Pakistan: Al-Qaeda chief’s daughters may have been freed in return for ex-PM Gilani’s son

Former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's son was held by the al-Qaeda since 2013, before being rescued in a raid this summer.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Published:September 4, 2016 3:41 am
Gilani was rescued in May Ali Haider Gilani, son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was rescued in May.

Pakistani military sources have denied reports that al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s two daughters were released in exchange for its former army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s son Sorosh Kayani. The report came out in the Long War Journal on Saturday, which sourced it to a report in al-Masra, an Arabic-language magazine with close links to al-Qaeda.

The women, intelligence and military sources said, 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.

“There is no truth to claims that Sorosh Kayani was kidnapped, or exchanged in release for any prisoners,” a senior Pakistani official familiar with General Kayani’s family told The Sunday Express in an e-mail. An Islamabad resident familiar with the family also confirmed that Sorosh Kayani had been attending work regularly in recent months, and was also seen at social events.

Al-Masra magazine, which reported the story of Sorosh Kayani’s kidnapping, 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. The magazine, however, is not an official al-Qaeda publication. The article attributed the story to an al-Qaeda Twitter account, since suspended.

Tehreek-e-Taliban jihadists, linked to al-Qaeda, had kidnapped Amir Aftab Malik, son of Lieutenant-General Tariq Majeed, in 2013 — a report that, some in the intelligence community speculate, may have been confused by al-Qaeda’s cyber-supporters with the story of how the release of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s daughters was secured.

In July, al-Qaeda’s central leadership released a statement attacking Pakistan’s army for “treacherously” holding three of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s daughters as well as their children on the “orders of American intelligence”. The statement claimed that the negotiations to free them had failed, and warned that it would hold the Pakistani state and its “American masters” responsible “for their criminal behaviour”.

The daughters included 1981-born Fatima al-Zawahiri and 1986-born Umayma al-Zawahiri, both born to the al-Qaeda chief’s first wife, Azza Ahmed Nowari. Listed in the al-Qaeda statement as the wives of slain al-Qaeda commanders Mahmoud Rabie al-Bahtiyti and Abu Basir al-Urduni, it remains unclear how long the women were in Pakistani custody.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s daughters were released in early August, and repatriated to Egypt. The repatriation followed the mysterious rescue, in May this year, of Ali Haider Gilani by United States and Afghan special forces. Al-Qaeda sought several prisoners in return for Ali Haider Gilani, who was kidnapped in 2013, his father had told media.

Following his release, Ali Haider Gilani told journalists that the kidnappers “wanted the government to release some women from the family of al-Zawahiri”.

Interestingly, Gilani told media his captors were expecting a US military raid on May 9, the day of his rescue, and moved him to a new location. The precise circumstances of the rescue remain unclear: though four captors were reported shot in the operation, their bodies were not recovered, and Gilani told media “the al-Qaeda operatives left me alone in a deserted mountain area”.

Sorosh Kayani, sources said, works at the Islamabad office of the Fauji Foundation — a controversial military-owned business that ranks among Pakistan’s largest energy and financial services conglomerates, with substantial interests in fertilisers, natural gas cement, food, power generation and security services.

He is married and has a son, said the sources. General Kayani also has a daughter, Zara. “The family maintains a low profile,” said the military official who denied Sorosh Kayani had been kidnapped. “They have stayed out of public life”.

Sorosh Kayani also has a history of association with Pakistan Army’s public relations. In 2011, he directed The Glorious Resolve: Death Before Disgrace, a film made by the Inter-Services Public Relations department of the Pakistani military to commemorate the battles of its soldiers in North Waziristan.

The film starred well-known television and film actors Hamza Ali Abbasi, Hassan Waqas Rana and Bilal Lashari, and won an award at an Italian government-funded festival for military documentaries.