Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days In 2008, Jere Van Dyk set off from Kabul to write the authoritative book on the Taliban. That February, he became the second American journalist to be captured by the Taliban. In Captive, he tells his story.
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Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days

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Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days

Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A little over two years ago, journalist Jere Van Dyk set off from Kabul on a journey into the heart of the Taliban. Twenty-five years earlier he had come to Afghanistan to write a book about the Mujahideen, the warriors who fought the Soviet invaders. Now some of those same men fought a new war against a new enemy.

To find them, Van Dyk needed to cross into Pakistan, into the mountainous tribal areas where the Taliban reconstituted itself, where al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden were also said to be hiding. Accompanied by an interpreter and two body guards, he walked to meet a local commander he believed he could trust when a dozen men armed with AK-47's and rocket propelled grenades took him captive.

Van Dyk spent the next 45 days as their prisoner. Later in the program, Pulitzer and now Pritzker Prize winner Rick Atkinson joins us. But first, if you'd like to talk to Jere Van Dyk about his story and what he learned about the Taliban, our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jere Van Dyk joins us from our bureau in New York. His book is "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban."

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JERE VAN DYK (Author, "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban"): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I think it's important to go back to your motivations for going into this very dangerous area. Part of it was that you wanted to explain the Taliban in a way that they hadn't been explained before.

Mr. VAN DYK: I felt, drawing on my experiences in the 1980s, my knowledge of Pashtun culture, Pashtuns being the principal ethnic group in Afghanistan -across the border in Pakistan the Taliban are Pashtuns - the fact that I had lived with them in the 1980s, knew the Mujahideen leaders, half of whom today are part of the Kabul government, they are joined to the West, they are an integral part of the Karzai government, the other half are leaders of the Taliban movement. Knowing them, I felt, drawing on my contacts from the past, my knowledge of the culture, I knew how to dress, how to walk, how to look at a man in a way - I understood the very close line between Pashtunwali, tribal codes and Islam. I knew where they came together and where they were apart.

I felt, because of my understanding in the 1980s, that they'd protect me - they did protect me - that they would therefore protect me this time. I had been with the Taliban four times already, gone up into the mountains. Each time they kept their word. Each time I survived. This time I was going deep into the tribal areas, where no Western reporter had gone in decades. I was scared. I knew it was very dangerous, but I felt I could do it.

What I wanted to find out was how different were the Taliban from the Mujahideen, who was backing them, and just how close they were to perhaps to the leadership of al-Qaida. When I was there in the 1980s, an Egyptian army major came to stay with us. I realized many years later that he was the very beginning of al-Qaida, and I knew Osama Bin Laden had stayed with a tribal leader, or a Mujahideen leader, part of whose group I was I was part of that network. Maybe, just maybe, drawing on all my experiences, I could find out what others could not.

CONAN: And a lot of your book, indeed, while a lot of it's about your experience as a captive, but a lot of the book is about that tension you were talking about - between the tribal codes, Pashtunwali, and, well, the new view of Islam as espoused by the Taliban.

Mr. VAN DYK: Exactly. I spent months along the border in Afghanistan, crossed over into Pakistan four times already before my fateful journey. To a man, there is not one tribal leader, peasant, shopkeeper, anyone I had talked to, in any village where I stayed, and I always had to avoid all American soldiers, all Pakistani intelligence people, all NATO, all NATO military institutions, everybody.

So I was living deep in Pashtun culture. Not one single person told me, under tribal law, that bin Laden could be kept along the border. They said that the only reason that Mullah Omar did not give Osama bin Laden over to the United States was because of Pashtunwali.

CONAN: After 9/11.

Mr. VAN DYK: After 9/11 it's because of Pashtunwali. The tribal code is 5,000 years old. Islam is only 1,500 years old in that world. So its a very, very delicate dance between the two. Very complex, but I felt, knowing that I could, I knew how to operate between the two and then I could find perhaps some answers that have so far eluded us.

CONAN: There is a quote I wanted to read from your book, your speaking with one of your captors and he says: We came into this world with nothing and leave with nothing. The only thing that counts is Islam. A person who misses one prayer will spend 200,000 years in hell. It was tyranny, you write, it was fear, always fear, that he tried to instill in me, as the Mawlawis instilled the fear of hell in the mosque when they preached.

Mr. VAN DYK: Yes. What happened was, when I was captured, after a certain number of interrogations, I was being inducted into the Brotherhood of the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis were those who captured me. Wahhabis are the strike force, if you will, of Islam(ph), bin Laden - the 9/11 hijackers were all Wahhabis. Under the British, when the British were in this region in the 1930s and before that, they were called Hindustani fanatics.

They had me, and what they said was, what the jailer made very clear, was I had to convert or die. And so I was very, very carefully trying to walk a very fine line, being shown respect, showing that I was deeply interested. I went through all the motions, I was deeply interested. I was, but I knew that I couldn't lie, because there is something deeply reptilian, deeply primal about these people.

This is a non-literate culture, deep in the mountains. They could see through, instinctly(ph), they could see through anything that I was doing wrong or I was being false. I had to be very, very humble, but not be too cowardly. I had to show strength. At the same time I had to show them that I was not at all opposed to Islam. I knew, however, that if I said I was a Muslim and I wasn't, I would be punished. They would see through it.

CONAN: You were also at the same time the golden goose, or the golden rooster, as they might translate it. They were holding you for well, what? A million and a half dollars at one point? And they also wanted several - you to be exchanged for several of their men who were being held in Guantanamo.

Mr. VAN DYK: What happened was, on the fourth night, which was the worst night of all, and they interrogated each one of my two bodyguards, and my interpreter, they took them out. I didn't expect them to return to their cell. Our cell was a very dark, 12 feet by 12 feet, could not see across the cell. We were only allowed out three minutes at night. That night, after they finished interrogating them, they came in, 15 men, armed, some held lanterns, some held flashlights. They stared at me. The Taliban commander sat in front of me. They took a small video camera that I had and he didn't know how to turn it on, and behind me came men with sunglasses. Sunglasses. They also wore black turbans, rifles. I knew what was going to happen next.

I thought of Daniel Pearl. I was the second. Daniel Pearl was kidnapped almost exactly six years to the day before I was the next foreign journalist captured in Pakistan. I knew that I was next, and so I knew also that I had to save myself. And so this time was, was of course terrifying, but I also felt that by not showing too much weakness and looking him in the eye, which was the hardest thing for me to do - it was like lifting lead, for me to lift my back up, to look at him straight between the eye as they filmed that - and they filmed that, and I knew that my parents were watching, or my father was watching. My mother had died. I said my brother's name, my sister's name, their children. I thought of Daniel Pearl and Nicolas Berg, but I kept staring at him, kept staring. Finally he put the camera down. Then they did it again, this time the rifle was next to my temple, and the man put his hand in the vest to pull out the knife. And I was certain, at that second, that I would die.

Later they said we want to use this video to exchange you for three of our brothers in Guantanamo. And if we are unable to do that we would like you to contribute to the Taliban movement, and the amount was $1.5 million dollars.

CONAN: An amount that later went down in various amounts. In fact, you write at the end of the book that - that's a harrowing story and absolutely must have been absolutely terrifying. And there were, I'm sure, other moments - and I know there were other moments reading your book - when you were afraid that this time it would happen, this time it would happen, this time it would happen. In fact, even when you were eventually released, there were moments up until you left the country, you arrived in Dubai, and wondered are they here? Of course they're here, they get their money from here.

You fly back to New York and wonder are they here? And in fact, there are messages for you, on your answering machine, from the Taliban.

Mr. VAN DYK: We got off the plane. The FBI escorted me back to New York, and other FBI agents and others met the plane and we walked, and I was trying hold my clothes up cause I had lost so much weight. And we walked through customs and all these policemen and others around me, and people were staring and we walked into this room, just off the passport place, where you get your passport stamped at Kennedy. And a number of men, sitting around a table, and the man next to me said, welcome home Jere, you're safe, you're safe.

And I sat there - thank you - I was absorbing that, thinking of course that yes I was frightened that they were in Dubai, I was frightened of them every minute. And then another agent across the table looked over and he said: you will find when you go home, that there are messages on your answering machine. We'd would like you to wait awhile, and when you are ready, listen to those messages and tell us if you recognize who those men are.

Mr. VAN DYK: So when I got home to my apartment that night, which on one hand was comforting, but I realized also that I was a much different person and it looked, at the same time, much different to me - that three days ago I was in a cell up in the mountains of Pakistan and now I was back in my home.

(Soundbite of music)

And the lights were blinking and I stared at those lights a long time. And that night when I tried to sleep, I kept waiting for the Taliban to come in.

CONAN: We are talking with Jere Van Dyk about the 45 days he spent as a prisoner of the Taliban. If you'd like to talk with him about his story, and about what he learned about the Taliban, give us a call 800-989-8255, email us We will get to your calls in just a moment, stay with us, I'm Neal Conan its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR news.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest is Jere Van Dyk, and author and reporter. Two years ago, he became the second U.S. journalist to be captured by the Taliban in Pakistan. Jere Van Dyk survived 45 days as a prisoner. You can read about one of his scares in an excerpt from his book "Captive" at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to speak with Jere Van Dyk about his story or about what he learned about the Taliban - 800-989-8255, email us You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at, click on TALK OF THE NATION and let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. We'll start with Katherine(ph), Katherine calling us from Tempe.

KATHERINE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air, Katherine.

KATHERINE: Hi, thank you for taking my call. Jere, that's an incredible story. I have a comment and a question. I lived with Jalaluddin Haqqani and his family in Mazar-e-Sharif, and I climbed the mountains with the Mujahideen to deliver food and medicine to the liberated areas after the Soviet pull out. My question is, did you ever have any contact with him - was this group led by Haqqani or not?

Mr. VAN DYK: What a remarkable coincidence, to hear your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATHERINE: You don't believe in coincidence, do you Jere? Do you? I don't.

Mr. VAN DYK: No, I don't either.


Mr. VAN DYK: I was with...

KATHERINE: And my book is called "Afghanistan Blood and Honor" and it's on Amazon

Mr. VAN DYK: I see.

KATHERINE: Did you ever have anything to do with Haqqani?

Mr. VAN DYK: Haqqani is the center of much of this book. In 1981 I lived with Jalaluddin Haqqani in a place called Shahecote(ph)...


Mr. VAN DYK: ...up in Paktia Province...


Mr. VAN DYK: What I was trying to do this time, was - and I had made the contacts and I was using the network, that I referred to earlier in the broadcast...


Mr. VAN DYK: ...Yunus Khalis Network, of which Haqqani was a part. I was trying to get to men who I hoped would take me to Haqqani because the Egyptian army officer who had stayed with us in 1981 had stayed with Haqqani, and I knew that when Bin Laden returned from Sudan in 1996, in Jalalabad, he stayed with Haqqani's boss, Yunus Khalis, and I had gone to see him in 2002 and 2003 before he died.


Mr. VAN DYK: This was one of the people I was referring to - once a principal member of the Mujahideen, today a leader of the Taliban.


Mr. VAN DYK: I was trying to get him. I do not believe that it - his son, Sirajuddin, who's the one, who, you know, and the one whose name is in the papers all the time as the leader...


Mr. VAN DYK: ...of the Haqqani group. I don't believe he is quite the leader.


Mr. VAN DYK: Because I think he takes his orders from his father because that is how Pashtun culture works, as you probably know.

KATHERINE: Absolutely, I married into Pashtun culture, I lived in Waziristan with my husband, who was a tribal chief there and unfortunately he died in a car accident. But thats another story. When I first got a hint of perhaps what was going on there - cause I was there eighties through early nineties, so it wasn't as virulent as it is today. But a I heard this when I was waiting to be taken to Haqqani's house, I was in a guest house with some Mujahideen and I heard this prayer, I don't - maybe you are familiar with this. The pledge of Allah and his covenant is upon me, to listen and obey the superiors who are doing this work in energy, early rising, difficulty and easiness, and for his superiority upon us, so that the word of Allah will be the highest and his religion victorious. That was the prayer they were teaching the young Taliban at that time.

Mr. VAN DYK: I see. No, I'm not familiar with that prayer. You're story is fascinating, thank you very much.

KATHERINE: Thank you, and I look forward to reading your book, and I hope you will read mine.

Mr. VAN DYK: I certainly will.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, Katherine thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if we go next to Martin. Martin with us, from Wilmington, in North Carolina.

MARTIN, caller: Well, hi there, thank you for taking my call. You know, I'm really curious about whether or not you started to become an allegiant of your captors.

CONAN: Oh Stockholm Syndrome.

Mr. VAN DYK: Very interesting point. The - what you constantly do is, I found, in an effort to stay alive, is to befriend the people who have power over you to kill you at any second. At the same time, I knew that I would hate myself and I would be punished somehow, by lying. So I walked a very, very fine line between looking for his - particularly the jailor more than anything else, because the Taliban leader was so cold - his eyes are so gleaming - and I felt that there was this tension right beneath the surface, a viciousness that I didn't dare try to do that. I would always - he was not a very tall man and when I stood up I would always make sure that I kept my legs down, my knees buckled somewhat, I didn't bent - I would never try to be taller than he was.

I did every single thing I could to win them over. We would study together, I would try to engage them in conversation, but never to cross that line. Because if I did they would see through it. Thats why I refer to this deep primal reptilian way in them. So, this Stockholm Syndrome is a very, very interesting point. No, I did not cross that line.

MARTIN: But, can I ask something else?

Mr. VAN DYK: Yes.

MARTIN: Okay, wasn't there, at some time, a certain affection for your captors? I mean, if you are still being kept alive, and I understand what you are fighting against, but don't you, at some point, create an affection for the people who are keeping you alive - as a captor?

Mr. VAN DYK: I don't know if affection is the right word, I'd say, not even friendship, but something close to it once. The main jailor was gone for about two or three days, and he - it was a bit of - almost use the analogy of good cop, bad cop. There were two jailors, and one had very eagle eyes, very gaunt looking man. He was clearly not the one in charge but he had one - as his -the main jailor said, you have to be careful of him because when he ties the chains of the men in bed - because he had once tied the chains so tight on one of my dogs, that my dog strangled.

And there was something very mountain distance about him that was very frightening. The other jailor, when he came back - and so he was the one who brought food, and food is life itself, and water, thats life itself. And at any second, the most terrifying thing that you can imagine is when they unbolt that door and you see a man with a black turban holding a rifle, silhouetted in the shadows, and he can take you outside and cut off your head or shoot you in a second.

The fear is constant. Therefore, when the main jailor came in after having been gone for three days, the others got up and hugged him. And I went up, and I -what am I going to do? And I began to hug him a bit, but then I was repulsed at the same time. I felt that I had to show some warmth, and yes, to be completely honest, there was a natural part of me that was happy that he was there, because he was the good cop in this case.

He never stood in the doorway holding that rifle. He once prayed to god, asking for my release. So he was winning me over, but then there were other times, other times when, they said some terrible things and I was convinced that he would kill me.

CONAN: Martin, thanks very much for the call.

MARTIN: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Dan, Dan with us, from De Pere in Wisconsin.

DAN (caller): Hi, how are you? What I understand is that I know that the journalist is keeping us informed was probably paramount in your mind, and I understand that, and I want to respect you and your friends and colleagues for all you do. But I have to ask you, you were looking for answers, and thats important for all of us, and you put yourself at risk, but you also put three others. What happened to those individuals?

Mr. VAN DYK: They betrayed me.

DAN: So they were part of the whole set-up then?

Mr. VAN DYK: You see, when - what happened was, one day, one of my main bodyguards was taken away - chained, taken out, and I knew, or I felt at the time, that I would never see him again. And he came back four days later and he was no longer chained to his bed.

DAN: Ah.

Mr. VAN DYK: Then one night - and I began to watch him as he began to try to assert power over me. We were four men in a dark cell - you can't see across the cell - you are allowed out three minutes at night. You're given food, yes, they have provided food and water. However, when four men get together you begin to fight who's the top dog? Who has - what are you doing in my territory? Allegiances develop and it becomes - you become somewhat like animals. And now, I'm the oldest - in Pashtun culture you must always respect the elder - the called me Speengire(ph), gray beard. Now, this young man was prancing around the room. He was no longer chained. One night, or one day, they talked about taking my body parts. And I said no, later, I can't. No, no, no, no. This is not going to happen. I'm not going to allow someone to come in here, hold me down, give me a shot, and then some little man come in with a little satchel and he's going to cut out my kidneys and they're going to take them and sell them. I'm going to escape. We've got to get out of here. If we have to kill the jailers, we're going to do this, and we had various plans. I had planned on how we would do this or attempt to do this. That night we were allowed outside for three minutes, as usual, separately, to use the makeshift toilet on the ground there. My man, who no longer was chained, my bodyguard, was out 10 minutes. Later, the jailer came in, and I said, what's he doing out there so long? We were only allowed out three minutes. Ten minutes? He came back in. And then the jailer came up to me later and said, if you try to escape, I will come at you like a dog. He had betrayed me.

Why didn't they fire on the Taliban when they captured us? Why, when we finally got out, did my - did they separate my - all the men - the riflemen and everybody who - many - very complex on how I got out. Why did they take him separately and begin to interrogate him alone? Many people feel - and I don't have all the answers - that I was betrayed by some of the very men who work as Pashtuns, according to their deep and ancient 5,000-year-old culture required to protect me.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much. You write at the end of the book you ultimately don't know if the ransom, any ransom, was paid, or if so, to whom?

Mr. VAN DYK: Exactly. To this day I don't know how I got out. I do know that -I do feel that in some ways I was able to save myself. But I know that three weeks after I was there, a Predator appeared overhead. Is that Predator there, I wondered, looking for all the Taliban who would come and go? Because we were in like a Taliban way station. It would come and go and go across the border into Afghanistan. Or was it they're looking for me or was it there to kill the Taliban?

Finally, when I got out, I began to ask many people and began to hear so many stories. I went to the FBI. And the main FBI agent who was in charge of my case on the ground there, and he - I asked him about that. And he said, we brought all assets into play, and that's all he would say. Assets, what does that mean? It could mean a whole number of things. I do know, or I was told, that a NATO spy along the border was the first person to alert the West Washington -whomever knew originally - that a foreigner had been kidnapped along the border. Since then, I've heard a great number of stories but no one will tell me, ultimately, how I got out. I've - did Haqqani somehow get involved? Did the Pakistanis help? Did tribal leaders help? Did American institutions help? I don't know.

CONAN: Jere Van Dyk's book is "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to ask you, you went in looking for answers about the nature of this force, and obviously it's not monolithic. But what conclusions did you come to after the - your various trips in and of course this one long one when you were captured?

Mr. VAN DYK: You used a very good word right there when you say not monolithic. People say the Taliban is. I never say that. I said the Taliban are. In some ways, it's like a jungle over there. There are many different Taliban groups competing for one another. At the same time, there's a very clear hierarchy.

I do not believe that there is an Afghan Taliban and a Pakistani Taliban. They are, in my view, the same. I had to listen for hours to Taliban recruitment tapes, Taliban suicide tapes, in which they call - there's an appeal to Pashtun history, to Pashtun nationalism. Yes, I do believe that elements of the Pakistani military, the ISI, the intelligence agencies, based upon everything that the Taliban told me in all the times I was with them, particularly in prison, that they're backing certain elements of them. At the same time, the Taliban have their own agenda, their own goals.

They do not accept that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They want their lands, what they call the lands of Pashtun - Pashtunistan, Pakhtunkhwa -back. They extend all the way to the Indus River.

Finally, I do not - I did not feel and I do not feel today there's any difference between the Mujahideen I was looking with in the 1980s and their sons, their grandsons, their younger brothers of the Taliban. The only difference, in the 1980s they wear sandals. Today, some of the leaders wore cheap, Chinese probably, running shoes. Other than that, the weapons are the same. The dedication is the same. They will fight to the death. They believe in Islam. To them, way up in the mountains, the Soviet Union and the West are all infidel invaders.

CONAN: And so you see no prospect of a negotiated agreement where they might come to terms with the government in Kabul?

Mr. VAN DYK: I certainly do not believe that they can be bought off. I think that they will - I don't know what's going to happen in the future. But I do not believe for a second that they would accept a Western, constitutional, democratic, Western-imposed government.

Young men, and even - one other difference - most of the men where young, but their leaders were a bit older. Men like that, ultimately at the top(ph), will not - who are fighting up in the mountains, who are living on very little, are not going to give in. However, as one of my jailers said, not a shot would be fired in Afghanistan without the backing of Pakistan. I do believe that the United States knows more far more than it's telling us. I don't - having worked with the Mujahideen in the 1980s, being a part of politics, working as a consultant to the Reagan administration in the 1980s when we - when Pakistan and the United States created the Mujahideen government in exile, when we worked with them so closely - how could they today just leave - how could they change their geophysical goals, they being Pakistan?

I do believe that Pakistan is backing elements of the Taliban and if the United States can get to the - can convince the leadership of the Pakistani military and the intelligence agencies to stop backing the Taliban, perhaps, yes, there would be some sort of negotiated peace. But those men on the ground? No. They think of their fathers and their grandfathers and their ancestors through time.

This is a non-literate culture. They believe deeply in conversation and talking late at night about the glories of the Pashtuns, and they want that land. It's their land. They've been there for thousands of years and they don't want anybody else, particularly someone who is not Muslim.

CONAN: Jere Van Dyk, thanks very much, and welcome home. I know it's late(ph), but welcome home.

Mr. VAN DYK: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: The book is "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban."

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