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The David Rohde Puzzle

The official story about the Times reporter’s dramatic kidnapping and escape leaves much unexplained. Inside sources offer their accounts to fill in the gaps.

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David Rohde, then working for the Christian Science Monitor, speaks to the media after his release by Bosnian Serbs on November 8, 1995.  

The story that has emerged over the past few days about the secret confinement of journalist David S. Rohde and his dramatic escape in the wee hours of Saturday morning is remarkable. On November 10, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter was kidnapped, along with his Afghan fixer, Tahir Ludin, and their driver, en route to a meeting with an Afghan Taliban commander south of Kabul. He was held in Taliban-controlled northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan for seven months; all the while the Times worked frantically to secure his release and convinced dozens of competing news organizations to remain silent about the abduction and their negotiations for fear that any attention to Rohde’s case could lead to his life being put at even greater risk.

Then, over the weekend, we learned that Rohde and Ludin had suddenly escaped their captors, hitched a ride with the Pakistani military, and soon were safely in the confines of a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Ludin told a Times reporter how he had outwitted the guards by keeping them up late playing a board game so that he and Rohde could sneak out while they were sleeping. Then the two men climbed a wall, and, with a purloined rope, lowered themselves 20 feet to the ground. It’s a tale out of a movie, and thankfully it has a happy ending, but it also raises as many questions as it answers.

Rohde himself has not spoken about his kidnapping or his escape except to confirm to a Times reporter “the accuracy of Mr. Ludin’s account.” And Times executive editor Bill Keller responded to questions by saying, “We’re not going to talk about strategy, tactics, deliberations, advice we got, any of that—even to correct the abundant misinformation now in circulation. People are free to write what they want, but we believe such stories only raise the level of danger for our reporters in the field, who already have enough risk to contend with.”

But because the Times isn’t providing much in the way of detail, the paper leaves it to others to try to fill in the gaps. The story of those who worked to get Rohde out, and what led to his escape, is only beginning to become known. This account is pieced together from multiple sources either directly involved in the negotiations or apprised of the Times’ negotiating efforts as they were going on; it suggests a patchwork of attempts to get the reporter out alive, involving the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department, and multiple private intelligence contractors. The scenario they describe is incomplete, and not always possible to verify, but it portrays a complicated process with players frequently operating at cross-purposes.

In announcing the news of Rohde’s escape, one thing the Times was careful to point out is that it paid no ransom for his release. That is apparently true, but two sources involved in the rescue efforts say the paper had authorized as much as $2 million in ransom funds, which would have been one of the highest known amounts ever paid to secure the release of a journalist. According to these sources, a $1 million offer was on the table even as Rohde was scrambling to safety. One American contractor involved says that although no ransom was ultimately paid, money did play a part in Rohde’s escape. He adds a crucial detail to the Times’ published account of the escape: That guards had been bribed to look the other way as Rohde and Ludin made their way out of the compound.

The Kidnapping

On November 10, 2008, Rohde rode roughly 30 miles south of the Afghan capital to Logar province in order to conduct an interview with a local Taliban commander who had fought the Soviets in the eighties. Rohde was conducting research for a book on the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. In the car with him was Tahir Ludin, 35, a well-known and well-regarded fixer and translator to Western journalists working in the country, according an Afghan colleague of Ludin’s. Ludin had set up the interview for Rohde and would translate. The driver was a regular of Ludin’s, Asadullah Mangal, who owned a taxi service with his brother.

The commander they expected to see was Abu Tayeb, a grizzled Afghan-Soviet War veteran and the son of a teacher—more of a local thug than a religious ideologue. Afghan experts say the motivation for most of his purported violent activities is money, not jihad.

But Rohde and his two companions never made it to see the Taliban leader. They were stopped before they reached him and taken captive by men whom two sources described as working for Abu Tayeb. According to John Chase, a ransom negotiator for AKE Group with sixteen years of experience, these men would have known how much they could get for kidnapping a foreigner like Rohde and selling him to a bigger player. Chase says the men would have made about $5,000. That was the kidnappers’ likely plan.


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