachers, to help Afghanistan. These innocent people have done nothing to harm anyone and need to be reunited with their family, friends and colleagues.”
“The University is not part of negotiations,” said the London-based Khan. “Still, we hope the Haqqanis are listening to humanitarian pleas.”