Ali Haider Gilani, the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was rescued in a joint US-Afghan forces operation in Afghanistan, having spent three years in al Qaeda and Taliban captivity. He was kidnapped on May 2, 2013, during an election rally for the Pakistan People’s Party in his hometown of Multan.
In an interview with international media, Ali Haider Gilani opened up for the first time about his time in captivity and the dramatic turn of events that led to his release.
Gilani, during an interview with BBC, said his abductors told him the kidnapping was aimed directly at his father. “My father was prime minister when their leader Osama Bin Laden was killed. He also started an operation in South Waziristan. They told me they wanted to take revenge.”
Following his abduction, Gilani was first taken to the industrial town of Faisalabad after which he was moved to North Waziristan.
“I was chained for two years,” he said.
“I was kept in a small room, not allowed to see the sky for one year and two months. I forgot how the sun felt on my skin.”
Gilani said he had a diary where he tried to keep track of time and jot down day-to-day thoughts: “It kept me sane.” He added, “I prayed a lot. I used to think of my son and say I have to survive for him.”
His son, Mohamed Jamaluddin, was a toddler when Gilani was abducted. He said, “One of the most difficult things about his captivity was knowing that I missed key moments in my son’s life like his first day of school and his birthdays.”
While the al Qaeda militants did not physically torture him, Ali Haider said, “They tried to break me mentally.”
Gilani said that he feared for his life every day. “I was in a war zone.”
“There were drones, tanks, mortar and jet strikes. Drones have a horrible sound, it’s like a huge bee constantly hovering over you. It wasn’t just one drone, there were three, four or five at one time roaming day and night.”
It was a drone strike in January that led al Qaeda to hand Gilani over to the Taliban. “They handed me over to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in the Shawal area, in North Waziristan to keep me safe.”
But soon after, the Pakistan Army pushed into the area and the Taliban militants fled across the border to Afghanistan, taking Gilani with them. All through that time, he was being watched closely by an al Qaeda operative who accompanied him wherever he went.
His living conditions, however, improved with the TTP. “I wasn’t chained, I was allowed to walk, to see the sun,” he said.
The former premier’s son had been in Afghanistan for just over two months, accompanied by two militant guards, one from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and one from al Qaeda when his captors told him they had to vacate the compound because they received information of an expected American air raid.
Ali Gilani says that during this time in captivity, an important member of the militant group who went by the name of Zia stayed with him.
“Al Qaeda was demanding the release of some women from Ayman al-Zwahiri’s family in my exchange, and a hefty sum.”
He said although he had not received any threats prior to his abduction, he was told that he was being “followed”.
“We left at night and were walking for three or four hours when I heard helicopters and gunshots,” he said. “I fell to the ground. Then a voice told me to take my shirt off, put my hands in the air and someone came and tied my hands.
“I said ‘My name is Ali Haider Gilani I’m the son of the former prime minister. They didn’t believe me at first but later they confirmed I was telling the truth,” he said.
“I was just lucky to be there,” he said of his rescue. “It didn’t sink in till I was in the helicopter, the guy [from the US Forces] said ‘Mr Gilani, you’re going home’.”
“I was moved to Bagram airbase and was met by senior Afghan generals,” he said. The next day he went to Kabul and saw his brother for the first time.
“I was still in shock,” he said. “A few hours ago, I was in the hands of the Taliban. I could die any moment. Now, I’m seeing my family.”
By that time, the news had spread all over Pakistan and celebrations had broken out in his hometown of Multan. When he arrived there his family was waiting.
“First, I hugged my mother. She was crying and I said ‘it’s over I’m back now.’ Then I met my son. He’d changed so much, I didn’t recognise him but he did.” “I said ‘Baby, I’m your father’ and he told me ‘I recognise you, Baba’.”
When asked about his future plans, he said he was keen to move on with his life. “I am writing a book where I will reveal more details about my time in captivity.” He said he will eventually go back to politics. “It’s in my blood,” he said with a smile.