Al Qaeda claims that two of Ayman al Zawahiri’s daughters and a third woman were released weeks ago in exchange for the son of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s former spymaster who also served as the Chief of Army Staff until 2013.
The 20th edition of Al Masra magazine, which was posted online in late August, featured the claim on its front page. Al Masra is produced by a media shop affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but it reports on news from all parts of al Qaeda’s global network.
The Long War Journal cannot independently confirm the hostage exchange. There does not appear to be any reporting in the Pakistani press indicating that Kayani’s son had been kidnapped, let alone involved in a high-profile hostage swap.
Al Qaeda sources announced in early August that Zawahiri’s daughters had been released. Independent accounts indicate that the global jihadist organization had been trying to secure their release in exchange for the kidnapped sons of Pakistan’s elite.
The editors of Al Masra included a box (seen on the right) highlighting the story on the front page and saying that “detaining” the “son of the Pakistani Army Commander” led to the release. The newsletter’s authors claimed a series of tweets posted online in mid-August provided the insider details of the story. A pdf of the tweets, with accompanying images, can be viewed here. WARNING: The tweets include graphic images of an alleged Pakistani spy beheaded by al Qaeda for supposedly leading authorities to Zawahiri’s daughters.
The author of the tweets (who wrote on an account that has since been suspended, @muhager_0) blasted the “apostate” Pakistani Army for selling out high-profile al Qaeda operatives to the Americans in the past, such as Abu Firaj al Libi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah.
In another tweet, the jihadist accused the Pakistani Army of detaining Zawahiri’s daughters, as well as the daughter of Sheikh Murjan Salem al Jawhari, as part of its “infidel” war on the mujahideen. The Twitter user, who is likely an al Qaeda media operative, further claimed that al Qaeda was left with two ways to deal with the situation. First, al Qaeda needed to take “revenge” on the supposed spy. Second, Allah “enabled the mujahideen” to detain the son of the Pakistani Army commander in order to exchange him “for the sisters.” He included a picture of Kayani to emphasize that this is the Pakistani leader he meant. Al Qaeda’s account referred to Kayani as if he is active, even though he has been retired for nearly three years.
The “prideful” Pakistani Army initially “refused” the proposed exchange, according to al Qaeda’s account, but eventually agreed to it after lengthy negotiations. Zawahiri’s daughters and the other woman, along with their children, were reportedly returned to Egypt.
It isn’t clear if the purported exchange took place in late July or early August.
As Sahab, the propaganda arm for al Qaeda’s senior leadership, released an unusual, thinly-veiled threat against the Pakistani Army in mid-July. The statement, dated June 2016, was attributed to “Al Qaeda Central” and dealt with the “treacherous” Pakistani Army’s detention of the three women and their children. Umaymah al Zawahiri and Fatimah al Zawahiri were identified, respectively, as the wives of Abu Dujana al Basha and Abu Basir al Urduni, both of whom are fallen al Qaeda commanders.
Al Jawhari’s daughter, Sumaiya Murjan Salem, was listed as the widow of Adnan al Shukrijumah, who was the chief of al Qaeda’s North American operations until he was killed during a Pakistani operation in Dec. 2014. Shukrijumah had been wanted by Amerian authorities for his role in a string of plots dating back to 2002 and 2003, when he was identified as a key operative in al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plans. He was also tied to a 2009 plot against New York City’s subways. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda sleeper agent tied to 2009 NYC subway plot.]
In its threatening message, Al Qaeda accused the Pakistanis of holding the three women and their children on the “orders of American intelligence” since 2014. The jihadists claimed at the time that the negotiations to free them had “failed.” Al Qaeda said it would hold the Pakistani government and its “American masters” responsible “for their criminal behavior.”
Just over two weeks later, on Aug. 5, al Qaeda’s social media channels lit up with news that Zawahiri’s two daughters and Shukrijumah’s widow had been released.
Did al Qaeda force the Pakistani government’s hand by kidnapping Kayani’s son? Again, The Long War Journal cannot substantiate the claim with independent evidence. But the tactic is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s past schemes.
In May, US Special Operations Forces and Afghan Commandos rescued Ali Haider Gilani, the son of Pakistan’s former prime minister, in a joint raid. Afghan officials said they didn’t even know the younger Gilani was being held at the location that was raided. Several al Qaeda operatives were targeted and it was apparently fortuitous that Gilani was found with them. [See LWJ report: US, Afghan forces rescue son of former Pakistani prime minister from ‘al Qaeda cell’.]
Ali Haider Gilani was kidnapped in 2013. His father, Yusuf Raza Gilani, was Pakistan’s Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012. According to the Associated Press and other outlets, Yusuf Gilani claimed that the hostage-takers wanted “several al Qaeda prisoners” in exchange for his son.
After his release, Ali Gilani was more specific. “They wanted the government to release some women from [the] family of al Zawahiri and also demanded hefty ransom,” press reports quoted Gilani as saying.
That is, al Qaeda wanted to exchange Ali Gilani for Zawahiri’s daughters. This the same swap al Qaeda now claims it arranged for Kayani’s son. Additional kidnappings in Pakistan over the past few years may be related to the same aim.
The details of how al Qaeda secured the release of the three women are important for our understanding of the group’s operations inside Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the jihadist organization is merely boasting, then that is noteworthy. But if al Qaeda did manage to kidnap Kayani’s son and force the Pakistani government’s hand, then this indicates Zawahiri’s men have a disturbingly long reach inside of Pakistan. Although retired, Kayani is one of the most powerful figures in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which has long sponsored jihadis, including the al Qaeda-allied Taliban.
Al Qaeda used its safe havens in Afghanistan to hold Ali Gilani. This further demonstrates the importance of al Qaeda’s Afghan redoubt as it operates in South Asia. Al Qaeda likely chose to hold Gilani in Afghanistan, as opposed to Pakistan, because it would be easier to hide him from Pakistani authorities. However, al Qaeda’s arm in Pakistan has been growing as well. For example, the Washington Post reported in early June that Pakistani counterterrorism officials “have a list of several hundred active al Qaeda members” in Karachi alone and assume “there are at least a few thousand on [Karachi’s] streets.”
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which was formally announced by Zawahiri in September 2014, is growing in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Verifying or disproving the claims surrounding Zawahiri’s daughters may shed additional light on this al Qaeda arm’s capabilities.