‘The Meadow’ is a meticulous account of a brutal kidnapping that paved the way for 9/11
As a poster boy for global jihad, the portly, bookish Masood Azhar was never likely to compare with Osama bin Laden. Born into a Pakistani fundamentalist family, he was nicknamed “little fatty” by his brothers, who joked that when wrapped in his white preacher’s robes, he looked more like a well-fed larva than an austere jihadist. His battlefield record, too, was a joke: attending mujahideen training in Afghanistan in 1988, his war wound came not from a Soviet infidel, but a sentry who shot him when he forgot to shout the password while nipping to the loo one night.
However, forced into a desk job as editor of a jihadist newspaper, Azhar finally found his niche: his racy, if fanciful, stories of life on the front line became a huge hit in Pakistan. It also made him a valuable propagandist when Pakistan’s secret service began to foment its irredentist insurgency in Indian-ruled Kashmir – until, that is, his handlers despatched him into the field again, whereupon Indian soldiers nabbed him almost straight away.
Bumbling or not, Azhar was deemed worth getting back at any price – and in this case, it was paid by six Western backpackers, kidnapped by Azhar’s comrades in 1995 as bargaining chips for his release. The Meadow, a meticulous, if sometimes overdetailed, account of the saga, is the name of the lush, pine-scented camping spot in the Kashmiri Himalayas from where they were snatched. Like a real-life version of Alex Garland’s The Beach, The Meadow had almost folkloric status among backpackers, for whom the stunning surroundings and frisson of danger offered the perfect traveller’s tale.
In this case, though, only one of them, American Don Childs, survived to tell it, after escaping early on and being spotted by an Indian helicopter patrol. Four others – Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, German Dirk Hasert and American Don Hutchings – have never been found, while Norwegian Hans Christian Ostro, 27, was “slaughtered like a goat for Eid”.
At the time, such theatrical brutality was a first even for the seasoned Scotland Yard negotiator sent out to help free the Britons. However, the authors of The Meadow, who contend that the Kashmiri hostage crisis was effectively the opening shot in what became the global war on terror, point out that it was not the last. Omar Sheikh, an Azhar protégé, goes on to organise the same fate for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journalreporter kidnapped in 2002, and the tactic became almost standard insurgent practice in post-Saddam Iraq.
As the book also makes clear, though, brutality is part of life in Indian-ruled Kashmir, where the counter-insurgency strategy is succinctly described as “get them by the balls, and the hearts and minds will follow”. Worse still, rivalry between different Indian army, intelligence and police outfits, combined with reluctance to accept Scotland Yard or FBI help, render the hostages’ chances hopeless from the outset.
Most explosively of all, though, the authors claim that far from being utterly clueless, the security forces identify the hostages’ exact location early on, but choose not to act simply to prolong the adverse international publicity for Pakistan, which is fingered as having backed the plot. They further allege that for the same reasons, a rogue Indian police unit then had the hostages killed.
While such a theory may seem far-fetched, the level of research put in by authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, who both covered the kidnapping as foreign correspondents in India, lend it plausibility. The passage of time has helped loosen tongues, and an impressive cast helps tell the story, from the whisky-drinking Indian policeman who acts as chief negotiator, through to his Scotland Yard counterpart, Roy Ramm, who feels the posh mandarins in the Foreign Office put far too much faith in the Indians. It also lays bare the pain for the families of the four missing men. When Paul Wells’s father, Bob, comes to Kashmir looking for answers, an Indian police chief shows him a picture of a decomposing head which he insists is his son’s, only for DNA tests to prove it to be that of an unidentified local.
Azhar was eventually freed in exchange for 178 Indian Airlines passengers whose jet was hijacked and flown to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1999. His followers are later said to have trained two of the July 7 bombers, and today he continues to cyber-sermonise via YouTube, outlasting bin Laden et al. The key to a long life in jihadism, it seems, is to preach, not practise.
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