How One Reporter "Escaped Death" by Taliban

Journalist Jere Van Dyk knows the fear all too well of having his life in the hands of terrorists. In Afghanistan, he went looking for the scoop of a lifetime but instead was kidnapped by the Taliban and held prisoner for 45 days.

He's now written a book about his experience and told his story to CBS National Security Correspondent David Martin.

Special Section: Afghanistan

"You're constantly afraid the door is going to open up and behind that door is going be a man with a black turban, and he's going to hold a rifle and take you outside, and they're going to cut off your head," Van Dyk said.

Van Dyk worked frequently as a freelancer for CBS News, using his decades of experience in Afghanistan and his native garb to go places other journalists could not, to the scene of the infamous friendly fire incident which killed former NFL star Pat Tillman, for instance.

In the winter of 2008, he set out for the ultimate prize, find Osama bin Laden.

"I felt I could do it, but later I realized it was a suicide mission," Van Dyk said.

His plan was to meet up with a Taliban commander - something he had done before - and be passed along to more senior leaders until he reached the top.

But even before he crossed over the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, Van Dyke was betrayed.

"I saw a man pointing no more than a little further back from where you are, pointing a rocket propelled grenade launcher at my head and his eyes were as black as coal, filled with hate; I'm dead," Van Dyk said.

CBS News enlisted Michael Semple to find out what Van Dyk's kidnappers wanted.

"I think their intent was to get hold of a high-profile American and to sell him," said Semple. "The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is somewhere where this has been an industry for years."

A former Irish diplomat, Semple had such good contacts with the Taliban he was able to get one of Van Dyk's kidnappers on the phone. While Van Dyk waited for his execution, Semple negotiated until one day one of the kidnappers came into Van Dyk's cell.

"He said, 'Congratulations, you have escaped death,'" Van Dyk said.

To this day, Van Dyk doesn't know how much if any money changed hands. CBS News kept everything secret.

"The fact that this story stayed out of the media was one of the factors that kept Jere alive," Semple said.

Had another more extreme group found out about Van Dyk, Semple said, it might have snatched him away and used him for propaganda as with the infamous execution of Daniel Pearl.

"We were thinking how can we be sure it doesn't become another Daniel Pearl," Semple said.

Van Dyk survived and came away with some hard-earned intelligence about where bin Laden might be hiding.

"I came away with the belief that bin Laden is not hiding in the tribal areas," Van Dyk said.

He believes al Qaeda's leader and his bodyguards are just too big and too notorious to hide in such an unpopulated region.

"Every tribal leader told me that," said Van Dyk. "They also said that bin Laden is too big to hide."

One thing's for sure. Wherever bin Laden is, Jere Van Dyk didn't even come close.

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  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.