Details provided by senior Taliban commanders of the kidnapping of an American aid expert reveal strong links and cooperation between the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan.
These commanders in Pakistan tell NBC News that members of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) were responsible for Warren Weinstein's abduction from his home in Lahore in August. Over the last three-and-a-half months, they say, Weinstein has been shifted from place to place, making him harder to trace. He ultimately landed in what Taliban commanders are calling a "secure" place in Pakistan's tribal areas in the border region with Afghanistan.
According to the militant leaders, TTP members initially kept Weinstein in Lahore, later shifting him just outside the city to a nearby town. He was repeatedly shifted to new locations over the weeks that followed until he could be transferred to an area completely controlled by the TTP and al-Qaida. Only then, say these commanders, was there a public claim of responsibility for the kidnapping.
In an audio recording issued on Islamist websites Thursday, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Weinstein. The statement by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri demanded the release of prisoners held by the U.S. at the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba and all others imprisoned for ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban. It also called for an end to airstrikes in Muslim countries in exchange for Weinstein's freedom.
Before Thursday's statement, there had been no word from any group claiming responsibility, troubling Pakistani security and intelligence officials who had yet to make any significant strides in the case.
Taliban commanders say they declined to take responsibility earlier to prevent the U.S. from pressuring Pakistan to take action or begin negotiations for his release. They say Zawahri wished to have Weinstein safely in their custody, to put Zawahri in a better position to negotiate with the U.S.
Weinstein, the commanders say, is still being held by the TTP, but Zawahri is responsible for any negotiations for his release.
The Taliban commanders said TTP and al-Qaida are closely working together in the region, and that TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud considers Zawahri to be his leader.
"There is presently no difference in the TTP and al-Qaida. Both are working together and have the same agenda," said one of the Taliban commanders. "Even the TTP decided to suspend its peace talks with the government as al-Qaida is not happy with the Pakistani leadership."
Weinstein was abducted by armed men from his house in the eastern city of Lahore on Aug. 13. Weinstein, who has a home in Rockville, Maryland, worked in Pakistan for several years and spoke Urdu, the language used by Muslims in Pakistan and India.
He was the country director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S.-based firm that advises a range of Pakistani business and government sectors. The company has said Weinstein is in poor health and provided a detailed list of medications, many of them for heart problems, that it implored the kidnappers to give him.
Asked about al-Qaida's claim of responsibility, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington that regardless of whether it is true or not, the U.S. remains concerned about his safety and well-being.
He said U.S. officials, including the FBI, are assisting with the Pakistani-led investigation — "and we're trying to cooperate with them in any way we can."
"We're continuing to offer support as well as to Mr. Weinstein's family in the United States, to try and provide them with any consular assistance that we can." Toner said.