British programmer rescues Indian journalist

By Sudeep Sonawane
October, 2017

The two passengers sat pensively on the back-seat of the Volkswagen Passat cruising at 120 kmph on Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway. The well-built driver, wearing Police sunglasses, periodically glanced at the rear-view mirror. He looked down every time the car sped past security cameras along the highway.
Republic Agents Worldwide Deputy Commander Mumtaz Qureshi finished reading the message on her unbranded device that looked a cross between a cell-phone and a construction industry telecom gadget.
After awhile she turned to Patrick Lalthanzara seated next to her.
“Have you studied the subject well?” she asked her junior colleague.
“Yes madam. He is a journalist with high ethics. He is upright, law-abiding, apolitical, and a patriot. Urban stress compelled him to leave Delhi 12 years ago to earn higher wages in Dubai.”
“Hmmm… Then why did the ISIS abduct a regular journalist like him?”
“Madam he knows ministers and Emirati decision-makers. He has a databank of information on energy, Middle East politics and international relations. He is with Emirates News Agency for the last eight years.”
“Why did they pick the other two journalists?” she asked, testing Patrick further.
“He often hangs out with the two Arab journalists. Naeema Fallah is from Tunis in Tunisia, and Egyptian Amr Zacharia is from Helio Polis, the swanky part of Cairo. Fate put them in the wrong place and at the wrong time. The ISIS scumbags will not fish for inexperienced journalists like them.”
“Do you believe in fate, Patrick?”
“Yes madam.”
“Then, Inshallah, bring home all three. I want Benjamin Levi Aghamkar alive. He’s an Indian asset in a hostile place.”
“Yes madam. I have never failed your command.”

Simran Luthra entered her 12th floor apartment of the plush Jebel Ali Gardens condominium in Dubai. Her day went well at Bell, Packer and Murthy IT Solutions (BPM), yet she remained irritable. All day in office she wondered why Benny did not call her. She often told him not to switch his phone off during the day. He always replied, “I switch it off when I’m writing an important report that needs concentration.” She threw her satchel aside and sank into the sofa. Myriad thoughts rushed through her mind. Is he ill? Is he going through those lonely moods? After awhile she fell asleep.
Simran grew fond of Benny within seven months of first meeting him at a charity event in Dubai. She liked his clarity of thought and helpful nature. She deeply loved him.
A software programmer, Smiran arrived Dubai from Birmingham, London. She left her parents to further her career prospects and be part of the construction boom in the Persian Gulf. The placement agency kept her on their payroll, not the contracted company BPM. This caused a residency issue.
At the second charity event, Simran told her residency issues to Benny. He advised her to complete documentation that would enable her to change her business visa to work visa. He also told her how and where to do all the official work.
While driving home that evening, she thought ‘His answers to my questions had clarity. He meticulously explained the location and the way to the visas department of the Ministry of Interior’.
Simran called Benny the next day. They spoke for a long time. After this call they often met and worked together on changing her business visa status to work visa. He wrote the first draft email to her placement agency. She made some changes and sent it. They drafted emails to her contracted employer. She collected all official documents and certificates. He escorted her to the Foreign Affairs department and certified her papers. Within a few weeks she received her work visa.
Simran woke with a start hearing you-got-mail chime on her phone. She clicked her inbox and opened the mail on top. Bleep! her phone battery blanked out before she could read the mail. She got out of the sofa, plugged the phone for charging, opened her satchel, pulled out her portable computer and switched it on.
She logged in to her gmail account and opened her inbox. She stared at the email message on her computer. The text confused and frightened her. The email had a few lines, but enough to shatter her life. She went numb. She shuddered. Tears trickled from her eyes. Then she wept uncontrollably. After awhile she wiped her tears with tissue papers. She read the email several times. “We have your friend. If you want him alive, follow his instructions and bring his laptop. Do not call the police or speak to anybody. Then she noticed the audio file attachment. She downloaded it and opened it. Her heart skipped a beat as she heard Benny speak.
“Hello… hmmm hello Simran… This is Benny speaking. My abductors say they will release me unharmed if you give them my Thinkpad. I’ve kept the laptop in my bedroom drawer in green colour folder. Take the duplicate key of my apartment from Saul Kalam who lives on the 9th floor. Acting now is vital. Is Ismail around you? If yes, let him leave, he talks too much. Go to my apartment after he leaves. I’m okay now. Both men are polite. Bye Simran.
She heard the audio file a couple of times. It was Benny’s voice, but the language? It was so unlike him. Why did he speak in a different tone? Even the sentence construction was strange. He always calls me ‘Baby’. There is something in the message he wants me to find out. First, clue is think… because he has HP Pavilion and not Thinkpad computer.
She wrote his message on paper. He wants me to think, she thought. He is crossword wizard. The answers must be in the words. The bedroom drawer part is so silly. I guess it is to lull his captors. Green colour folder must be the folder where he has stored data which these men want, she mulled.
“Take the duplicate key…” I have the key, so why should I go looking for Saul Kalam? Benny had no friend by this name. This is the difficult part of the cryptic message she thought. Who is this Saul fellow? Kalam? What kind of a name. What does Kalam mean? Verse in Urdu and Acting now is vital? Act.. ing. What does he mean by Act? Acts? Cool! Book of Acts from the Bible, wow! She wrote the sentence Act ing now is vital on paper and underlined key letters. Act N I V. It’s the Book of Acts New International Version and the 9th floor is ninth chapter. She got up and fetched her Bible. She read Acts Chapter 9 many times. The name Damascus in the second verse caught her attention. “…if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
The words Damascus, Jerusalem and prisoners frightened her. She read the message again. She paled further reading the sentence Is Ismail around? ISIS around. Oh God! Have they taken him! Why? Who would harm Benny? Why him? He is a good man. Where is he now? Damascus? Will they take him to Jerusalem? She felt fatigue and fell asleep again.

“Asalaam Aleikum wa Rahmatullah Your Excellency Ambassador Meenakshi Nair,” Dubai Police Director General Mohammed bin Saleh Al Maktoum greeted the Indian envoy to the United Arab Emirates.
“I bring greetings of His Highness, cabinet ministers, citizens and residents of the UAE to you and the Indian Embassy staff. We share your concern and, Inshallah, we shall rescue Mr Benjamin Aghamkar, Ms Naeema Fallah and Mr Amr Zacharia. We will not allow these terrorists to succeed. We vow to arrest them.”
“Asalaam Aleikum and thank you Director General. The Government of India has full faith in Dubai Police. I am sure your officers will rescue Mr Aghamkar and his two colleagues,” replied Ambassador Nair. She turned to the other two men sitting in her office and said, “Thank you gentlemen for coming to the Indian Embassy for this emergency meeting. I’m optimistic of a positive solution to this problem.”
Nodding in affirmation, Emirates News Agency Director General Ahmed bin Saad Al Nahyan said, “We are concerned as much as you are Madam. They are honest journalists. Trust me, they have never broken any law in the UAE. Ustaad Al Maktoum and his officers will free my journalists from those haiwan men.”
“Yes Mr Nahyan we know all three are innocent and good journalists. However, I’m not too sure about Ms Simran Luthra’s role in this incident. Why did the ISIS terrorists contact her?” the Indian envoy asked.
BPM Middle East Chief Executive Officer Jassim bin Salman Al Darwish cleared his throat and said, “My enquiries show our employee Ms Luthra is friendly with Mr Aghamkar. Their association is inappropriate in our culture, but we are a multi-national company and we do not control the private lives of our employees. What they do in their personal lives is not our concern as long as they do not violate State laws.”
The meeting continued for some more time. Ambassador Nair’s First Secretary gave Director General Al Maktoum a file containing documents detailing Aghamkar’s family and professional background.
The Indian Ambassador thanked the officials as they left. She knew the meeting was a formality. She did not expect much information on the abducted journalists from them.
Mumtaz Qureshi’s driver started his car from the shadows of the service road after the officials’ convoy left the Indian embassy property. He drove the car around the block and entered the embassy from the rear entrance. They got down from the car and entered the ambassador’s private office.
“Give me some good news Mumtaz,” the ambassador, almost pleaded. “This problem comes at a time our Prime Minister’s official visit to the UAE is due.”
“Perhaps, it is not a random abduction, madam,” replied Mumtaz. “ISIS has India in its focus since the regime changed in New Delhi. It is a sideshow. They want to send a message ahead of the PM’s visit. RAW head office has activated assets in Aman and Mosul to confirm whether ISIS picked up the trio or some other agency. They would also find out whether the Egyptian journalist has links with Brotherhood in Cairo. One more piece of information, Madam Benny Aghamkar is Christian, but his father is Marathi Jew from Pune.”
The ambassador froze hearing the last sentence. Mumtaz’s driver sat expressionless, feeling the barrel of his Beretta M9 inside his coat.
After a moment of silence the ambassador spoke. “I’m impressed by your work Mumtaz. Can you free the trio from the captors?”
“Yes he and Simran Luthra will be in your office within 14 fours. One favour, please keep me and my team out of the success story credits.”

Simran woke when the doorbell rang. It was half past five in the morning. She opened the door and saw Patrick Lalthanzara. He pushed the door and her aside and entered.
“Heyyyy, what the hell… who are you?”
“I’m sorry Simran, but listen carefully to what I say. My name is Patrick Lalthanzara and I’m from the Delhi Police. He deliberately lied.”
Still bleary, she asked, “You don’t look Indian.”
“I’m Indian! I’m from Mizoram,” he replied truthfully. “We don’t have much time for all this. If you want me to save Benny, do what I tell you.”
She immediately dropped her guard. He told her his plan. He was not surprised when she told him about the email, but he was when she told him she went to Benny’s apartment copied his data on a pen drive, encrypted the data on his computer and brought both his laptops. She had copied almost one giga byte of documents, graphics and photographs to keep the terrorists busy on the laptop she intended to give them. She also copied a file of Benny’s reports published by ENA and a dummy list of high profile contacts. She had changed the telephone numbers through a program.
“Have they told you where to meet them and at what time,” Patrick asked.
“Yes. They sent me another email with the address. It is somewhere halfway between Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway. We have to reach that place exactly at the Dhuhr or noon prayer time.
Simran put Benny’s laptop, her jewellery and passport in the cupboard locker and locked it. She put the dummy laptop, pen drive, power bank, cellphone and her car key in her satchel.
“Where is the electric switch board?” asked Patrick. She pointed to the living room lobby. He pulled out a multi-tool screwdriver opened the board and unscrewed the circuit breaker switch.
“Are you ready to leave Simran?”
“Yes, but what are you doing?”
“I’m tripping power of your building.”
“Why?” she asked.
“To disable your building’s video surveillance system; I do not want the security to see us leave.”
Patrick short circuited some cables and tripped the power. Both stepped out of the apartment. Simran locked it. He led her to the stairway. They reached the basement. She started towards her car. Patrick caught her and said, “No, my car.”
They exited the building and briskly walked toward his silver colour Hummer. He drove away from Jebel Ali towards Sheikh Zayed Avenue and headed to his home at The Gardens Residency on Tulip Road to rehearse their plan.
Patrick found out everything he needed to know from Simran over breakfast. He explained his plan to her and he insisted she repeated it to him four times. He pinned the button size wireless digital audio camera on her floral shirt and showed her how to stand to focus on the eyes of the target.
Three hours since leaving Simran’s apartment both were back in the Hummer cruising on Sheikh Zayed Highway towards Abu Dhabi heading to the spot, well ahead of the second prayer time. Patrick occasionally glanced at Simran to check signs of nervous twitches. She emoted none. She sat calmly with eyes closed, praying for Benny’s safety.
After half an hour she spoke. “We are two kms from the shopping area” she said looking at the GPS on her phone.
“Switch off your phone put it inside the glovebox and switch on the phone I gave you,” he told her.

Patrick followed the taxi keeping a safe distance. After 15 kms he slowed when he saw the taxi stop. Simran got out and walked towards the meeting point. He kept driving and passed Simran. In the rear-view mirror he saw a Land Cruiser approach her.

After he passed Emarat Petrol Station, he saw the shopping area. He swung the Hummer and exited the highway. He slowed and entered service road leading to the shops. He went past a few parked taxis then he pointed out to Simran. “Take that Toyota Camry on your left. The driver is African.”
“Stay calm, I will follow you,” he said as she got off.
Patrick followed the taxi keeping a safe distance. After 15 kms he slowed when he saw the taxi stop. Simran got out and walked towards the meeting point. He kept driving and passed Simran. In the rear-view mirror he saw a Land Cruiser approach her.
Patrick stopped after one kilometre. He put on the hazard lights, took out the spare wheel and kept it on the left side, visible to passing motorists. A few minutes later he saw the Land Cruiser speeding towards him. He took out his phone, and turned around to face his car’s rear, and covered the registration number plate. He saw two men inside it as the car sped past him. He quickly put back the spare wheel and entered the Hummer. Not many cars were on the highway because of prayer time. After some time he saw a taxi. He saw Simran sitting in the front seat and three others in the back-seat. She gave him the thumbs sign.
Patrick followed them. The taxi turned right after it passed Najmat Al Seeh Restaurant and took a U-turn at the deadend roundabout. It then entered Saih Sheib Al Fayah Road, passed over the Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Road, and at the first roundabout, took a U-turn to access sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Road again to head back to Dubai. After some time he dialled the number of the phone he had given to Simran. There was a loud blast the moment the co-passenger in the Land Cruiser answered the phone.
Patrick picked Simran and the three journalists standing at Meeting Point restaurant on the service road of Sheikh Zayed Highway. The three journalists had bruise marks. Amr and Naeema had swollen faces. Simran was in Benny’s arms in the back-seat. As the Hummer approached Jebel Ali, Patrick called Mumtaz Qureshi.
“The lovebirds are with me madam. See you at the embassy in 35 minutes,” he said.
Mumtaz heaved a sigh of relief and dialled a number on her weird phone and said, “We have done it, Sir. Report follows later.”
Around half an hour later, Patrick ushered in Benny, Simran, Naeema and Amr into the Indian Embassy. An embassy official escorted the visitors into Ambassador Meenakshi Nair’s office.
Mumtaz Qureshi sat alone on the sofa, browsing through the newspapers. A television set was on and the news anchor animatedly described the horrifying scene of a shattered and burnt Land Cruiser. Police and curious citizens stood around the accident site.
“Well done Patrick, you kept your word,” said Qureshi as the visitors arrived. “Hello Mr Aghamkar. I hope you are fine, we have a lot to talk.”
“Yes Ma’am, I’m fine, I’m still wondering why those fellas abducted me and my colleagues.”
“It is not a long story,” replied Qureshi, when Ambassador Nair entered the room.