British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark specialise in investigative journalism and have worked for UK’s The Sunday Times and The Guardian for nearly 18 years. Honoured with ‘Foreign Correspondents of the Year’ award in 2004 and ‘British Journalists of the Year’ award in 2009, they’ve co-authored three books including the much-admired Deception, exposing America’s covert abetting of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Their latest book on Kashmir The Meadow—that aims to demystify the fate of several Western hostages in 1995 Al Faran kidnapping—is creating ripples among all social, political and security quarters. In an email interview with Baba Umar, they talk about the kidnapping, the Pakistani plot to it and New Delhi’s sustained efforts at sabotaging the negotiation that led to the killing of four foreign backpackers.
Why did you choose to write a book on Kashmir? Tell us about The Meadow-Where the Terror Began.
In 2005 the terrible earthquake opened up vast areas of the Kashmir Valley. As a result of the disaster, lawyers and reporters were able to travel everywhere freely for the first time, and the first accounts of unmarked and mass graves came out as a result. An open discussion about the disappeared in Kashmir took flight too. By 2008, it became clear that the two issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non war.
During this period, people also started to talk about Kashmir’s most puzzling missing case: the Al Faran episode. New eye witnesses, as well as old hands who had investigated it, spoke out. A sea change also took place within the Indian establishment where former and serving police and agents began to open up, as if they too felt that enough was enough. For some the Al Faran case represented justice delayed, for others, justice denied, and for another faction it was a myth that needed to be dispelled. People we tracked down were relieved to talk, gushing even, and said they had been sitting guiltily on secrets for 16 years.
The book starts with the Abbottabad air raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed and ends with the release of his colleague Mulana Masood Azhar of Jash-e-Mohammad by India after the 1999 Kandahar hijacking episode. Did Al-Qaeda ever operate in Kashmir?
Al Qaeda did not practice or start in the Valley and in a literal sense has not been active there, but some of its ambassadors have honed their skills in Kashmir. We are saying that the West and India had no idea back then about the resilience and complexity of the jihad movement, it’s potential to evolve and split, to morph and subsume. Small splinters would come together and put aside liturgical differences to fight a common enemy (the West or India). And so many came over the LoC from Pakistan to fight that IB and RAW had little time to spend differentiating one clique from another.
Masood’s men began as Kashmir-bound Mujahideen, paid up by Pakistan, propelled by the ISI. In the Meadow they practised and honed their methodology, getting a taste of what terror really was. Upon his release by India, Masood, who was still not understood by RAW, or in the UK by MI5, reactivated and expanded his global network that would soon stretch from east London to Karachi, via Mumbai, co-operating with al Qaeda when necessary, finding common ground with an erstwhile ally in Osama bin Laden.
Al-Faran militant group kidnapped six Western tourists but India-backed renegades with full knowledge of army and STF killed four of them. How does the book establish it?
Pakistan perpetrated an act of terror (the kidnapping of six Western tourists and the execution of Hans Christian Ostro), which India recognised as a useful tool to expose its neighbour’s proclivity for destabilising Kashmir, at a time when the West was reticent to get involved, and perceived Kashmir as a soft human rights issue. Hardliners within Indian intelligence and the army ran the operation to fulfill a key plank of the Rao Doctrine: frame Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror. When Al-Faran folded, renegades supported by some in the Valley’s intel and military establishment took over the hostages. We interviewed hundreds of people on both sides of the LoC, former and active jihadis, Indian intel agents, and police officers at the highest levels. Our writing reflects their beliefs, a secret finding too awful to share.
In the book you write ‘someone in the authority was briefing against the talks’. Who was against the talks? What was the level/designation of these officers?
The J&K police, the Security Adviser to the Governor (retired) Lt General DD Saklani, and others tried to solve the crime, and nearly all concluded they were impeded by external forces. Every crucial stage of the secret talks between India and Al Faran was undermined by a pattern of leaks so persistent and accomplished, dealing in highly classified information that they concluded it had to stem from a very high level. Politicians and civil servants reflecting on this period recall that they were side-lined by the military and intelligence factions, which ran the show. This suggests—and they believe—that some people in intelligence were behind the leaks rather than the odd drunk policeman as one reporter has lately suggested.
Who among the Indian army men knew of the hostages’ location?
IB, RAW, and the army all knew of the hostages’ whereabouts for almost the entire time they were in the Warwan Valley—some 10 or 11 weeks from mid July 1995. The police discovered this by interviewing villagers there and sampling statements from a network of informers and agents they had in place there. We did the same, exhaustively. IB/army acquired photos of the hostages so detailed that according to some of the agents who saw them they could “see the sweat on their brows” as they played ball games, to alleviate their boredom. Villagers in the Warwan reported the hostages’ presence on numerous occasions to the Rashtriya Rifles. On at least one occasion, documented by police, villagers complained they were beaten and detained by soldiers of Victor Force who told them to mind their own business.
One foreigner John Childs of United States who escaped from Al-Farhan was hurried to the US. Didn’t he wish to lead army or state forces to kidnappers in the forests? What happened to his attempts?
John Childs told us that as soon as he was rescued he had insisted on taking the security forces back to the mountains but was prevented by the army and then US diplomats were keen on getting him out of the country. Childs expressed dismay to US state department officials and later reflected that everyone seemed far more keen to control reporting on these events than solving them. He regrets to this day that he was not able to return to rescue his comrades.
You write a foreign woman, who informed the army about the hostages, was raped by the army major? Who was this army officer?
A woman was sexually assaulted. The identity of the army officer was known to the Crime Branch who complained to the Rashtriya Rifles. Perhaps an inquiry into these events would throw up the name.
There is a mention of state Congress and National Conference parties together paying Rs 4 crore to a renegade commander alpha (Nabi Azad) in 1996 polls for harassing villagers into voting? Can you elaborate?
Rajesh Pilot visited the renegade bases above Anantnag, passing on his orders, according to the renegades themselves, who recalled he told them to get the vote out in 1996 even if “they had to march people into the booth with their guns”. The amount paid was recalled by them too and also by their handlers in the police STF.
And why did Hurriyat deny mediating? Who in the Hurriyat refused to accept this role?
Hurriyat could have intervened. It seems cold and churlish of them not to. They could have secured the men’s release. Earlier it had issued statements condemning the kidnappings. But the feeling at the time was hard line—that to carry Al-Faran’s message would have been to implicate themselves in an incident they had nothing to do with. To carry a message to India was to recognise India. It was a stone cold logic that showed how far everyone had slumped over these years of fighting. This inflexibility ultimately served to work against the hostages.
We had Scotland Yard and FBI personnel in Kashmir those days. Why didn’t they lead any rescue mission?
A panoply of Western security advisors and negotiators were on the ground in 1995: FBI, Scotland Yard, MI6, CIA, US Special Forces and the SAS. However, all were tethered to New Delhi or their Srinagar bases at government guesthouses. When the US Special Forces pushed to work in the countryside, the Indian military went ballistic, lobbying in Delhi, claiming that Kashmir crisis was all about sovereignty and that foreign boots on Indian soil was thus unacceptable.
‘The hostages played cricket and captors washed their clothes.’ What does it say about the captors? Did Al-Faran really mean to harm hostages?
The impression gained from police statements and eye-witness accounts is that many in Al-Faran or Harkat-ul-Ansar, as it was, would have rolled over and released the hostages towards the end of the standoff, but was prevented from doing so.
However, the Al-Faran team was divided, with one faction siding after a time with the hostages. Some in the party together with villagers from the Warwan seem also to have assisted the hostages in getting secretly written messages out—some of which, incredibly, eventually reached Srinagar.
There was also another, hard-line faction within Al-Faran, led by a foreign fighter known as The Turk, that was more pragmatic and battle hardened. This faction was behind the decapitation of Ostro, something for which it was admonished by its handlers in Pakistan, who saw it as a senselessly cruel act that would play terribly in the Western press. Al-Faran ultimately gave in. They settled for Indian money. But this deal was exposed and sunk. They then let it be known that they would offer the hostages up. At this stage renegades were instructed by their handlers to try and buy the hostages from Al-Faran to let the crime continue.
IGP Paramdeep Singh Gill was trying to get passed off DNA tests of an Afghan fighter as matching one of the hostages—Paul Wells. Was it for $2 million reward?
Mr Gill repeatedly told the press, and the family of Paul Wells, that his inquiry (run by SSP Ashkoor Wani) had found Paul’s body. He was advised early on, in 1997, by Paul’s father, Bob Wells, that the corpse could not be his son as a detailed examination of its head showed that its teeth were in perfect order while Paul had undergone extensive dental work. Mr Gill ignored this and told newspapers that DNA would prove his case.
By 2001 results emerged that purported to show the corpse had the same DNA as Paul Wells. This, Mr Gill, told reporters, entitled the force to apply for the US reward money. The British foreign office asked for the human samples. A lab in the UK found that the body in the grave was not Paul Wells, as Mr Gill insisted, but a South Asian man, just as villagers who recalled burying the body had repeatedly warned from the start.
In 1997, the British High Commission in New Delhi filed a formal complaint against Mr Gill for his treatment of Bob Wells, Paul Wells’ father.
In 1999 an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Kandahar. The hijackers repeated demands that were made by Al-Faran in 1995. Is Al-Farhan and highjackers the same group?
No point guessing. The group behind the kidnapping had among its number, HuA fighters including Amjad Farooqi, who went on to behead Daniel Pearl, and members of Masood’s family, possibly Ibrahim Akhtar Alvi, who was travelling under a false Indian passport registered to ZI Mistri.
Do you suggest that India agreed to release jailed militants in the highjack case purely because this time the hostages were Indians including as you write daughter of a ‘powerful official’ in the Prime Minister’s Office, whose elder sister was married to a former director of the elite National Security Guard?
The release was triggered by political considerations rather than intelligence ones. During the 1995 kidnapping the government was suspended in Kashmir and Governor’s rule was in place. Politicians were side-lined as were seasoned bureaucrats. The army and intelligence ran everything.
In 1999 the politicians were in charge, and were deaf to entreaties by the IB and RAW who advised them to sacrifice the passengers on the jet, as “that many people die every month in India”.
Were there other considerations? Undoubtedly. On board 914 was SS Tomar, a senior RAW operative returning from Nepal. His wife was the youngest child of SK Singh, a senior official in the PM’s office. Her eldest child was married to Nikhil Kumar, former director of the NSG.
In Kashmir, rights activists are demanding investigation into mass graves. Do you think the renegades had buried the hostages in one of such graves in South Kashmir?
The Western hostages are part of the missing in Kashmir and deserve to be investigated alongside the Kashmiri missing. Their grave is said to be in the Mati Gawran area close to Warwan. A search should now take place, eye-witnesses gathered etc.
The state police chief DGP Khoda, according to a local newspaper, recently rubbished your claims. Your reaction.
Let there be a full inquiry. These are national security concerns. All the responsible investigating officers should be called to give evidence, perhaps on camera. DGP Khoda was not part of the team then. His future is uncertain having been indicted, by a Crime Branch report, in an historic triple murder case. An independent body must investigate, which cannot be accused of being part of the cover up.
What do you want readers to take away from The Meadow?
To see all sides, rather than a narrow national interest. We reached out to everyone, and listened to everyone’s stories, sometimes at great personal risk. We hope they do the same.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.