The official story about the Times reporter’s dramatic kidnapping and escape leaves much unexplained. Inside sources offer their accounts to fill in the gaps.
By Matthew Cole
The story that has emerged over the past few days about the secret confinement of journalist David S. Rohde and his dramatic escape in the wee hours of Saturday morning is remarkable. On November 10, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter was kidnapped, along with his Afghan fixer, Tahir Ludin, and their driver, en route to a meeting with an Afghan Taliban commander south of Kabul. He was held in Taliban-controlled northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan for seven months; all the while the Times worked frantically to secure his release and convinced dozens of competing news organizations to remain silent about the abduction and their negotiations for fear that any attention to Rohde’s case could lead to his life being put at even greater risk.
Then, over the weekend, we learned that Rohde and Ludin had suddenly escaped their captors, hitched a ride with the Pakistani military, and soon were safely in the confines of a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Ludin told a Times reporter how he had outwitted the guards by keeping them up late playing a board game so that he and Rohde could sneak out while they were sleeping. Then the two men climbed a wall, and, with a purloined rope, lowered themselves 20 feet to the ground. It’s a tale out of a movie, and thankfully it has a happy ending, but it also raises as many questions as it answers.
Rohde himself has not spoken about his kidnapping or his escape except to confirm to a Times reporter “the accuracy of Mr. Ludin’s account.” And Times executive editor Bill Keller responded to questions by saying, “We’re not going to talk about strategy, tactics, deliberations, advice we got, any of that—even to correct the abundant misinformation now in circulation. People are free to write what they want, but we believe such stories only raise the level of danger for our reporters in the field, who already have enough risk to contend with.”
But because the Times isn’t providing much in the way of detail, the paper leaves it to others to try to fill in the gaps. The story of those who worked to get Rohde out, and what led to his escape, is only beginning to become known. This account is pieced together from multiple sources either directly involved in the negotiations or apprised of the Times’ negotiating efforts as they were going on; it suggests a patchwork of attempts to get the reporter out alive, involving the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department, and multiple private intelligence contractors. The scenario they describe is incomplete, and not always possible to verify, but it portrays a complicated process with players frequently operating at cross-purposes.
In announcing the news of Rohde’s escape, one thing the Times was careful to point out is that it paid no ransom for his release. That is apparently true, but two sources involved in the rescue efforts say the paper had authorized as much as $2 million in ransom funds, which would have been one of the highest known amounts ever paid to secure the release of a journalist. According to these sources, a $1 million offer was on the table even as Rohde was scrambling to safety. One American contractor involved says that although no ransom was ultimately paid, money did play a part in Rohde’s escape. He adds a crucial detail to the Times’ published account of the escape: That guards had been bribed to look the other way as Rohde and Ludin made their way out of the compound.
On November 10, 2008, Rohde rode roughly 30 miles south of the Afghan capital to Logar province in order to conduct an interview with a local Taliban commander who had fought the Soviets in the eighties. Rohde was conducting research for a book on the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In the car with him was Tahir Ludin, 35, a well-known and well-regarded fixer and translator to Western journalists working in the country, according an Afghan colleague of Ludin’s. Ludin had set up the interview for Rohde and would translate. The driver was a regular of Ludin’s, Asadullah Mangal, who owned a taxi service with his brother.
The commander they expected to see was Abu Tayeb, a grizzled Afghan-Soviet War veteran and the son of a teacher—more of a local thug than a religious ideologue. Afghan experts say the motivation for most of his purported violent activities is money, not jihad.
But Rohde and his two companions never made it to see the Taliban leader. They were stopped before they reached him and taken captive by men whom two sources described as working for Abu Tayeb. According to John Chase, a ransom negotiator for AKE Group with sixteen years of experience, these men would have known how much they could get for kidnapping a foreigner like Rohde and selling him to a bigger player. Chase says the men would have made about $5,000. That was the kidnappers’ likely plan.
There is no good time to be kidnapped in a war zone, but late in a lame-duck presidency is worse than most. Because of Rohde’s reporting on the wars in the Balkans a decade earlier, he had allies in Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke (who had helped to secure his release when Rohde was held captive by Serbian forces in 1995), but six days after the election, both of them had months to go before taking prominent roles in the new administration. The only practical recourse the Times had was a kidnapping and ransom company—referred to as K&R in hostage-negotiations industry.
The Times’ insurance company, AIG, hired a K&R firm called Clayton Consultants to handle the negotiations. According to a source close to the Times, assistant general counsel David McCraw was made chairman of the paper’s crisis-management team. He would speak on behalf of the Times to the Clayton consultant in Kabul. That consultant would then direct communications to a trusted local identified as Farouq Samim by the Christian Science Monitor, who would pass them on to the militants holding Rohde, Ludin, and Mangal.
Or at least that was the way it was supposed to work. When Rohde’s captors made contact with the Times’ team, their demands were astronomical: They asked for $25 million as well as the release of fifteen Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo and an Afghan prison, according to two sources involved in the negotiations. But, say these sources, McCraw and the Times’ crisis team never had a chance to respond to the demands. According to this account, Clayton’s man in Kabul responded with an offer of $786,000. A kidnapping and ransom insider says this number was above the going rate for Western hostages, which ranges from $250,000 to $750,000. The kidnappers, perhaps recognizing this as a high starting bid, refused the offer. This early exchange—along with long periods of silence between the negotiators and the kidnappers—strained the Times’ relationship with Clayton, according to these sources. (A spokesperson for Clayton says, “Our consultants do not comment on the details of any kidnap cases whether or not we have been involved in the negotiations.”)
Within three weeks of Rohde’s kidnapping, according to a source close to the Times, his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, had requested that the Times hire an additional consulting firm—this one specializing in military and intelligence contracting—to try to get him out. The Times, and AIG, agreed.
While Mulvihill and other members of Rohde’s family naturally feared for the reporter’s life, intelligence and kidnapping experts sensed that his captors’ goal was not to kill Rohde but to make money. “We were never really worried that they would kill him,” says one of the sources. “This wasn’t Al Qaeda. These were businessmen.”
Nonetheless, as word of Rohde’s capture began to circulate in the news community, the Times convinced other news organizations to keep the incident quiet. The specter of Daniel Pearl was constant, as was the fear that if Rohde’s kidnapping became an international circus, the price for his release might escalate.
By all accounts, the Times agonized over the question of whether to pay a ransom, knowing that to do so might put other journalists in the area in danger but also that it might be the only way to secure the safe return of their colleague. Multiple sources agree that executives at the Times ultimately decided they would pay.
But as deliberations and negotiations between the Clayton consultants and the Taliban continued, dissent developed inside the newspaper over whether this was the right decision. According to two sources directly involved or close to the negotiations, Rohde’s Times colleague in Pakistan, the British journalist Carlotta Gall, was particularly concerned. Gall told people at the Times that paying the Taliban any money would only cause other journalists operating in the region to become the targets of kidnapping. She was not alone in this view.
Gall began her own efforts through intermediaries in Pakistan to communicate with the captors, according to three different sources involved. These sources say that Gall was trying to use her ex-Taliban contacts to reach out to those holding Rohde and persuade them to release the reporter for no money and no hostages.
A Thwarted Rescue Attempt
In December, an assault team of roughly ten men geared up for a daring raid in the Afghan province of Khost, just west of the Pakistan border. According to two sources directly involved, the assault team was organized by the private intelligence contractors Mulvihill had persuaded the Times to hire, although it is not known whether the Times authorized it.
But just before the assault team left their base, according to a person directly involved in the operation, Rohde was moved. Rohde, in fact, was no longer in Abu Tayeb’s custody at all. He had been sold up the food chain, to Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan warlord with a $5 million price tag on his head through the State Department’s Reward for Justice program. The son of famed mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin is believed by U.S. authorities to be aligned closely with both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while maintaining his own insurgent organization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The younger Haqqani is considered a terrorist and suspected to be the person behind the suicide bombing at Kabul’s five-star Serena Hotel last year.
As Rohde was sold and moved, his location was hard to track. Haqqani’s network controls most of North Waziristan in Pakistan as well as the Afghan villages along the border. Its strength has come from its tribal roots in the area in addition to a lack of American or Afghan government presence. And beyond the challenges presented by a group moving its captives constantly to avoid detection, negotiators had to contend with such mundane difficulties as spotty phone service in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
According to two sources directly involved in the negotiations, Haqqani’s people moved Rohde, Ludin, and Mangal in and around Miran Shah, North Waziristan, where they keep multiple safe houses, operate training camps, and run madrassas. According to one source involved in tracking Rohde’s movements, Haqqani, fearing a U.S. military operation, recently moved Rohde out of the Miran Shah entirely, before returning him a few days later. The fact that Rohde was being moved so frequently meant that a paramilitary raid was all but impossible.
Two weeks ago, says a source close to the Times, negotiations had broken down. According to Chase, the ransom expert, the cardinal rule of negotiation is that there can be only one channel through which an organization negotiates. “It’s called the Coca-Cola Template,” says another source close to the negotiations. “Someone from Coca-Cola gets taken, and the executives tell the employees, ‘No one talks to anyone. We have a channel, and we will conduct the negotiations.’” But the number of people attempting to negotiate on Rohde’s behalf included the FBI, the Times, Clayton, the private contractors championed by Mulvihill, and Rohde’s colleague Gall. The multiple channels had confused and divided the Haqqani clan.
According to sources, negotiators on behalf of the Times had offered $1 million in ransom, an offer that had been firm since January. A source who was directly involved with the transfer of funds says that more than $1 million had been moved to Afghanistan and readied for payment. Haqqani’s team still wasn’t satisfied. A month ago, they came back with a new demand for $8 million, according to sources close to the negotiations.
Then, late Friday night, Rohde and Ludin made their move. It was a harrowing and brave escape. What they could not have known was that the groundwork may have been laid long before they rappelled down the wall. A source directly involved with Rohde’s negotiations says that a network was set up to pay bribes to guards in the various Haqqani compounds where Rohde and Ludin were being held, including the one from which they escaped. The goal was to grease the wheel for a future rescue attempt, and it may have enabled their getaway. It is unclear whether the Times had any knowledge of the bribery network. “David doesn’t know what happened with the guards,” the source says. “It’s a very nice idea that he escaped.”
Rohde will likely tell his own story, eventually, in the paper. But in the end, no one may know the full story of what happened on his behalf.