Pakistan Helped Weinstein Family Arrange Ransom
The family of American aid worker Warren Weinstein paid a $250,000 ransom in a failed effort to win his release, three years before he was killed in a botched U.S. drone strike.
The family of missing U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein worked with the government of Pakistan to relay ransom money to the group holding the missing aid worker and maintained ongoing communications with Islamabad in the years between his capture in Lahore and his death in an errant American drone strike in January, according to people familiar with the interactions.
Islamabad’s role in the Weinstein case, which hasn’t previously been reported, raises new questions about Pakistan’s ties to the militants who have long used their country to plan attacks abroad. In this case, Pakistani officials knew enough about Weinstein’s captors to help ensure the money found its way into the militants’ hands but was unwilling or incapable of rescuing him themselves.
The Weinsteins had long thought they had a way of bringing home their loved one, who was kidnapped in the Pakistani city of Lahore in 2011. Instead, President Barack Obama called them Wednesday to disclose that Weinstein had been killed in a botched mission that also took the life of Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.
Two people familiar with the matter say the Weinsteins paid several hundred thousand dollars in 2012 to the militants holding the grandfather of two as part of what would become a multiyear, behind-the-scenes effort to ensure his safe return to the United States. The payment was “coordinated” with Islamabad, one of the people said.
The actual money was passed to Weinstein’s captors through a Pakistani intermediary with ties to the group, the people said. The intermediary promised to deliver Weinstein after the money was received, but failed to. Still, the Weinsteins had regular communications with both the Pakistani government and the aid worker’s captors and felt confident he would eventually be returned to the United States.
“The family was in touch with people who, they have reason to believe, had contact with, or control over, Warren until very recently,” one of the people said. “Because of that they believed he would come home.”
The second person said that the intermediary who relayed the initial bribe continued to receive communications from the aid worker’s captors suggesting Weinstein was alive until earlier this month.
Obama publicly apologized for the mission that took the lives of Weinstein and Lo Porto in an impromptu address to reporters at the White House Thursday, saying that he took “full responsibility.”
Weinstein’s widow, Elaine, responded with a statement thanking the FBI and three Maryland lawmakers for working for her husband’s release but stressing that “the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. Government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years.” That criticism echoed similar complaints from the families of the three U.S. citizens — Steven Sotloff, James Foley, and Kayla Mueller — who died while in the hands of the Islamic State in the past year.
The statement also sharply criticized Islamabad’s failure to help deliver Warren Weinstein home even after the ransom was paid.
“I am disappointed in the government and military in Pakistan,” Elaine Weinstein wrote. “Warren’s safe return should have been a priority for them based on his contributions to their country, but they failed to take action earlier in his captivity when opportunity presented itself, instead treating Warren’s captivity as more of an annoyance than a priority. I hope the nature of our future relationship with Pakistan is reflective of how they prioritize situations such as these.”
Pakistan, for its part, insists that it worked hard to help win Warren Weinstein’s release and that it stayed in regular contact with his family to keep the Weinsteins up to date on the efforts to bring him home.
“Ever since his abduction in 2011, the Governments of Pakistan and the US were in constant touch on this issue,” the statement said. “Pakistan’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies had also been making strenuous efforts to locate the whereabouts of Mr. Weinstein. Even as Pakistan prepared to launch military operations in [Pakistan’s border regions], the law enforcement personnel were given special instructions to particularly look for possible clues that could help Pakistan locate and safely recover Mr. Warren Weinstein.”
Islamabad, the statement noted, “expresses its deepest condolences” to the Weinstein family.
In an interview Friday, a spokesman for the family said the Weinsteins “made every effort to engage with those holding him or those with the power to find and rescue him.”
“This is an ordinary American family and they are not familiar with how one manages a kidnapping. As such, they took the advice of those in government who deal with such issues on a regular basis and were disappointed that their efforts were not ultimately successful,” the spokesman added.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment on whether the White House knew a ransom had been paid or was aware that other parts of the government were working to help link the family up with Weinstein’s captors.
Meehan instead reiterated that Washington, “as a matter of long-standing policy, does not grant concessions to hostage takers for a very important reason — granting such concessions would put all American citizens overseas at greater risk for kidnapping.”
Word of the ransom payment and the ongoing negotiations with Weinstein’s captors add a grim echo to an earlier U.S. military operation that also resulted in the deaths of a missing American and a second hostage. In December 2014, a team of Navy SEALs mounted a raid inside Yemen designed to rescue missing American journalist Luke Somers. The mission failed, with Somers dying after being shot by one of his captors and a second hostage, South African aid worker Pierre Korkie, dying as well.
It later emerged that Korkie’s employers had negotiated a deal for his release and he was set to be freed in less than a day.
In a statement on the group’s Twitter account at the time, aid group Gift of the Givers, said, “All logistical arrangements were in place 2 safely fly Pierre out of Yemen under diplomatic cover.”
Like the Weinsteins, Korkie’s family believed — right up until he died in an American mission gone wrong — that he would be returning home.
Photo courtesy of the Weinstein family
Corrections, April 24, 2015: Giovanni Lo Porto is the name of the Italian aid worker killed in the botched U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in January 2015; an earlier version of this article misspelled his last name as “La Porto.” Hostage Kayla Mueller died in February 2015 and not last year (2014), as this article earlier stated.