Killed By The Taliban
July 1, 2011
February 4, 2009. At his home in West Vancouver, Glen Cooper is fast sleep. The phone rings. “Hello?” It’s a bad connection from the other side of the world. “Hello?” It takes a few seconds, but then Cooper hears the broken English, the sharp hectoring voice. “Damn it,” he snarls, “it’s the middle of the night”—but the caller has launched into the familiar harangue: Where’s the money? Time is running out. Any news about prisoner releases from Guantánamo Bay? And, as always, the implicit threat: We have her…
“Her” is Beverley Giesbrecht, Cooper’s closest friend. If she herself were on the line, he would speak gently. But this is a Taliban goon who assumes Cooper can wave a magic wand. Cooper has heard it all before, the whole sick routine, but now it’s late and he’s hungover and mad. He slams the phone. A minute later it rings again. Now Cooper’s in a rage. He swears, crashes the receiver down, rips the cord out of the wall. For a few moments, he feels better.
Of course, in a day or two they call again. This time Cooper sticks to the talking points drafted by the RCMP task force handling the case: 1. She’s a devout Muslim. 2. She’s a friend of the Taliban. 3. Her journalism is making a difference in the West’s understanding of the jihadist insurgency. At all times, Cooper’s been told, refer to Bev by her Muslim name: Khadija Abdul Qahaar. Promise nothing, keep the lines of communication open, don’t talk politics, deflect any questions about a ransom. Maybe they’ll come to their senses, see that this poor, sick woman is more useful to them free than captive.
But in the back of Cooper’s mind is an inescapable thought: torture. Shortly after Giesbrecht was captured, in November 2008, one of the kidnappers, high on hashish, had beaten her with his rifle butt, injuring her ribs, and then burned her with a cigarette. But she had nothing to confess, and when the Pashtun elders in the village heard about the incident, they reprimanded the torturer. Maybe they tortured her because they didn’t believe her conversion was real. Maybe they thought she was a CIA plant. To be sure, her story made little sense. Why would a middle-aged woman from West Vancouver convert to Islam, travel halfway around the world, and seek to make contact with the Taliban in the tribal wilds of Pakistan?
Bev Giesbrecht once called herself “a product of adversity.” In a video she made in 2000, she spills out her life story to Tim Toronchuk, a Langley, B.C., evangelist. She was given up for adoption as an infant in Calgary. When she was eight, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, she was confined to hospital for “one year, ten months, three weeks, and four days.” Afraid she would lose the use of her legs, she secretly unwound the Tensor bandages at night and taught herself to walk. The doctors, she said, were “amazed” at her recovery.
The next decade was a blur: pregnant at age 14; a married mother at 15; divorced at 16; a heavy user of speed, LSD, and marijuana. For a time during her teens, said one close friend, she prowled the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. By age 20, she had married and divorced a second time. She walked two miles to school after dropping Melanie off with a babysitter; gave up her daughter to relatives and did not see her again for 13 years. Worked briefly as a topless dancer in Toronto.
Under Toronchuk’s questioning, Giesbrecht tells of becoming an alcoholic in her early 20s, while simultaneously launching a business career. “I answered an ad in a newspaper that said, ‘How would you like to be guaranteed $1,000 a month?’ That was big money at the time, so I started selling advertising—I found something I was good at.” Her first venture in publishing was a Calgary-based gaming magazine, the Bingo Bugle. She was attractive, dynamic, unselfconscious, a good talker.
In 1988, Peter Ladner, the former Vancouver city councillor, hired her as a sales manager for Vancouver’s Business Report. He described Giesbrecht as “feisty and unusual, very brash and in your face,” with a gift for salesmanship. But, Ladner added, “disorganized in her personal life.”
He was being kind. Though she usually turned up for work, breakfast was often two Bloody Caesars. She had tried various treatment programs, but none worked. One doctor diagnosed her as “non-recoverable.” She checked into Pender Detox, and then into Peardonville House, a recovery centre for women in Abbotsford.
It was at Peardonville, watching the cows in a nearby field, that Giesbrecht experienced her “Sermon on the Mount”—an inner voice telling her she didn’t want to drink anymore. “That night,” she says, “I slept like a baby, refreshed. I left the next day and went back to my apartment hotel, where I had an outstanding bar bill of $1,000. All my banker and broker friends were there. They said, ‘Hey, Bev, come and have a drink.’ I said no.”
Alex Tunner, then a consulting engineer, was working for BC Research Corp. when he met Giesbrecht in the late ’80s. “She had a very husky voice—a tiny blond, flashily dressed, with an asymmetrical haircut. A hundred pounds maximum.” He was reminded of the French chanteuse Edith Piaf. He and Giesbrecht became friends. Tunner remembers marvelling at her ease with high-tech engineers and businessmen, formulating PR strategies, talking tech. There was no false modesty. “She had chutzpah,” he says.
Once, she needed a bank loan for a publishing venture but had little collateral. She huddled with a Scotiabank branch manager, who agreed to extend her a line of credit. Some months later, she offered the manager a job. He was so impressed with her business acumen, he accepted. (That business lasted three years.)
In 1989 Giesbrecht really showed her skills as an entrepreneur. Two U.S. magazines, Forbes and Barron’s, had published articles lambasting the Vancouver Stock Exchange as an international “joke” because of unregulated trading and stock promotion. Giesbrecht was working with a small magazine called VentureQuest and saw the controversy as an opportunity. She convinced VentureQuest owner Rick Genovese to print 100,000 copies of a special edition extolling the virtues of Vancouver’s investment community and to distribute it free throughout the U.S. Then she sold $80,000 in advertising for the 48-page magazine. The story, and Giesbrecht, made the national news.
Friends say her proudest moment came in 1991 with the first issue of Trek magazine, which she co-founded with Cooper. A glossy, 64-page quarterly designed to promote B.C.’s high-tech industry, it was financed almost entirely by advertising, much of which she sold. She felt that Trek solidified her place in B.C.’s publishing hierarchy. After eight issues, it folded.
Her life had become a roller-coaster of business reversals, alcohol relapses, thoughts of suicide. Meanwhile, she’d rented a lush home in Lions Bay, overlooking the ocean, where she entertained lavishly. She served the best food and wine (although she drank only Perrier). “Her table was magnificent, and she was very, very festive,” says Joanne Ronsley, who visited frequently, with her husband Joe. Giesbrecht was generous and charitable. One Christmas, she donated a dishwasher and a month’s supply of food to a poor family. She also supported a Palestinian foster child. She loved giving extravagantly. “She never asked for anything in return,” says Joanne Ronsley.
One night, sleepless at 4 a.m., flipping through the channels, Giesbrecht found Dr. Charles Stanley’s In Touch ministry, broadcast from Atlanta. “I saw the look on Dr. Stanley’s face, all joy and love,” she says in the 2000 video. “And I said, ‘That’s the kind of joy and love I want.’ ” She dug into Scripture, turned to Ecclesiastes, and there found her answer. She concluded that all her excesses—drugs, booze, men, marriages, work—had been failed efforts to fill a hole in her life.
Giesbrecht had never been religious; suddenly she was quoting the Bible. Her friend Debby Burke, who lives in Kelowna, suspects that Giesbrecht was hoping she might get a foothold in the church’s publishing empire; she had her eye on In Touch magazine. (Tim Toronchuk says she gave money to Stanley’s ministry because “she was trying to buy a relationship.”) In Atlanta to be baptized by Stanley, Giesbrecht raised the idea of a business partnership. The magazine deal never materialized, and in time the relationship soured. Christian evangelism didn’t hold her interest for long.
On September 11, 2001, Giesbrecht was attending a Boeing show in Seattle. She’d set up a booth where her company, Datacrafters, was exhibiting its latest web product for aerospace companies. When the Boeing jetliners flew into the Twin Towers in New York, everything changed. “The show was cancelled,” Giesbrecht said in a YouTube video, “and a project that was a year and a half in development blew up in my face.”
She became fascinated by the American reporting on 9/11. She Googled “Who is Osama bin Laden,” trying to find how one man could have set off such a cataclysmic event. “I remember sitting at 5 in the morning, exhausted, after going from link to link to link to link, staring at the face of Osama bin Laden. This man does not have the face of a cold-blooded killer. This is not a Charles Manson. There has to be something more.” Debby Burke remembers Giesbrecht saying: “Bin Laden’s not a bad guy. Many women in the Muslim community worship him.”
Giesbrecht concluded that the U.S. didn’t want to capture or kill bin Laden, because he provided a pretext for war in the East. She researched the Palestinian issue. She read about the plight of Bosnian Muslims. She immersed herself in Middle East geopolitics. Friends were amazed at how much she absorbed. “It was unbelievable,” says Burke. “She knew everything. She didn’t believe bin Laden did the 9/11 thing. She thought it was all a conspiracy.”
Giesbrecht came to see Muslims as victims. She started a website called Jihad Unspun. In an email to a Muslim critic, she called herself “a Christian who was outraged with the so-called ‘Christian’ response to the events of 9/11.” But if she wanted credibility, she’d have to take the next step. She threw herself into the Koran, and after communicating with a network of Muslims on the Internet, she converted. Her “coach” was a 17-year-old Muslim she nicknamed Buddha Baka (an Urdu phrase meaning “young old man”). “On April 12, 2002, high in the mountains of British Columbia,” she posted on her website, “I took Shahadah…and declared my submission to Allah, the one true God.”
“I thought it was crazy,” says Burke. “It was like, ‘Here we go again.’ ” Glen Cooper, her lover and business partner, couldn’t understand her conversion either, though he believes it was authentic. Jihad Unspun was Giesbrecht’s passport into the world of Islamic insurgency. It made her notorious, the focus of an unforgiving attack from Islamophobes and Muslims alike. Joe Ronsley remembers helping her edit the site in its early days. Over time he became unhappy with the tone. “She wanted to give a more balanced view of the situation [in the Muslim world] but it became more and more one-sided.” He was especially unhappy with stories about the Israeli military targeting Arab children.
The Ronsleys stopped speaking to her. “Some of the anti-Israeli positions she was taking got us more and more turned off,” says Joe Ronsley, a retired McGill University English professor. When Giesbrecht called to collect some belongings from them, they left the boxes in the driveway.
Glen Cooper believes the site was part of Giesbrecht’s strategy to penetrate the Muslim world. Insurgents, he said, would never trust her if it looked like another “CNN wannabe. She knew that she would be misunderstood, but she had no choice. She had to gain the confidence of the people who were going to supply her with videos.” Giesbrecht, hurt when her Jewish friends abandoned her, also relished the notoriety. “She felt that if both sides were angry with her, that gave her legitimacy.”
In the world of advocacy journalism, ruffling feathers is not enough. You have to demonstrate original and independent thought. Otherwise, you’re seen as a mouthpiece for special interests. And here Giesbrecht was vulnerable. Her website was seen as transparently pro-Taliban. There was too little original reporting or analysis, too much rehashed ideology and conspiracy theory. A spokesman for Reporters Without Borders in Paris dismissed it as propaganda.
Some critics claimed Jihad Unspun was a front for U.S. Intelligence. Washington-based terrorism analyst Rita Katz speculated it was designed to expose anyone “who visits or orders videos glorifying bin Laden.” She offered no hard evidence, but the charge was picked up on other sites, including that of Vancouver author Terry Glavin, who used words like “nutter,” “mentally ill,” and “poor deluded crackpot” in describing Giesbrecht.
“Bev welcomed these bloggers for the credibility it gave her,” says Cooper. “She seemed happiest when everybody thought she was someone else.”
In her last conversation with Debby Burke before going to Pakistan, Giesbrecht said she had no illusions about the risk she was taking. “She was fearless. She had no kids, no family. This is what she wanted to do. She was not afraid to die.”
Imagine an elfin, middle-aged woman with a three-packs-a-day Dunhill’s habit, 10,000 kilometres from home, bottle-blond hair carefully tucked away under a hijab, holding a video camera, trying to strike a balance between her natural assertiveness and the eyes-down female subservience expected in Pashtun culture: Bev Giesbrecht, foreign correspondent.
She soon came to understand that the brashness that served her in western boardrooms wouldn’t go down well in the Muslim world. In the fall of 2008, she’d renewed her visa in Pakistan and completed an assignment for Al Jazeera with documentary filmmaker Phil Rees; now she was on her own. Her money was running out. She knew that it was getting more dangerous for a Westerner in Pakistan, knew that hostage-taking had become a kind of sport among cash-hungry fighters in the tribal areas. But she wanted to get closer to the heart of the insurgency. She had stories to tell, videos to make; her work “for the love of Allah” was not complete.
She put out a call for money. Glen Cooper, worried about her safety, would only send cash for a flight home, but Debby Burke, in Vernon, wired her $3,000. When the money arrived, Giesbrecht sent Burke an ecstatic email. “MY GOD, I am the happiest girl in the world. I am so inspired that at least a few understand the importance of what I am trying to do.” Finally, she said, she would have a chance to “make a difference rather than growing old in my rocking chair.” Giesbrecht hired a translator and a cook and made plans. Phil Rees says she’d talked about going into North Waziristan to film a story about Taliban wives. To guarantee her safety, she enlisted a man named Shah Abdul Aziz, a prominent politician.
In late October Giesbrecht emailed a prospective client, Channel 4 in London. “I may have hit the ‘mother lode,’ ” she said. She was on a “death-defying journey into Pakistan’s tribal areas” but would be in London in November. Channel 4 asked for more details, but she never replied.
On November 11, 2008, a taxi bearing Giesbrecht and her translator, a cook, and a guide was stopped by more than two dozen Taliban fighters west of the town of Bannu. Giesbrecht was told to follow and, trusting Shah Aziz, she did. It was a trap. She was delivered directly into the arms of her kidnappers. When they trained their guns on her, she was more enraged than afraid. “You can shoot me,” she shouted, “but I’m not going to be your captive.” It took an hour before she calmed down.
Giesbrecht told her kidnappers about her influential friend, Shah Aziz. They telephoned him, and the politician denied knowing her. Her translator, Salman Khan, says it was a betrayal that may have sealed her fate. “From that moment on, they never trusted anything she said.”
The kidnappers took her computer, camera, wallet, and cellphone. (Later, they told her it had all been destroyed in a U.S. attack.) They quizzed her about Islam, and she replied in detail, quoting the Koran and describing how she prayed. Apparently, they were impressed. In time, they asked whom she wanted to call in Canada. She said: “My friend Glen Cooper.” They gave her a satellite phone and asked her to dial the number, but there was no answer, so she left a message that haunts Cooper: “Glen, it’s me. I really need to get ahold of you right away. I need you to contact me because there are a whole lot of things going on here. I’ve got all this big mess happening. I need you to contact me. This is a big problem. It’s not a small problem.”
What we know of the next 10 months is pieced together from a variety of sources: Khan, who was released in mid 2009; Giesbrecht’s own words, in phone calls and hostage videos; a trickle of information from Pakistani media. The Taliban took her ATM card and nearly $2,000 from her account at bank machines in Peshawar and Mardan. She was moved every two or three weeks from safe house to cave to underground shelter; the kidnappers feared attack from unmanned U.S. drones. Ransom demands ranged from $350,000 to $2 million. Giesbrecht, meanwhile, became ill. There were problems with her false teeth; eventually, most of them broke. The winter nights were freezing. She had severe cataracts. She suffered from diarrhea, pneumonia, and a spinal condition. She had what may have been a heart attack. She complained constantly about food, pestering her captors for a brand of biscuits she liked and refusing any food containing oil, which made her sicker.
“I’ve been held now for three months, and my embassy has not done anything for me,” she says in one video, her voice breaking. “I have guns to my head. I could be killed at any moment."
Unfortunately for Bev Giesbrecht, she didn’t sit very high on the list of Western hostages taken by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2008. She was overshadowed by higher-profile captives: New York Times correspondent David Rohde, the CBC’s Mellissa Fung, Alberta journalist Amanda Lindhout, and the Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak, who was beheaded on camera. Her journalism credentials were dubious. She was photographed handling an AK47 in a room full of jihadists. (Cooper says it was all an act, because she had “loathed weapons” ever since her first husband attacked her with a knife). Whether she was pretending or not, it made little difference to her Internet enemies. As one put in: “She made her Muslim bed; let her lie in it.”
Neither the Pakistani government nor the army took much interest. “She’s Taliban,” shrugged a senior Pakistani intelligence official. The Canadian government will say nothing about negotiations to free her. As for the media, where was the story? A hostage who was not quite a journalist, not quite a Muslim, with a history of addictions—as chat-roomers have suggested, perhaps a fraud. One wrote flatly: “Her abduction either never happened or was staged.”
In her last video, Giesbrecht is stupefied by fear. It’s likely her captors forced her to watch the grisly Stanczak video over and over; that’s what happened to the Times’s Rohde, held in the same region at the same time and told to cry during the taping of his video. (Tears, the Taliban believed, might melt the resolve of the U.S. government not to pay a ransom.)
Giesbrecht, too, cries in her videos. Tears of bewilderment and fear and frustration and hopelessness. There is none of the familiar astringency in her voice, the anger she displayed when she was captured. Her eyes are lifeless. Glen Cooper can’t bear to look at them. “They broke the spirit of a very substantial human being.” Also etched in his mind is the image of the Taliban fighters flanking her in the first video. They are very young, very thin, trying hard to look like fierce frontiersmen with their Kalashnikovs. Cooper shakes his head: “They must have been embarrassed, doing this to a 95-pound Muslim woman.”
Last November, 14 months after anyone had heard from Giesbrecht, an Indian newspaper carried a brief article from Pakistan. It said Khadija Abdul Qahaar had died in captivity after a “prolonged illness.” Until recently, there has been no information about how she died, the disposition of her body, or the identity of her captors.
Filmmaker Phil Rees speculates that her body may have been simply buried in a desolate spot. Rees regrets that the story generated so little interest in Canada. “It didn’t seem there were people in Canada willing to put up anything.” He tried to get newspapers in the U.K. interested in her plight, he says, but editors were put off by her Taliban sympathies. “So this poor woman was allowed to die a painful death in a pitch-black room, without a toilet, water, or medication.” If she’d been “young and pretty” and working for a mainstream news agency, Rees believes, there would have been headlines.
How much effort did the Canadian government make to secure her release? No one in Ottawa will comment, but in early 2010, word in Peshawar was that almost any ransom would have bought her freedom. Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam after she was herself kidnapped and released by the Taliban in 2001, says she was approached by an intermediary for Giesbrecht’s captors in a “last act of desperation” to help negotiate a ransom. The kidnappers, pressured by Pakistani army activity in the tribal regions, wanted to get rid of Giesbrecht but needed a ransom, any ransom, to save face. The amount mentioned was $20,000. Ridley went to work but met with indifference. “It was made quite clear to me,” she says, “that the Canadian government would not pay one penny.”
Canada does not have a clear, explicit policy for how to deal (or not deal) with hostage-takers in insurgency situations. But even if it did have such a policy, it probably would not have helped Giesbrecht very much. John Proctor was working for the Canada’s Department of National Defence in 2009, at a time when at least five Canadians, including Giesbrecht, were in the hands of Muslim jihadists. Ottawa found ways to help secure the release of four of them. But not Giesbrecht. Says Proctor today: “She went [to Pakistan] on her own. She didn’t have any training. She wasn’t linked to any umbrella group or charity or NGO. Even with the best policy in the world, it’s very difficult to help somebody like that.” The implication is clear: in Ottawa’s eyes, Giesbrecht was an anomaly who could be cast adrift.
In an email to a potential backer, Beverley Giesbrecht expressed sympathy for innocent young Muslim men, victims of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, “snatched in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again.” She saw it as a human-interest story the world should know about.
She sent that email two months before she herself was snatched and became a human-interest story the world should know about. VM