Earlier this week, US Special Operations forces in Afghanistan were tipped up about ‘terrorist activity’ and a ‘high-value target’ in Gaylan district in the eastern part of the country. US intelligence was informed of an Al Qaeda cell operating in the area.
On May 10, Special Operations forces launched a joint operation with Afghan security forces, targeting the Al Qaeda compound. The troops rescued Ali Haider Gilani, the kidnapped son of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
A senior security official privy to the counter-terrorism drill in east Afghanistan said the US intelligence wasn’t aware of Gilani’s presence in the compound, and that he was found ‘by chance’.
“Following the Kabul attack on April 20, the US and Afghan officials have increased counter-terror operations, especially in the east and northeast of Afghanistan,” he said. The official believes Ali Haider Gilani’s recovery vindicates the importance of joint operations between all security and intelligence agencies. “His recovery is a result of such collaboration,” he says. “This just goes on to show that we all have a common enemy, and we need to fight it together.”
“We all have a common enemy, and we need to fight it together”
A US Special Operations forces statement released on May 10, confirmed reports of the joint operation titled ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’. “Under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel authority, the counter-terror mission was planned and launched after evidence of terrorist activity was confirmed. Four enemy combatants were killed as a result of the operation. No other injuries or damage was observed or reported,” the statement read.
Brigadier Charles Cleveland, a US forces spokesman told AP that Gilani was held captive by Al Qaeda operatives. “He was the sole non-combatant, he didn’t fight back, so we picked him up,” he said. “Haider had been flown by helicopter to the Bagram Air Field, 45 kilometres from Kabul.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised the operation saying that Afghan forces are “increasing capability in conducting successful anti-terror and humanitarian operations.”
Despite the NATO forces’ withdrawal at large, around 10,000 American troops are still stationed in Afghanistan to train the Afghan forces. Afghan security officials confirm that there is a concern in the White House that Afghan forces on their own would succumb to the challenge of the Taliban, who have launched their annual spring offensive and have already captured five of Helmand’s 14 districts.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, there were scenes of jubilation as Ali Haider Gilani returned home. Haider’s return comes weeks after the recovery of Shahbaz Taseer, the abducted son of late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s. He was found in Balochistan on March 8.
Haider had been kidnapped almost exactly three years to the day, on May 9, 2013 – three days before the general elections. Haider was running for a Punjab assembly seat from Multan. A guard and his secretary were killed during the kidnapping.
Yousaf Raza Gilani received the news en route to Bagh on Tuesday, where he was participating in PPP’s election rally along with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. “I was about to board the helicopter to Bagh when I heard the news but I still chose to attend the rally. My son has been recovered with your prayers. I could not have been so selfish as to ignore you,” the veteran PPP leader said in his address.
During the course of three years, the former prime minister managed to get in touch with his son once. In April 2014, Gilani claimed that had been in contact with the kidnappers who “never demanded ransom because they are interested only in securing the release of some prisoners”.
On May 24 last year, he had a telephonic conversation with Ali Haider. “My son Ali Haider Gilani told me that he is happy and safe at [an] unknown place,” he told reporters. “He enquired about the health of his mother and other family members. He declined to disclose more and said that the Almighty Allah will surely help us. He said that he is safe and sound and we should not be worried about him.”
Earlier in 2015, then Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada had claimed that both Ali Haider Gilani and Shahbaz Taseer were being held captive in Afghanistan. “The Punjab government has made contacts with officials in Afghanistan to recover the two men and bring them back to Pakistan,” he had said in February, 2015.
Khanzada was killed in a suicide attack on August 16, 2015, at his home office in Shadikhan. The attack was believed to be a reaction to the death of former Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Malik Ishaq in a reported gunfight with the police.
“The family is ecstatic at Haider’s return and obviously at a time like this, words may not be enough to explain our happiness,” says Ali Rizvi, Yusuf Raza Gilani’s nephew and Ali Haider Gilani’s cousin. “Obviously the family was hopeful of Haider’s return but in matters like these there tends to be a lot of uncertainty that becomes incredibly stressful. No family deserves to go through the torture of not knowing what happened to their loved one.”
“Naturally, with the return of Shahbaz Taseer our hopes had been raised. The entire family had been praying for the last three years. It is not possible to even fathom the ordeal that the Gilani family or the Taseer family have gone through. Particularly Haider’s mother, his wife and his son,” Rizvi added.
Rizvi said the family was hoping another abductive relative Umar Mobeen would be recovered soon as well. Mobeen, the nephew of former chief justice of Pakistan Tasaduq Jilani, was abducted from Multan in June 2014.