Filed Under WESTERN MEDIA REPORTS
PART-II By Brian Hutchinson
Beverley Giesbrecht got into a long-distance “shouting match” with her closest friend a week before she was kidnapped last year in Pakistan. A 56-year-old Muslim convert from B.C., Ms. Giesbrecht was already in the country’s volatile northwest region, attempting to penetrate the Taliban’s inner circle. She called Glen Cooper at his home in West Vancouver to say she was travelling from her temporary base in Peshawar to Bannu District, in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province.
There was an old man there, she explained. He had a set of ancient coins. She was going to photograph them and get an appraisal for the coins once in England, where she was scheduled to return later that month.
She was “getting close to sensitive people,” Mr. Cooper recalled her saying. She was making video footage of terrorists, to peddle to Western TV networks. She was also posting war reports on her controversial, pro-Taliban website, Jihad Unspun.
Ms. Giesbrecht didn’t tell her friend about an email she had sent a few days earlier, to Channel 4 Television in London. “I may have hit the ‘mother lode,’ ” she wrote.
To Channel 4 executives and journalists, it suggested she was getting close to the Taliban leadership. Or perhaps Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Cooper thought her trip to Bannu District sounded unnecessary, and fraught with risk. “I was furious with her. We had a shouting match over it,” Mr. Cooper told the National Post. “She had had enough close calls.” But she was obstinate, as usual.
Kidnapping was an obvious concern. While neither of them knew it, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung was at the time being held captive somewhere near Kabul, Afghanistan.
She had been reporting at a refugee camp outside the city on Oct. 12, 2008 when armed thugs grabbed her. Ms. Fung was released four weeks later. A news blackout was in effect through the entire abduction period; Western media agreed not to report on her situation until she was freed. This was out of concern for her safety. The CBC and the Canadian government were closely involved in negotiations to release Ms. Fung.
The day before Ms. Giesbrecht’s abduction, New York Times reporter David Rohde, his Afghan driver and his Afghan translator were taken hostage by suspected allies of the Taliban. They were kept hidden in Pakistan. The kidnappers demanded huge ransoms and the release of Taliban prisoners. The New York Times was aware of the kidnapping, as were the U.S. and other governments. Another news blackout was effected. Mr. Rohde and his translator escaped in June this year. Their driver escaped a month later.
Ms. Giesbrecht dismissed Mr. Cooper’s concerns. She may have felt immunized; after all, she was a Muslim woman who supported jihad. And she was dealing in Pakistan with Pashtuns, tribal people who follow Pashtunwali, an ancient code of honour.
“She told me she can trust these people,” recalls Mr. Cooper. That was a foolish assumption.
Off she went, with her young Pakistani translator and her driver, who doubled as a cook. Curiously, they did not use their own vehicle; they travelled to Bannu District in a taxicab, along with a guide recommended to them by Shah Abdul Aziz, a former Pakistani parliamentarian and a vocal Taliban supporter.
It is believed the guide betrayed Ms. Giesbrecht and her two assistants, and delivered them to kidnappers in Bannu District after their visit with the old man and his coins. They were abducted on Nov. 11.
At the time, Phil Rees was embedded with U.S. troops just over the border in Afghanistan. A British documentary filmmaker, he had worked and travelled with Ms. Giesbrecht prior to her abduction. For 12 weeks, they had moved about northwestern Pakistan together. She was, he says, his “fixer” who used her extensive Taliban contacts to open doors while they collected footage for a terrorism series, commissioned by the Al Jazeera English TV network.
Mr. Rees was aware of Ms. Giesbrecht’s plan to return on her own to the North-West Frontier province. He had not discouraged her; he figured that Mr. Aziz, the Taliban supporter, could guarantee her safe passage.
“Obviously in retrospect I wish I had told her not to go back,” says Mr. Rees, from his home in London. “She was stubborn and determined and probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.”
Ms. Giesbrecht’s kidnapping was briefly front-page news in Canada. Details were sketchy and reports seemed contradictory. Most newspapers spelled her name incorrectly. Interest waned until earlier this year, when two videos of her appeared. They showed her in captivity and pleading for her release.
A sickly-looking Ms. Giesbrecht said in the first video that her abductors wanted $2-million in ransom. No figure was mentioned in the second video, which surfaced a month later. Ms. Giesbrecht said she would be beheaded unless unspecified demands were met by the end of March. The deadline passed and she was not killed.
A third video was made but has not been released to media, says a source, adding that the RCMP
has a copy. News reports from Pakistan suggest the kidnappers are thugs looking for ransom money. There have also been reports that her fate rests in the hands of a Taliban commander named Gul Bahardar. In June, Ms. Giesbrecht’s driver was released. Her young translator was released in July.
Ms. Giesbrecht’s present state of health and her whereabouts are unknown. It is not clear what efforts have been made to secure her release. Thanks to her jihadist views and affiliations, Ms. Giesbrecht is not a popular cause in Canada. She is, however, a Canadian and is not accused of any wrongdoing in her own country.
Mr. Cooper does not share Ms. Giesbrecht’s religious and political views, but he remains loyal to her. They met in 1987, when they worked in the same Vancouver office building. He provided technical services to her when she started her own publishing and marketing companies.
They were in regular contact even after she embraced Islam in 2002, then sold her possessions and embarked on her ill-fated journey into the terrorist heartland.
All of her other friends abandoned her, Ms. Giesbrecht has complained. “I am not a ‘terrorist,’ a fanatic, or mentally off-balance,” she once wrote, on Jihad Unspun. “On the contrary, I am a level headed, capable woman, a humanitarian and a contributing member of society.”
Mr. Cooper was her only lifeline. He still is one. He has spoken to Ms. Giesbrecht and her abductors “five or six times” by telephone since the kidnapping. The last phone call was made in July, he says, and was similar to previous ones. “I had to listen to things that have to happen before she is released,” says Mr. Cooper. But the demands keep changing. And the kidnappers always suggest that Mr. Cooper should be the one to satisfy them.
“What can I do? I’m just a private citizen,” says Mr. Cooper. “If they were more focused, things might have moved along.”
Unlike Ms. Fung and Mr. Rohde, Ms. Giesbrecht has no major news agency or organization looking out for her or putting pressure on authorities to negotiate her release.
Al Jazeera has washed its hands of her. Yet since her abduction, the Qatar-based TV network has profited from her work. Earlier this year, Al Jazeera’s English network broadcast Phil Rees’s terrorism series. Al Jazeera hired Mr. Rees for that project, and he hired Ms. Giesbrecht. The network was aware of the arrangement, which ended four months before her kidnapping.
Asked whether it has any moral or professional duty to assist Ms. Giesbrecht, the network replied to the National Post:
“Al Jazeera deplores the abduction of any journalist while on assignment and has tried wherever it can to support efforts to bring these cases to a safe end. In this particular case, Ms. Giesbrecht was not associated with Al Jazeera in any way –directly or indirectly — while travelling in Pakistan during the period she was apparently abducted. Furthermore, Al Jazeera was completely unaware of Ms. Giesbrecht’s presence in Pakistan at the time of her disappearance.”
Shah Abdul Aziz has been no help either. The well-connected Pakistani to whom Ms. Giesbrecht entrusted her safety was arrested in Pakistan in July, accused of ordering the February execution of kidnapped Polish petroleum geologist Piotr Stanczak. Mr. Aziz was granted bail in August and released from jail.
The Canadian government has said little about Ms. Giesbrecht.
“Officials are engaged with Pakistani authorities in seeking Ms. Giesbrecht’s safe release,” offers a spokesperson. According to a source who asked not to be named, Canadian politicians have raised the matter with senior Pakistani government members during official visits to Pakistan.
The same source says Ms. Giesbrecht has been tortured. “She was physically abused with lit cigarettes. Local people heard about it and put a stop to that.”
As for Glen Cooper, he’s more concerned about Ms. Giesbrecht’s poor health than he is her abductors. “I’m worried about her expiring before her release,” he says. “I’m surprised she’s lasted this long, frankly.” Then again, he hasn’t spoken to her for more than three months.