Anatomy of An Abduction: How the Indian Hostages in Iraq Were Freed

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Item Code: IHL386
Author: V. Sudarshan
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9780143103851
Pages: 219
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.8 inch X 5.0 inch
Book Description


Sudarshan has been writing on foreign policy and diplomacy for a number of years first as Foreign Editor of The Pioneer and subsequently for Outlook. His first book of short stories—A Sense of Ending—was published in 1988.

He is now Associate Editor, The New Indian Express, and lives in Chennai with his wife and daughter.

Anatomy of an Abduction

How the Indian Hostages in Iraq Were Freed





The 'global war against terror' has at best been selective. India has borne the brunt of terrorism for more than 25 Years and understands well what it is like to fight alone against terror. In Kashmir alone, forget the Punjab, North East and the rest of the country, almost twenty times the number of people who lost their lives in 9/11 have been killed, Given the scale and complexity of the problem, we can claim c have handled it better than most others. Unfortunately, during the worst days of terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, many friendly countries, still euphoric with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and still connected to the Afghan Mujahideen and the ISI were confusing terrorists with freedom fighters. 9/11 was a turning point in the global struggle against terror but the foundations for the spread of terrorism had been laid for which the world continues to pay heavily. Whatever the accepted definition of terrorism, nobody would dispute that kidnapping and hostage taking are its most sinister form. The most malevolent form of hostage taking exists now in Iraq but no one else has suffered the scourge as much as us before Iraq. In Kashmir, in the early 1990s, it was almost an industry.

It all began with the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, the Baon Home Minister, Mufti Mohd. Sayeed's daughter, in Srinagar on December 8,1989. To state that both the centre and the state were caught unawares would be an understatement. The Janata Party government headed by V.P.Singh barely had time to settle down when it found itself in the midst of a major crisis. The state government was in Jammu, Dr. Farooq Adbullah, the Chief Minister was in London and the Chief Secretary in Delhi. The disconnect between the Centre and the State did not help matters. The rest of the story could best be described as how not to handle a hostage situation.

The kidnapping, the first of its kind in Kashmir was carried out by the JKLF, which had been in the forefront of militancy since it began in 1988—89, solely to secure the release of one of its top leaders, Hamid Sheikh. The demand was made public by the kidnappers immediately and almost simultaneously a host of negotiators emerged on the scene. But there were concerns as well for the kidnappers, both among well-wishers of the movement in the Valley and in Pakistan from where the movement was conducted that the JKLF had blundered by kidnapping a woman; it would never go down well or be accepted in Kashmir. This was acknowledged, among others, by Abdul Majid Wani, a J&K Government official and father of the JKLF leader Ishfaq Majid Wani. Wani was frank enough while pleading for the release of Hamid Sheikh to admit that whatever happened Rubaiya would not be harmed and even if Hamid Sheikh was not released, the JKLF had no option but to release her. He kept reiterating that they (JKLF) were 'good boys' and no harm would come to Rubaiya who was like 'a sister' to them. But this good man, the first, most earnest and meaningful of interlocutors was soon lost in a maze of 'well-wishers' of the JKLF as well as of Mufti Sahib's family, including a judge of the High Court, all of whom vied with each other to curry favour with the Union Home Minister which allowed the militants to get the best deal. The JKLF wriggled out of what could have been an embarrassing failure and subsequently raised the stakes.

The return of Dr.Farooq Abdullah from abroad on December 11, instead of helping to resolve the issue added to the crisis because of distrust between Delhi and Srinagar. For a start, his Cabinet colleagues complained that they were not taken into confidence by the Chief Secretary who was dealing diectly with GOI causing the Chief Minister, in a fit of anger, to almost sack the government's chief negotiator. What was worse were the stories carried by Mufti's friends and the suspicion in Delhi that the Chief Minister was not sincere in his efforts to secure Rubaiya's release. Dr Abdullah made it know that he was opposed to appeasement of terrorists and would in no case agree to anything but the release of Hamid Sheikh; the original demand of the JKLF. Ultimately, it required the visit of two senior cabinet ministers, I.K. Gujral and Arif Mohd. Khan from Delhi on December 13 to pressurize Dr Abdullah to accept the demands of the kidnappers for the release of five militants including Hamid Sheikh a Pakistani guide, Sher Khan, in exchange for Rubaiya Sayeed. But not before the chief minister had recorded his protest in a note to the Governor in which he warned 'this will open the floodgates for the future and provide a boost to anti-national elements trying to separate Kashmir from India.'

Prophetic words. The kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed was, indeed, a watershed in Kashmir; psychologically, militarily, politically, Kashmir has never been the same ever since. Nobody was safe thereafter, not even the respected Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq who was assassinated in Srinagar in May 1990. Moulvi Farooq used to say that the Kashmiris were petrified of bloodshed. Those who killed him were Kashmiris and had no qualms in shedding blood. It left the family so badly shaken that young Mirwaiz Umar has still not totally got over the shock. Moulvi Farooq, incidentally, was one of the few Kashmiri leaders who had spoken out against the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed. Mir Mustafa, MLA and Dr A.A. Guru who had helped as interlocutors during the kidnapping were murdered in due course.

The kidnapping provided a fillip to the movement and opened the floodgates to blackmail in the Valley. There was to be a rash of kidnappings and endless killings between 1989 and 1995. Rubaiya's kidnapping destabilized the State Government and undermined the political and democratic process in J&K. Dr Farooq Abdullah's government lived on borrowed time after 13 December 1989. He had threatened to resign over the kidnapping issue and did so a month later when Jagmohan was reappointed Governor on 19 January 1990. And in almost each subsequent case of hostage-taking, Rubaiya Sayeed's kidnapping and the release of five militants to secure her release became the reference point for securing the release of more militants. What was intended by the JKLF as a one-off episode to secure the release of Hamid Sheikh ended up with far-reaching consequences due to clumsy handling.

The encouragement that the kidnappings and killings received from the Rubaiya Sayeed episode changed the character and state of militancy in J&K. Everybody who was not with the movement in the early 1990s was perceived by the militants to be against it. There was encouragement to terror for terror's sake. Also there was a sudden proliferation and splitting of militant outfits, at times for no other better reason than a scrap between a commander and his deputy. Everybody got into the act of kidnapping and killing to make a name for themselves. Almost everybody who was somebody in the movement was involved in kidnappings. Among the must notorious at the time was the Ikhwan-Ul-Muslameen led by Hilal Beig comprising henchmen of the ISI. Despite the Pakistan hand, Kashmiri militancy was fairly chaotic till 1992 when much more money from Pakistan started flowing in and the ISI took firm control of the movement. It would also lead to the participation of foreigners, mainly Pakistanis, in the movement.

With the involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-ul-Ansar, Al Faran, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc in Kashmir in the mid-1990s the movement underwent a sea change. The Jihadis had a different world view and tended to see the situation inblack and white rather than the softer Kashmiri grey. Most of the prominent abductions that took place post-1994 were carried out by the Jihadis to secure the release of Maulana Mbsood Azhar who was arrested in the Valley on 11 February 1994. This was the backdrop to the hijacking of IC 814.

The hijacking of IC 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi on 24 December 1999 was a daring and meticulously planned operation of the Harkat-Ul-Mujahideen backed by the ISI with well-set coordinates in Kathmandu, Mumbai, Karachi and Kandahar. The five hijackers led by Ibrahim Athar, the younger brother of Masood Azhar had studied the flight at least four times prior to the hijacking to familiarize themselves with IC 814. The back-up to the hijackers was provided by a Harket cell in Mumbai and the Pakistan Embassy in Kathmandu. Arshad Cheema, First Secretary in the Pakistan Embassy who saw off the hijackers at Kathmandu airport on 24 December 1999 had earlier been named, during interrogation by a Sikh militant arrested with 19 kgs of RDX, as being one of the officials of the Pakistan Embassy he was in contact with. Kathmandu was already notorious as a transit point for both Kashmiri and Sikh militants. Karachi, where the youngest brother of Masood Azhar was stationed provided the information back-up for the hijackers whereas the Taliban, tutored by the ISI, not only provided moral support but even a bagful of weapons to the hijackers in Kandahar. The Taliban ultimately also ensured free passage for the hijackers after they had secured the release of Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar in exchange for the hostages.

Even before the hijackers made their demands known it was obvious to decision makers in Delhi as early as 25 December that the main motive for the hijacking was to secure the release of Maulana Masood Azhar. The unearthing and neutralization of a Harkat cell in Mumbai in the first couple of days of the hijacking was to provide the key to the puzzle. Much has been said and written about the options at the time and how some people believe the NDA government had caved in to the demands of the terrorists. The fact is that once IC 814 left Indian airspace on the night of 24 December, and more so after it landed in Kandahar the next afternoon, the government was left with no option but to negotiate. What happened at Amritsar is another story. From the government's point of view the landing at Amritsar, after Lahore refused permission for the plane to land in the first instance, was a godsend because among Indian airports Amritsar has the best record of resolving hijackings. On this occasion, however, the ploy to let the aircraft run out of fuel did not work and the government's decision to immobilize the aircraft came too late. At every step, the hijackers threatened to start killing passengers and as early as in Amritsar there were reports of four passengers already having been killed. At least two had already been stabbed and in Dubai, the body of Rupen Katiyar, on his way back from his honeymoon, was thrown out on the tarmac by the hijackers.

Once the aircraft landed in Taliban-controlled Kandahar the main priority of the government was to save the lives of 160 passengers on board IC 814. With relatives of passengers demonstrating daily outside the Prime Minister's residence and public opinion in the capital in favour of a settlement, the government was left with very little option but to negotiate. There were vague suggestions of a commando raid to rescue the passengers but to attempt an Entebbe in Kandahar would have been foolhardy. The team of negotiators sent to Kandahar, comprising of the best people in the business, also advised that we needed to get out of there, the sooner the better. Maulana Masood was not a terrorist but the chief ideologue of the Harkat; its master strategist.

Dr Farooq Abdullah, again Chief Minister, had reservations on releasing the militants. He even threatened to resign but Governor G. C. Saxena helped put things in proper perspective and soothed the Chief Minister's nerves. Much was made of the foreign minister accompanying the released militants to Kandahar. In retrospect it may not have been the best decision. But Jaswant Singh is an honourable man and his motive in going was nothing but honourable. As foreign minister during the crisis, Jaswant Singh often felt personally responsible for the government's helplessness. We had no diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan after Kargil and the army takeover were less than cordial and most of the Western world was celebrating Christmas at the time. So, when the crisis was resolved, Jaswant Singh volunteered to bring the hostages back. As simple as that.

The pioneer of hijacking in J&K was Hashim Qureshi. Hashim was not yet sixteen when, on a visit to Pakistan in 1969, he was introduced to the dark intriguing world of Pak ISI operations in Kashmir. The Pakistani message to Kashmiris after the humiliation of the 1965 war was clear— 'azadi' could only be attained through the barrel of the gun. 'Azadi', however, was never a realistic option as far as Pakistan was concerned, it was only a camouflage to keep the romantics among Kashmiris like Maqbool Butt and then, later, Yasin Malik interested. The slogan of Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan's Muslim Conference then was that 'anyone who was not a member of the Muslim Conference was not a Muslim'.

Hashim Quershi was introduced to the ISI by Dr.Farooq Haider who had close links with the Pak Intelligence agency. Hashim underwent commando training under the charge of Subedar Yaar Mohamed (a Kashmiri), of the ISI. Subsequently, Haider put him in touch with his brother-in-law, Javed Minto an ex-pilot of the PAF who took him in a Fokker to Chaklala air base, showed him aerial maps of the valley and familiarized him with the cockpit. He was instructed to follow the river Jhelum after hijacking the plane from Srinagar to Rawalpindi.

The idea of hijacking apparently emanated in a breakfast meeting at Dr. Farooq Haider's residence in Rawalpindi in May 1970 in which apart from Haider, Maqbool Butt, Amanullah Khan, Javed Sagar and Hashim Qureshi were present. The legend of Laila Khaled was already rife in Kashmir and as news came in that Eritrean militants had fired on an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft in Karachi, the idea was mooted that the JKNLF should also undertake a similar venture to attract world attention to the Kashmir issue. Hashim Qureshi was persuaded to undertake the task.

On his return from Pakistan in August 1970 Hashim Qureshi was arrested by the BSF. Like many after him, Hashim worked for both sides while preparing for the hijacking. He roped in his friend, Ashraf Qureshi as his co- hijacker but the arms and ammunition to be provided by the ISI for the hijacking never arrived. On 30 January 1971, Hashim and Ashraf Qureshi hijacked the Srinagar-Jammu-Delhi flight just before it was scheduled to land in Jammu with a toy pistol and a wooden beer mug that the crew was fooled into believing was a grenade. Because of his contacts in the BSF, Hashim had got on to the flight by leading the security forces into believing that he was visiting Jammu to meet 'senior' officers. The plane was taken to Lahore instead of Rawalpindi ostensibly due to shortage of fuel. On landing in Lahore, the hijackers were greeted by the Pakistani authorities as heroes. Among those who met Hashim Qureshi at Lahore airport were Farooq Haider and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The passengers were released but the aircraft was destroyed at the instance of the Pakistani authorities.

Meanwhile, on 24 February 1971, the Government of Pakistan decided to intervene militarily in East Pakistan. Thereafter, all workers of the JKNLF were rounded up. Hashim Qureshi was suspected by the ISI of being a double agent and arrested. He was to spend nine years in jail. While in jail and also after his release in the mid 1980s, efforts were made by the ISI to rope him in again to lead the insurgency in Kashmir. When he declined, Hashim was harassed and humiliated which prompted him to shift to Amsterdam. He has been bitterly critical of Pakistan ever since. As he puts it, even after the 'martyrdom' of 80,000 Kashmiris, Pakistan is not willing to accept 'azadi' as an option for Kashmir. Hashim Qureshi returned to Srinagar from Amsterdam in December 2000. Among the separatists, he is by far the most critical of Pakistan and outspoken on terrorism.

In a lighter vein, Hashim Qureshi had the following story to narrate. On a Jet Airways flight together from Srinagar to Delhi in 2004, Dr Farooq Abdullah sent for the captain and introduced Hashim to him as 'the first Indian hijacker.' He then added, 'Ask Hashim whether he is taking us to Lahore or Rawalpindi today.'

Seen against the backdrop of the war against terror and our own experience thereof, Anatomy of an Abduction is a timely, well-researched and sympathetically documented account of the kidnapping and rescue, unfortunately since forgotten, of the three Indian truck drivers in Iraq in July-September 2004. What began as a blip on the security radar, a minor crisis which was expected to go away as soon as it had come, lingered on mainly due to media attention and public attention, highlighting once again that public opinion cannot be ignored. V. Sudarshan, one of the brightest among our younger journalists, with an ear for investigation, has painstakingly brought alive the whole drama of backroom negotiations, international mediation efforts, the role of Islamic clerics as well as unscrupulous commercial establishments and the media, all of whom had to be 'managed' to resolve the crisis. Added to this were the difficulties inherent in the Iraq situation; the absence of any credible authority, the disturbed conditions in which, as Sudarshan puts it, the only profitable industry was kidnapping, and the negotiating team's lack of elbow room for manoeuvring.

That the negotiators succeeded is a tribute not only to our diplomatic and intelligence efforts but also to the goodwill enjoyed by India in West Asia. That success could be achieved despite the violent Iraq backdrop where hostages were being beheaded or shot every other day is all the more commendable. In fact, within a few days of the release of the Indian hostages a number of Nepalese and Pakistani hostages were killed in Iraq. The book also underscores the importance of low profile yet flexible negotiations. Walk-ins are generally looked upon with deep suspicion. However, it was Abu Walid who arrived out of nowhere in the Indian Embassy in Iraq at the height of the crisis and played a pivotal role in the release of the hostages. The negotiators come out with flying colours in Sudarshan's book. His star, however, is Zikrur Rehman who, with his Arabic skills and easy manner, seems to be everywhere all the time.

The security of its citizens is ultimately the responsibility of the state. It cannot be outsourced. Left to KGL, the three truck drivers in Iraq would have been dead ducks. Also, in an open, democratic society like ours, no Government can afford to ignore public opinion. Recently, the nineteen South Korean hostages kidnapped by the Taliban almost brought the government to its knees. It required the Chief of the South Korean National Intelligence Service himself to visit Kabul to get the hostages released. Such has been his popularity in his country since, that there is talk that South Korea's spymaster may run for Parliament next time. Of course, the South Koreans are known to work closely with the Americans. The reason American citizens feel confident the world over is that they know that the US government will do its utmost to rescue them whenever they are in trouble. Not negotiating with terrorists is very sound doctrine, though at the end of the day everybody negotiates with varying degrees of deniability.

October 2007 A.S. Dulat

A.S. Dulat spent most of his career specializing on Kashmir affairs at the Intelligence Bureau, was Chief of RAW when IC 814 was hijacked, and later moved to the Prime Minister's Office.


The night the news broke that three Indian truck drivers had been kidnapped in Iraq along with three Kenyans and an Egyptian, I was in Islamabad with other journalists, covering the SAARC council of ministers meeting (19-23 July 2004). At Holiday Inn, where we were staying, there began a discussion on how this would play out in the Indian media and how it would end. I must confess I was of the cynical opinion that the kidnapping would cause no more than a flicker on television screens, a passing mention in the news pages. Then it would be gone from our collective consciousness.

After all, who were the hostages? Would the government bestir itself for three truck drivers? They didn't have any connections. They were 'nobodies', just three men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if New Delhi were prepared to do something, what indeed could be done in lawless Iraq going to pieces under American-led military occupation? Iraq was a war zone and the templates were shifting, crumbling under the cynical occupation. There was no credible or effective central authority. The Americans wouldn't lift a finger to help, especially considering that New Delhi had, after months of political agonizing, rejected a persistent American request to send Indian troops to Iraq to help stabilize the occupation. Washington had not got over that refusal yet and wouldn't want to signal that it had no compunctions about negotiating with 'terrorists'.

There seemed to be no stratagem by which New Delhi could project itself meaningfully in Iraq, either through force or via any conceivable coordinating mechanism to secure the hostages' release, considering the diverse, often contradictory interests at play in the region. Even at the best of times, there is no predictable outcome in a kidnapping situation. I thought the drivers' employers would find others to replace them easily enough. As for the drivers themselves, they had a lesser chance of coming out of it alive than a snowflake's chance in hell.

How wrong these cynical predictions were I realized later, as the kidnapping took on the proportions of a crisis, and the full force of the media, especially the electronic, kept events firmly in focus. I learnt how the kidnap issue had really been resolved behind the scenes sometime in September that year. Even in its bare bones, it was quite a roller-coaster of a story, so dramatic and fascinating that I began exploring ways and means of fleshing this out into a substantive narrative—an intricate process involving pulling all the strands together over the next two years. This was also because the story had gone underground once talks had broken down with the tribal Sheikh Duleimi.

Since there was no Indian media in Baghdad and because the negotiations had become so secretive, there was not even a glimmer of information on what really transpired in Baghdad as the team sent by the Indian government painstakingly negotiated its way through each and every twist and turn of the abduction drama—for some time through an intermediary whose very existence has not been made public. Indeed, I have had to change some of the names in the narrative in order to protect their identities. By the time I had finally pieced the story together, it was already October 2006.

The picture that emerged throws light on how the government functions in times of crisis—and this was one barely two months in the saddle after a long spell in the wilderness. The book explains the situation in occupied Iraq, and shows under what exact circumstances the negotiating team had to function. It shows what procedures there are in the Indian system, how it works under duress, how decision making is done and, most importantly, how the media is finessed in such situations. Because it became a crisis, it allows us also to speculate on what might have been if the outcome had been any different. It sets out exactly how difficult it is to carry along functionaries from other governments during such a tricky endeavour: there were significant divergences, both in terms of specifics and situation appreciation on most crucial points between, for example, the Egyptian diplomat on the scene and the Indian team which was sent to extricate the hostages. There is an example to emulate, in the Indian ambassador in Kuwait Swashpawan Singh's coordination of the efforts to free the hostages.

No amount of thanks can repay my debt of gratitude to those who made this book possible. It would never have seen the light of day, first, without the encouragement and guidance of Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed, who gave me both his valuable time and insight into the developments. I also wish to thank Talmiz Ahmed for his encouragement and support; Zikrur Rehman for insight into the overall situation and enormous patience; Ambassador B.B. Tyagi for sharing with me his experiences during his first, hellish ambassadorial posting. There are other people who will remain unnamed but without whose knowledge, insights and cooperation this book could not have been written. I wish to thank them most deeply as well. I am grateful to Ajaz Ashraf for his support. I thank my editor at Outlook Vinod Mehta for being Vinod Mehta and giving me a job which gave me access into the arcane world of diplomacy and foreign policy—and gave me enough time to write this book without having to take a sabbatical. I thank Penguin's Thomas Abraham for helping to midwife this book and Manjula Lal, my editor.

Finally, there's Rudraa, my daughter, whose holidays I ruined in October 2006 by dragging her to Una to meet the three truck drivers on home ground—she tolerated the excursion most sportingly; and of course Reeja, for all the things she is, for keeping faith intact, for being there constantly through everything. Also for her suggestions and for painstakingly picking her way through the various drafts of this manuscript.


On 20 July 2004, when Tilak Raj, Antaryami and Sukhdev drove to Iraq, they were part of a small convoy of seven trucks from Kuwait city. Three Kenyans and an Egyptian drove the other trucks. When the trucks were loaded, the drivers supervised the process. This time Tilak Raj was ferrying cement, as was Antaryami. Sukhdev's truck contained concertina wires for perimeter fencing for a military facility. The other four trucks had computers and electronic equipment. Tilak Raj didn't know exactly what they were.

The convoy left the company premises a little before five in the morning. Their instructions were to reach the Kuwait-Iraq border, 100 km away, by 7 a.m. On the way, they stopped for refreshments and tea. Till the border, they were accompanied by officials from the company they were working for. After that, a non-military escort piloted the convoy. Sometime after 7 a.m., when they entered Iraq, a security guard rode in each of the trucks. A car with three guards took position in front and another at the back. There were thirteen men in all in the escort detail. Each was a local Iraqi and carried a gun. The security detail retained the passports of the drivers, to show them at various military checkposts.

It was almost ten in the night and the convoy was about 40 km from Baghdad when Antaryami's vehicle began to stall. The cavalcade stopped. The problem was soon fixed. And since there was a hotel nearby, they decided to break for the night.

After dinner they slept in the giant Mercedes trucks. They slept with the air-conditioning on while the security mounted a desultory watch.

At five the next morning they resumed their journey. About an hour later, when they passed Baghdad, it was already bright and the sun was climbing. Driving steadily, they reached the outskirts of Fallujah four hours later, towards ten in the morning. This was the first time any of the three Indian drivers were going to Fallujah.

The Kenyan was in the first truck behind the pilot car. Tilak Raj was next; behind him was Antaryami, then a Kenyan, then Sukhdev, then the Egyptian. Another Kenyan driver formed the last of the convoy. The rear was brought up by the second car with the security detail. When the pilot car came to a wide crossroads, it stopped to ask directions. As the convoy began to move again, Tilak Raj could see that they were not taking the bypass, which would lead to the army camp where they were supposed to deliver the consignment. Instead they were going towards the city. The convoy stopped again as the pilot car asked for directions. In a couple of minutes, six or seven vehicles appeared out of nowhere and surrounded them. Masked men got out of the vehicles with guns, and asked where they were headed. It was an ambush.

The insurgents began to open the doors of the trucks and hit the drivers with rifle butts, asking them to get off. They kicked them, blindfolded them, tied their hands behind their backs and thrust them into three cars, where they were pushed to the floor. As the cars began moving, Tilak Raj could hear the giant trucks being started and driven away. It was over in a matter of minutes. There was no sign of the security detail. It was as if they had never been there at all.

Two hours later, when their blindfolds were removed, they were in a room surrounded by armed and masked men. There must have been about thirty of them. They could see camera equipment and lights one corner of the room, a sewing machine stood incongruously. A cupboard door was ajar, and inside it Tilak Raj could see what looked like women's clothes. A single red shoe, that of a child, lay on its side near the door.

'Who are you?' one of them asked in Arabic.

Neither Sukhdev nor Antaryami understood Arabic. Tilak Raj had picked up a few phrases in the seven months he had been in the region. The Egyptian answered for all of them, pointing out to the kidnappers that the rest of them were three Kenyans and three Indians.

'Hindi?' asked the interrogator.

Tilak Raj nodded.

'Who else is Hindi?'

Sukhdev and Antaryami were brought forward and the three Indians stood together.

'Why are you supporting the Americans? Why are you fighting against us?' asked the masked man.

The Egyptian made the response as Tilak Raj spoke in his limited Arabic.

'We are not fighting against you. We are not supporting the Americans.'

'Then why are you driving trucks that are supplying them with arms against us?'

'We are not responsible. We are company employees. We are driving company trucks. We carry what they load in the trucks and we bring it here because that's what they want us to do. We didn't know that we were coming to Iraq. If we had known we wouldn't have come. The company is guilty, not us.'

Antaryami was made to kneel down. By his side sat three of the abductors. One of them was wearing a kaffiyeh, the other two were wearing black masks. Two of them held Kalashnikovs. They made a Kenyan driver holding a placard stand in the middle while they positioned the other drivers. A video camera recorded the scene, which was later transmitted by the Dubai-based Al Arabiya channel, with a scrolling text.

'We have warned all the countries, companies, businessmen and truck drivers that those who deal with American cowboy occupiers will be targeted by the fires of the mujahideen,' the statement said. 'Here you are once again transporting goods, weapons and military equipment that backs the US Army.'

The group that held the drivers called themselves The Holders of the Black Banners. The message said that they would behead a hostage every 72 hours unless the governments of countries to which they belonged withdrew their citizens from Iraq and the companies they worked for closed their branches. The countdown started at 8 p.m. (10.30 p.m IST).

'It was a bizarre situation. The negotiators were in position in Iraq. The kidnappers and the kidnapped were in Iraq. At the crucial moment, the transport company in Kuwait expressed reservations about the ransom.'

In July 2004, a convoy of KGL trucks drove into Iraq from Kuwait carrying electronic equipment for the American occupiers, when the worst happened—three Indian drivers, three Kenyans and an Egyptian were ambushed, detained by unknown Iraqi dissidents and accused of collaborating with the Americans. A deadline was set for their execution. The countdown had begun.

The abduction drama that ensued had all the ingredients of a thriller: nail-biting suspense, high profile media coverage, international outrage at the plight of these humble workers, and political tightrope-walking. This gripping behind-the-scenes narration recounts what really happened in Baghdad when a team of negotiators was sent there and entered into secret talks through an intermediary whose very existence was not in public domain.

Anatomy of an Abduction reveals for the first time the Indian crisis management team's handling of the situation over forty-four days in occupied, lawless Iraq. The book gives an insight into the pressures that governments have to face as more and more innocent people become pawns in global chess games.

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