Al Qaeda wanted Zwahiri’s relatives released in exchange for my freedom: Ali Gilani

Ali Haider Gilani, son of ex-premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, broke his silence about his kidnapping ordeal on Tuesday, saying he was abducted by Al Qaeda, which wanted the release of some women from the family of the group’s leader Ayman al-Zwahiri in exchange for his freedom.

Speaking to BBC Urdu at his Lahore residence, Gilani said he was in Al Qaeda’s captivity for three years.

Ali Gilani was recovered last month in a joint operation carried out by Afghan and US forces from an Al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

Ali Gilani says that during this time in captivity, an important member of the militant group who went by the name of Zia stayed with him.

“Al Qaeda was demanding the release of some women from Ayman al-Zwahiri’s family in my exchange, and a hefty sum.”

He said although he had not received any threats prior to his abduction, he was told that he was being “followed”.

‘You are our enemy’

Ali Haider Gilani was running for a provincial assembly seat from Multan when he was kidnapped on May 9, 2013.

Detailing the moments of his abduction, Gilani said he was leaving a rally with supporters and two security guards when someone took him by the neck and pushed him hard, so he fell on the ground. He then heard shots being fired and saw his two guards dropping near him. Gilani said he was then hit on the head with a gun and he started to bleed.

“I then thought they had come to kill me,” he said.

The abductors, who Gilani said totalled six men, then shoved him inside a car. Fearing he could be wearing a spy device on his body, they stripped him and threw his clothes out.

“Their first question to me was, are you Sunni or Shia,” said Gilani, adding that the abductors, “who were all speaking in Punjabi” told him to keep mum.

He was first taken from Multan to Khanewal, and then to Faisalabad, said Gilani. He said the car they were travelling in was covered with election posters and flags.

The abductors introduced themselves as Al Qaeda men and told Gilani he had been abducted because he is “the son of Yousuf Raza Gilani”.

“Operations were conducted against Osama bin Laden in Abottabad and Swat and Waziristan during your father’s term. You are our enemy!” Gilani quoted the abductors as saying.

He said he was kept in Faisalabad for some time before being taken to Waziristan.

Gilani said they were not stopped for checking during the travel from Multan to Faisalabad, where he said he was kept chained for two and a half months in a house.

“They told me they were taking me to Waziristan for two months, where I would be released since they had struck a deal with my family,” he told the BBC Urdu. “Perhaps they wanted to ensure that I don’t resist during the journey.”

On July 22, 2013, Gilani said, he was taken to Waziristan via motorway through Bannu. During the travel from Bannu to Waziristan, Gilani and two others were made to wear burqas and “asked to keep silent” as they passed nearly 10 military checkposts. Although officials at one or two posts stopped the group, they were allowed to leave after only checking the identity card of the driver and not the passengers.

Gilani said he was kept in Dande Darpakhel, a village in North Waziristan, for seven months. Here too, he said, the captors spoke Punjabi while a German who was picked up from Multan was also held. This German citizen was released in Oct 2014, reportedly after a payment of ransom.

‘Not tortured physically’

The former prime minister’s son said he was not subjected to physical torture during captivity.

“They never tortured me physically, but put me under psychological duress. I had trouble using the bathroom because of being chained,” he said.

Handover to Taliban

Gilani said he was handed over to the Sajna Group of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan after a drone strike in Datta Khel and kept there for 14 months, during which he “did not once see the sky”.

“I remember the date, day and month even today because i used to regularly write a diary which they would always burn. They also gave me books to read.”

He said three things were important in order for him to remain sane: “To hold onto the belief that Allah will help, remaining hopeful that one day i will be free and third patience”.

“I had written on the wall of my room ‘victory comes with patience’ and would read it every day.”

‘Taliban like cricket’

Gilani said his captors once arranged a radio for him when he requested them to let him watch a Pakistan vs South Africa World Cup match and he was “ecstatic” when Pakistan won.

“The Taliban like cricket,” he added.

Transfer to Afghanistan

As the Pakistan Army began its Shawal offensive, the Taliban fled across the border to Afghanistan’s Paktika province and took Gilani with them.

Gilani said he had seen Pakistan Army air strikes in Datta Khel following the killing of Punjab home minister Colonel (retd) Shuja Khanzada.

“The sounds were frightening. Their target used to be correct but these compounds were often empty as the militants would escape in advance,” he said.

He said the militants’ demands were unrealistic, ranging from US forces’ complete departure from Afghanistan, release of prisoners and monetary payment “but money has never been an issue for them”.

Gilani said his captors allowed him to talk to his parents a total of two times in as many years.

Journey to home

After spending over two months in Afghanistan, on May 9 this year, Gilani’s captors told him they had to vacate the compound because they anticipated an American air raid.

“We left at night and were walking for three or four hours when I heard helicopters then gunshots,” he said.

“I fell to the ground. Then a voice told me to take my shirt off, put my hands in the air and someone came and tied my hands.

“I said ‘My name is Ali Haider Gilani I’m the son of the former prime minister. They didn’t believe me at first but later they confirmed I was telling the truth,” he said.

Gilani said that he found out later that the raid had targeted the Al Qaeda man accompanying him.

“I was just lucky to be there,” he said, speaking about his rescue.

“It didn’t sink in till I was in the helicopter, the guy [from the US Forces] said ‘Mr Gilani, you’re going home’.”


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