05.07.12

Warren Weinstein: How the USAID Worker Was Kidnapped (Video)

In a shocking video released Sunday, a 70-year-old American who was kidnapped in Pakistan last year begs Obama to save him. Matthew DeLuca on how the development worker ended up in captivity.

It was before dawn the morning of Aug. 13, 2011, when a group of men armed with assault rifles knocked on Warren Weinstein's front gate in the Lahore suburb of Model Town, an upscale neighborhood where Benazir Bhutto is said to have had a house. Weinstein was working as country director for J.E. Austin Associates, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Va., that contracts with the Pakistani government. The 70-year-old was helping to create small businesses in tumultuous regions in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

It was the beginning of more than nine months in captivity for Weinstein, who appeared in a video released Sunday on radical Islamist websites in which the man directly addressed President Obama. “My life is in your hands,” Weinstein said in the video, in which he appears wearing a white shalwar kameez, a tunic common in the region. “If you accept the demands, I live; if you don’t accept the demands, I die,” Weinstein said, referring to a list of demands made by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last year that included an end to American strikes in Pakistan and the release of al Qaeda and Taliban militants detained at Guantánamo Bay.

On Aug. 13, three men at the front of Weinstein's house offered his security guards gifts of food, a common practice among Muslims during the Ramadan fast. At the same time, five men forced their way into the house from the back, overpowering Weinstein’s guards and gagging them. The assailants then made their way to Weinstein’s room, where they pistol-whipped him before taking him to a getaway car.

At the time of the kidnapping, Weinstein was reportedly in the final hours of his time in Lahore, and had packed his bags to leave Pakistan for good.

Weinstein has a house in Rockville, Md., a split-level where he had lived with his wife and daughter for 35 years. Over the course of the five or six years he was working in Pakistan, Weinstein is said to have traveled back and forth to Maryland from time to time. In the video released Sunday, he addressed his wife, Elaine, and made mention of his two daughters. He is reported to be a former Peace Corps volunteer. Through the 1970s, Weinstein was a tenured professor in the political science department at SUNY Oswego, a position he left to go to work for USAID. There, Weinstein focused on fostering economic growth in developing countries. After Weinstein's kidnapping, SUNY Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley released a statement condemning his abductors.

Five men forced their way into the house from the back, overpowering Weinstein’s guards and gagging them.
Video screenshot

J.E. Austin has mostly remained quiet about Weinstein's kidnapping, though press reports from August of last year said that a biography on the company's website was removed soon after the attack. The site listed Weinstein's foreign credentials, including 25 years of work on development projects abroad. Weinstein also holds a Ph.D. in international law and economics from Columbia University, and is able to communicate in half a dozen foreign languages, including the Urdu spoken by most Pakistanis.

“His efforts to help make Pakistani industries more competitive have resulted in many hundreds of well-paying jobs for Pakistani citizens and contributed to raising the standard of living in the communities where these businesses are located,” read a statement released by J.E. Austin last August.

J.E. Austin did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast's requests for comment Monday.

After Weinstein's abductors made their escape from Lahore, they are thought to have transported their captive from safe house to safe house across Pakistan over a period of months. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the kidnapping after Weinstein's August disappearance, and Pakistani officials found themselves without a real lead for months.

In late August, Lahore police chief Malik Ahmed Raza Tahir made a hasty announcement that Pakistani police had found and freed Weinstein in the city of Khushab, but only hours later said that his statement had been incorrect. Responding to Tahir's mistake, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad tweeted at the time that "we have no information that would confirm recovery of Warren Weinstein, but we are hoping for a positive outcome."       

Al Qaeda finally declared itself responsible for the attack on Weinstein in December, and sources within the Taliban told reporters that over the intervening months, the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or Pakistani branch of the militant group, had cooperated with al Qaeda to secret Weinstein away to a tribal area of the country near the Afghan border. The Taliban commanders told reporters that they had kept quiet to improve their hand, a strategy that warded off pressure from Pakistani authorities and kept American officials at bay.

A Pakistani security analyst spoke with reporters in January and said he’d received updates from militants on Weinstein’s condition. “Al Qaeda won’t kill Weinstein,” Mohammed Imran said. “It will keep him as healthy as possible in the circumstances.” Health has been the greatest concern since Weinstein disappeared. Apart from his age, the man suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and underwent heart surgery in 2009.

In the video, Weinstein assured his wife that he was in good health. “I'm getting all my medications, I’m being taken care of,” the captive said.