In November 2008, the Pakistani army launched its first major offensive against militants in the tribal areas of the country. I was working as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and had arrived in the border town of Peshawar from Islamabad, prepared to enter the war zone with a military unit as an embedded journalist. It was not an ideal arrangement, and I expected nothing more than a sloppily choreographed dog-and-pony show that would showcase cooperation with the U.S. military aims. But reporters were barred from entering the war zone, and this was the only way to get in legally. It also meant a close, if carefully managed, look at the battlefield. After weeks of wrangling, I had a green light from the military, and I thought that little could go wrong.
Then it went wrong in a manner I had not even considered. When I arrived in Peshawar, my fixer told me he’d heard that the Taliban in the tribal areas had kidnapped a Canadian woman. Over the next few hours, I pieced together from rumors and half-baked accounts that she was a freelance reporter of some sort. I didn’t recognize her name, but I gathered that in spite of many warnings by local journalists, she had decided to travel alone into the heart of Taliban country to shoot a documentary.
I called my contact in the Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI, with whom I had arranged my embed. It was immediately evident that the tone had changed. The colonel, who had been reluctant but helpful so far, was no longer in the mood to accommodate my professional requests. Had I heard about this Canadian woman? he asked. I told him that I had. Did I know her? I did not.
As we spoke, a few things became clear: first, the colonel was not convinced that the woman was a legitimate journalist. He didn’t go so far as to accuse of her being a spy or a collaborator with the insurgents, but he did wonder out loud why she was not on anyone’s radar if she was working in Pakistan as a reporter. Second, he was somehow holding me—and all English-language journalists—responsible for making his job more difficult. Third, he was going to make sure I paid for the PR nightmare that was already unfolding for him with the Canadian government. “We’re not taking in any reporters,” he said, and hung up before I could get in a full sentence.
The Canadian, Khadija Abdul Qahaar (formerly Beverly Anne Giesbrecht), was fifty-five years old at the time of her kidnapping. Two years later, she is still in captivity. She was a one-person news organization, the publisher of Jihadunspun.com, a Web site dedicated to chronicling what Qahaar viewed as a war against Muslims waged by America in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. By venturing alone into the tribal areas, she had obviously put her life in danger. She had also screwed up my story and, after speaking with the colonel, I realized that she had eroded, however slightly, the reputation of the entire foreign press corps covering the war. Qahaar’s abduction left many of us foreign correspondents feeling that we had to be extra careful, extra cooperative with the authorities to make up for a major gaffe by someone who was supposed to be “one of us.”
As frustrated as I was, I found it difficult to blame Qahaar completely. For more than a year, I had worked in Pakistan as a freelance reporter. I had only weeks earlier become a full-time correspondent and “legal”—eligible to obtain a coveted press pass. I knew all too well that for a freelancer in a war zone, bold (and even reckless) moves—such as the one made by Qahaar—often seem like the only way to get attention, and a paycheck. As a freelancer I too had traveled into the tribal areas with nothing more than a notepad, a camera, and a young fixer by my side. With Pakistan now in an all-out war, nowhere was particularly safe. My closest calls had actually come in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, when the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned from exile. A bomb exploded in the middle of a massive procession that I was covering, killing nearly one hundred and fifty people. There were dozens of foreign freelancers operating from Pakistan during this time, and most of them, at some point, had done something foolish in search of a story. Qahaar’s misfortune was that she got caught.