The Kidnapping of Ajmal Khan

Originally appeared in The National.

The last known person to see Ajmal Khan, the vice-chancellor of Islamia College University, was a newspaper hawker a block away from Khan’s home. The scene the man witnessed was a familiar one in Peshawar. Around nine in the morning on September 7, 2010, Khan left his house in a late-model Toyota. His driveway’s iron gates, decorated with ornamental metal grape-leaves, had barely closed when a white car cut him off. The hawker watched as assailants commandeered the car, shoved the chauffeur aside and sandwiched Khan between them in the back seat before driving off. The hawker then walked to the Khan’s gate, knocked, and informed the family: “Ajmal Khan has been kidnapped.”

During the last three years, abduction has joined drug trafficking and smuggling among the main criminal industries of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province). “We have become used to it,” says Ziaullah Sehrai, an archaeology professor who heads one of Islamia’s academic unions. “This has become a custom, a tradition of blasting and kidnapping.” And in a city of a thousand kidnappings, Khan’s is the most prominent. In a way it is also the most frightening, because it demonstrates how the mechanisms for dealing with this crime are failing, and why the kidnapping rate will almost certainly continue to rise.

The crime has become a skilled trade, its practitioners as patient as diamond-cutters. The victims, Khan included, have almost no hope of defending themselves, since merely to leave the house is to invite attack. One professor involved in efforts to get Khan released estimates that the assailants spent three months prowling the quiet dirt roads of Professors Colony, tracking the precise hour and path of Khan’s 10-minute commute. “This may have been the third attempt,” says the professor, who asked not to be named. He cites rumour, which is the firmest intelligence anyone has about the exact nature of the crime. “They were stalking him,” he says.

The response of the professors has been outrage, directed as much toward the government as toward the kidnappers themselves. Khan’s allies are suspicious of police and have a generally adversarial relationship with the government, which is perhaps understandable given its inability to improve security. “There is a proper police post just at the entrance to Professors Colony,” Sehrai points out, adding that the police did nothing to stop the broad-daylight abduction. The government should have given Khan bodyguards, he says, and its failure has made it responsible for recovering him. Others implied that the police’s inaction suggested collusion, although there is no evidence that this was the case. Khan’s own decisions made him a soft target: he had enough money to hire bodyguards but opted not to. According to Sehrai he would claim, with misplaced optimism, that “I myself am my security, because I have done nothing to anybody.”

Khan is from a prominent family in Pakistani politics. His cousin, Asfandyar Wali Khan, heads the Awami National Party, currently the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Asfandyar, too, has been the victim of violence, including a suicide bombing attempt in 2008). The institution that Khan still nominally heads after more than four months in captivity occupies a place of national pride in Pakistan’s higher education system. It’s not difficult to see why kidnappers might target its chief. Founded in 1913 as an Islamic alternative to the Christian-led Edwardes College on the other side of Peshawar, Islamia has risen in influence to become one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Pakistan. A drawing of its main hall graces the back of the Pakistani 1,000 rupee note, and every year the university graduates a large share of the latest generation of Pakistan’s ruling class. In Peshawar, one of the more chaotic of Pakistan’s major cities at the best of times and now the one hit hardest by the disintegration of civil society, Islamia has remained calm and safe.

But like Ajmal Khan, it is sandwiched between dangers. The Grand Trunk Road runs along its southern edge. A few kilometres east, past the empty plains where Afghan refugees lived in the 1980s, is the end of Pakistani territory and the beginning of the lawless Momand agency, the federally administered tribal grey zone that is a haven for smugglers and criminals. In the other direction is the military cantonment, headquarters of the uniformed forces that have experienced such frustration in their attempts to control the tribal areas. University Town, the large section of Peshawar dominated by Islamia College and other tertiary educational institutions, lies between these two clashing areas. Until Khan’s disappearance it had largely avoided being caught in the crossfire. The universities retain the dignified air of a British public school, albeit with South Asian flair. The grounds of Islamia College are immaculate, the boys resplendent in black shirwani and white shirts, the girls somewhat less showily adorned in pale blue.

Some of the motivations for seizing Khan are obvious. The desire to penetrate that class’s bubble of safety could be reason enough to kidnap one of its community leaders. Also, by virtue of his position and political connections, Khan’s family probably has enough money to pay a sizeable ransom. But ransom from the family seems not to have been the point. That made the abduction unusual, if not unique. Peshawar’s criminals generally kidnap the rich, hoping to get money directly from the victim and his family. In the last two years numerous titans of industry, including factory owners, politicians, and a prominent defence contractor, have had the experience of hearing tyres screech and feeling gun-barrels in their ribs. The goal is to extract money, at whatever rate the market will bear, from those personally attached to the victim. Violence with a political or religious motive happens too, although lately it has usually taken the form of bombings, often at Friday prayers.

What makes Ajmal Khan’s kidnapping particularly disturbing is that he is known less for his money than for who he is, and the community his friends and colleagues could mobilise. As the head of a prominent institution of civil society he inspires loyalty from professors and students. Those loyal colleagues have pressured the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to make concessions for his release. The professors boycotted classes to protest, effectively shutting the school down for a month (part of which was during the Eid al Adha holiday). Students went home and the classrooms and cricket pitches stood silent. On January 10, after another month of classes and simmering agitation by academic leaders, the university’s unions announced another boycott, effective immediately.

Khan’s kidnappers, now known to be Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (or TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) found a target with an institution and public-sector union behind him. They are now relying on those proxies to push the government to surrender to their demands. That means that while the Pakistani Taliban held Khan hostage, the professors briefly held their students’ education hostage in return, paying the inconvenience forward. Student opinion on the closure was mixed. “A lot of my time was wasted,” said Farzana Sher, a 30-year-old student of English. “But it was for a noble cause.” Others complained that the boycott disrupted their schedules. “Our whole college and university criteria became affected,” complained Muhammad Azam, a postgraduate economics student. “We also feel guilty that our VC is kidnapped. But it’s not our mistake.” On January 11 at Islamia, police used tear gas on crowds of protesters, including staff rallying for Khan, as well as students protesting changes that have taken place during the administrative limbo caused by Khan’s absence.

The little that we know about Khan’s fate is not encouraging. Three months of stalking the vice-chancellor appear to have paid off. “The kidnappers are very well-informed people,” says Fida Mohammad, a wheat geneticist who has led faculty efforts to secure Khan’s release. Driving south would have taken them through University Town, past checkpoints, police, and crowds of students who knew Khan as an unusually hands-on administrator, often seen in the university’s quads talking with students and faculty. Instead, Khan and his kidnappers drove north onto the service roads and irrigation ditches near the fields of the university’s agricultural sciences unit.

The police gave chase and set up roadblocks that caught the kidnappers’ driver, but not the vice-chancellor in his commandeered car. The abductors were last spotted heading into the tribal areas of Momand Agency. The city limits of Peshawar end abruptly, with urban sprawl and markets turning into a dry, rocky landscape ruled by tribal practices and complicated social webs that generally work to protect their own members. This also allows them to conceal kidnap victims for long periods. Khan may as well have been driven into another dimension. “It’s not like in the US,” said Mohammad, who earned his doctorate in Idaho. “The police can’t follow them with helicopters, like they were chasing OJ Simpson.”

Except in a handful of grainy videos no one has seen Khan since his abduction. His wife got a message within half an hour advising her to find someone to negotiate her husband’s freedom, otherwise he would soon be dead. The TTP have claimed responsibility and demanded that the government pay money and release prisoners in exchange for Khan’s life. Deadlines have come and gone but the government hasn’t reached any agreement. Khan’s village of Charsadda convened a tribal council that made a request for extra time, which the TTP has allowed. But the videos clearly announced that the alternative to negotiation was Khan’s death. The first one, delivered by disk to local media, showed him sombre but healthy-looking in a traditional wavy-brimmed Chitrali cap. Sitting before black-masked men carrying Kalashnikovs and daggers, Khan begged his fellow professors for help.

The question of how to respond to a kidnapping is one Peshawaris have pondered with great attention, but without any promising conclusions. Paying usually works, when the money is there. But it also leads to perverse incentives, and ultimately to more kidnapping. Victims often flee the city, starting a life from scratch in Karachi or overseas, since once criminals know their family will pay, they know they have a worthwhile target. In Khan’s case, wealth blends with political significance to produce a motive. The kidnappers have structured their demands to produce a persistent migraine for the government as well as the possibility of a monetary payout. For its part, the government finds a legion of otherwise obedient citizens suddenly pressuring it to deal with terrorists.

At first the professors, led by Mohammad, responded to the kidnapping strategically with media silence. They tried to keep the affair from becoming well-known and growing so big that neither side could manage it or approve an agreement. The strategy was informed by the hushed dealings when Lutfullah Kaka Khel, the vice-chancellor of Kohat University, south of Peshawar, was kidnapped. He was released after seven months and payment of a ransom, rumoured to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in 2009. (Another vice-chancellor, Mohammad Farooq Khan in the restive Swat district, was not so lucky: the Taliban killed him and his assistant.) But the kidnappers wanted publicity: they wanted to encourage academia to rise up and demand that the government concede money or prisoners to the Taliban.

“After the second video,” Mohammad says, “we had no other choice but to rebut them with an extreme step. We didn’t care what the government was doing. We just needed Ajmal Khan, and as president [of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association], it was my responsibility to pressure the government that they should go for the deal as soon as possible.”

Yet Mohammad didn’t even know TTP’s exact demands. A month later, he admitted he still didn’t know what deal would be satisfactory, much less whether it would be worthwhile. “Whatever deal! We don’t know,” he said. “Swapping for friends in the custody of the government. Asking for money. Whatever.” He led a march on the Peshawar Press Club. A second march on the Governor’s House was stopped by authorities, although audiences were granted and promises made by the provincial government. Over the next two months, he pushed harder and harder for the provincial government to negotiate and strike a deal as soon as possible.

The first boycott broke in early December, soon after Eid. In the last video, from early January, Khan looks gaunt. He breaks down in tears while beseeching Ameer Haider Hoti, the Awami National Party’s chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to cooperate. At Islamia College, with classes back in session, two large banners still hang over the gates calling for the vice-chancellor’s immediate release. One adorns the gate on the Grand Trunk Road, overlooking the chaos of the city. The other banner, set in an academic grove several hundred metres back from the road, seems to be in a different world altogether, far from the bustle and ignored even by those who pass under it. Students have protested publicly, interspersing religious slogans with calls for Khan’s release. They also threatened to shut down the Grand Trunk Road to call attention to the issue. But by now no one seems to notice the banners much. And on days without protests, life goes on, as it must, and students pass under them in chirpy conversation, with little sign of alarm that their vice-chancellor is probably now chained to a wall somewhere.

Mohammad has a bin full of ragged black armbands on his desk. The morning that I visit the campus, he’s the only one I see wearing one. The faculty want their leader free but frustration has metamorphosed slowly and imperceptibly into ruthlessness. By now, Mohammad’s position is disturbingly close to total surrender to Khan’s captors. It’s easy to understand. There are no alternatives, no SWAT teams planning a raid on a basement in Momand. Having entered the black hole of the tribal areas, one doesn’t re-emerge into the light except by the consent of the kidnappers.

These perverse incentives are not lost on Mohammad and Sehrai, who are well aware that every act of protest makes the kidnapping of the next vice-chancellor at Islamia more likely, even though it makes Khan’s release more likely as well. But they answers the criticism with a shrug. “Until and unless the government tightens security of high-profile persons” such as the vice-chancellor, Sehrai says, the government needs to take responsibility for kidnappings like Khan’s.

As for the consequences of paying off kidnappers and the likelihood of more kidnappings after doing so, Muhammad is more blunt. “When your father is kidnapped, what can you do? You do not care about others’ fathers.”



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