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Pawns in the game

31 March 2012

10:00 AM

31 March 2012

10:00 AM

The Meadow Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Harper Press, pp.510, 16.99

The authors of this book have attempted a difficult thing: to ‘write about something that could never be known’. Here is a terrific and scary story about a group of American, British and European trekkers kidnapped by jihadists in Kashmir in July 1995 and slaughtered in December. Their wives were allowed to go free, and one of the men escaped. Another was decapitated. Four were reportedly, but only reportedly, shot dead. At the book’s core, the authors remark, ‘is an event that only one person survived’.

The original purpose of the kidnap was to force the Indian government to free a number of prisoners, principally Masood Azhara, a key crony of Osama bin Laden. But as experts on kidnapping from Scotland Yard, the FBI and some dedicated anti-terrorist sleuths from India and Kashmir slowly discovered, Pakistani and Indian authorities were involved in ‘The Game’.

The Meadow, by two experienced foreign correspondents, makes a big claim, stated twice on its cover: ‘Kashmir 1995—Where the Terror Began,’ and ‘a brutal kidnapping that marked the beginning of modern terrorism’. Yet the book, outlines how before the kidnapping

Masood’s gunmen experimented with tactics and  rhetoric of Islamic terror, unveiling to the world extreme acts and justifications that were at that time new, but that would soon become all too familiar.

The authors further observe that years before the Kashmir kidnapping, terrorist acts rocked Sudan, Kenya and Somalia (‘Black Hawk Down’) and Masood’s recruiting trips to Britain ‘packed mosques up and down the country’. ‘French, German, and British intelligence services warned that Masood’s influence extended deep into Europe.’ By 1995 the Taliban ‘controlled nine of Afghanistan’s 30 provinces’. No wonder freeing Masood was the major demand made to the Indians if the hostages were to be released.

As the book makes shockingly plain, it suited India and Pakistan far more for the trusting westerners — who had been encouraged by opportunist Kashmiris and lured by kidnappers into their ill-fated and wholly inadvisable trek — not to be freed. Each country could blame the other. Long after the hostages were killed — their graves have never been found — the Indians freed Masood; unlike Osama and other important jihadists mentioned in the book, he remains at large. Even without the authors’ big claim, therefore, their immediate subject itself is sufficiently gripping.

The kidnapping and its significance are well described, and menace hangs over the story from the moment the trekkers start their ascent through delightful scenery up towards the Meadow, a famous beauty spot. Although kidnappings of foreigners had already occurred, and Kashmir was aflame with the murders of thousands, greedy local officials, tour guides and drivers assured the eager trekkers that all was well.

After the kidnappings, the frantic wives, partners, and families of the victims sought information from local officials and their own embassies, who either lied to them or went blank. Skilled — and honest — FBI and Scotland Yard hostage experts combed through the clues and were often deliberately led astray. The trekkers’ relatives sent letters and packages to the kidnapped men whose whereabouts they had been assured were known and whose release was around the corner; these were discovered jumbled up and left unforwarded in a small office.

Long after the events, the authors, helped by friendly local intelligence officials, were shown the voluminous and secret ‘al Faran’ files on the subject, indicating that the Indians, the Pakistanis and their local henchmen had had a fair, perhaps even perfect, idea of where the hostages had been held:

In Kashmir, where many emergency laws had been promulgated to sidestep the judiciary entirely, some shielding the security forces from prosecution, others enabling suspects to be detained without trial, while all the practitioners of The Game existed in the shadows, the law had become anaemic. And the rigorous, incendiary al Faran file, through premeditation or carelessness, was quietly closed and placed on the shelf in the Jahangir Crime Branch headquarters.

Much of this frightening and depressing narrative is derailed by distracting detail. We are told too much about the backgrounds of the trekkers. Similar descriptions are given for senior policemen and other officials. We are given too many brand names — like Gore-tex and Lipton tea. People tighten their lips, chairs scrape on floors and thoughts are thought which the authors couldn’t have known. Nonetheless some verifiable, convincing opinions and deeds were revealed to the authors, and these power the narrative.

Inside these 500-odd pages are about 350 necessary ones, packing plenty of oomph and clever analysis. Ignore the big claim on the cover.

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