There is no good time to be kidnapped in a war zone, but late in a lame-duck presidency is worse than most. Because of Rohde’s reporting on the wars in the Balkans a decade earlier, he had allies in Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke (who had helped to secure his release when Rohde was held captive by Serbian forces in 1995), but six days after the election, both of them had months to go before taking prominent roles in the new administration. The only practical recourse the Times had was a kidnapping and ransom company—referred to as K&R in hostage-negotiations industry.
The Times’ insurance company, AIG, hired a K&R firm called Clayton Consultants to handle the negotiations. According to a source close to the Times, assistant general counsel David McCraw was made chairman of the paper’s crisis-management team. He would speak on behalf of the Times to the Clayton consultant in Kabul. That consultant would then direct communications to a trusted local identified as Farouq Samim by the Christian Science Monitor, who would pass them on to the militants holding Rohde, Ludin, and Mangal.
Or at least that was the way it was supposed to work. When Rohde’s captors made contact with the Times’ team, their demands were astronomical: They asked for $25 million as well as the release of fifteen Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo and an Afghan prison, according to two sources involved in the negotiations. But, say these sources, McCraw and the Times’ crisis team never had a chance to respond to the demands. According to this account, Clayton’s man in Kabul responded with an offer of $786,000. A kidnapping and ransom insider says this number was above the going rate for Western hostages, which ranges from $250,000 to $750,000. The kidnappers, perhaps recognizing this as a high starting bid, refused the offer. This early exchange—along with long periods of silence between the negotiators and the kidnappers—strained the Times’ relationship with Clayton, according to these sources. (A spokesperson for Clayton says, “Our consultants do not comment on the details of any kidnap cases whether or not we have been involved in the negotiations.”)
Within three weeks of Rohde’s kidnapping, according to a source close to the Times, his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, had requested that the Times hire an additional consulting firm—this one specializing in military and intelligence contracting—to try to get him out. The Times, and AIG, agreed.
While Mulvihill and other members of Rohde’s family naturally feared for the reporter’s life, intelligence and kidnapping experts sensed that his captors’ goal was not to kill Rohde but to make money. “We were never really worried that they would kill him,” says one of the sources. “This wasn’t Al Qaeda. These were businessmen.”
Nonetheless, as word of Rohde’s capture began to circulate in the news community, the Times convinced other news organizations to keep the incident quiet. The specter of Daniel Pearl was constant, as was the fear that if Rohde’s kidnapping became an international circus, the price for his release might escalate.
By all accounts, the Times agonized over the question of whether to pay a ransom, knowing that to do so might put other journalists in the area in danger but also that it might be the only way to secure the safe return of their colleague. Multiple sources agree that executives at the Times ultimately decided they would pay.
But as deliberations and negotiations between the Clayton consultants and the Taliban continued, dissent developed inside the newspaper over whether this was the right decision. According to two sources directly involved or close to the negotiations, Rohde’s Times colleague in Pakistan, the British journalist Carlotta Gall, was particularly concerned. Gall told people at the Times that paying the Taliban any money would only cause other journalists operating in the region to become the targets of kidnapping. She was not alone in this view.
Gall began her own efforts through intermediaries in Pakistan to communicate with the captors, according to three different sources involved. These sources say that Gall was trying to use her ex-Taliban contacts to reach out to those holding Rohde and persuade them to release the reporter for no money and no hostages.
A Thwarted Rescue Attempt
In December, an assault team of roughly ten men geared up for a daring raid in the Afghan province of Khost, just west of the Pakistan border. According to two sources directly involved, the assault team was organized by the private intelligence contractors Mulvihill had persuaded the Times to hire, although it is not known whether the Times authorized it.
But just before the assault team left their base, according to a person directly involved in the operation, Rohde was moved. Rohde, in fact, was no longer in Abu Tayeb’s custody at all. He had been sold up the food chain, to Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan warlord with a $5 million price tag on his head through the State Department’s Reward for Justice program. The son of famed mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin is believed by U.S. authorities to be aligned closely with both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while maintaining his own insurgent organization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The younger Haqqani is considered a terrorist and suspected to be the person behind the suicide bombing at Kabul’s five-star Serena Hotel last year.