Warren Weinstein, a one-time Brooklyn truck driver, learned to speak 10 languages and developed a lifelong love for some of the world’s most dangerous and impoverished places. Before he became the American hostage inadvertently killed by a U.S. drone strike, he made his career helping the people who lived in those hot spots.
Weinstein, a grandfather of two, was promoting farm projects in Pakistan as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2011, just four days before he was scheduled to return home to Maryland. The White House said Thursday that Weinstein and an Italian hostage were killed in a strike on an al-Qaeda compound along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in January.
Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, and two daughters, who had pleaded for the 73-year-old’s release, described themselves as devastated in a statement, saying “there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through.”
“Warren spent his entire life working to benefit people across the globe and loved the work that he did to make people’s lives better. In Pakistan, where he was working before he was abducted, he loved and respected the Pakistani people and their culture. He learned to speak Urdu and did everything he could to show his utmost and profound respect for the region.”
According to colleagues familiar with a 40-year career that spanned numerous continents and multiple conflicts, Weinstein cast a far longer shadow than they expected from the 5-foot-4 former professor. He had a knack for connecting with local people, whether shopkeepers or statesman, and was often surrounded by an entourage of co-workers and friends.
“He had a grand personality,” said Orzu Matyakubova, a development contractor who worked with him in Pakistan. “He could dominate a room.”
When in Pakistan or other Muslim countries, Weinstein fasted during Ramadan even as he secretly practiced his Jewish faith.
“It was a form of respect,” Matyakubova said. She keeps a photograph of Weinstein in which, surrounded by a group of Pakistani businessmen, he is the only one wearing a traditional shalwar kameez.
There was no answer Thursday at the front door of the split-level home in Rockville where the Weinsteins lived and where yellow ribbons were tied around a tree.
After remaining silent for the first 2 1/2 years of Weinstein’s captivity, his family kept up an anguished public campaign for his release in response to a video al-Qaeda released in late 2013. Weinstein, who hopscotched around projects in rural Pakistan despite a heart condition and severe asthma, was alarmingly gaunt. His health had deteriorated noticeably from previous videos.
He referenced those health issues in a letter to the media dated Oct. 3, 2013, in which he appealed for help “to gain my release and rejoin my family. . . . Given my age and my health, I don’t have time on my side.”
The rigors of international life were nothing new for Weinstein, who had abandoned a secure job as a tenured college professor for risky fieldwork in Africa and South Asia.
“You could tell he needed something bigger, he needed a sense of adventure,” said Bill Scheuerman, who taught political science with Weinstein at the State University of New York at Oswego.
On Thursday, as news spread that Weinstein had been killed by an American drone strike after more than three years in the hands of terrorists, his neighbors expressed sadness and heartbreak.
“On our street, we have Christians, Jews and Muslims. They all have yellow ribbons,” said Desiree Nichtula, who lives across the street from the Weinstein family. “We all want the same things — our families to be safe and happy.”
There wasn’t much to suggest a future globe-trotter in Weinstein’s working-class childhood in Brooklyn, according to Scheuerman. Adventure was a family vacation to the Catskills, he said. But Weinstein’s studies in international relations at the City University of New York apparently sparked a passion for the wider world.
After earning a doctorate from Columbia University, Weinstein taught African politics and development, but even then, he found grants and worked connections to board as many flights to distant lands as he could.
“It was a joke around the department: Every time Warren came back from a trip, he came back with a minor infection of some sort,” recalled Bruce Altschuler, another SUNY colleague. “He was tenured — he could have stayed as long as he wanted. But academia was just too far away from the action for him.”
In his handwritten note in 2013, Weinstein recounted his passion for meeting and working with people at risk from poverty, disease and war.
“I spent much of the 1970s working on and teaching the protection of human rights,” he wrote in the letter, which was released by his captors. He published papers on ethnic conflict and was the co-founder of the journal Human Rights Internet.
As his children grew, his assignments around the world became longer and included stints as a Peace Corps director in Togo and the Ivory Coast in Africa and with the International Finance Corp. of the World Bank Group.
Being a talented linguist enabled Weinstein to smoothly navigate across borders and cultures, particularly in the polyglot world of international development. According to his Interpol profile, he spoke Swahili, Dutch, Arabic and six other languages in addition to Urdu.
“He could switch from Russian to French to Portuguese in a single conversation,” said Matyakubova, his former colleague.
Weinstein was known to infuse his policy initiatives with a personal love for the places he worked, however war-torn and poor they might be. When he was home, he cooked international food for his friends, and he filled his home with artifacts from around the world.
Omar Melehy, a workout partner from Silver Spring, said that Weinstein made no secret of the fact that he hit the gym so he could enjoy more guilt-free eating.
“Whenever he came home to visit us [from Pakistan], he would try and convince friends of ours to come visit him, what a wonderful place it was,” his daughter, Alisa Weinstein, told CNN during his captivity. “He was a huge advocate for the country.”
Before he was kidnapped, he was able to keep in near-daily touch with his family, including his grandchildren. Elaine Weinstein, his wife of more than 45 years, heard from him most nights via Skype. And in the days before the Internet, he developed a reputation as a master postcard writer, showering his family with rich mini-portraits of his far-flung postings.
He continued to work long after many academics had retired and then came to an end nobody envisioned for a beloved, experienced development hand. “When Warren left us for Pakistan 10 years ago, he was already an old man,” his wife wrote in an essay for Newsweek last year.
After a career and life lived with relish in the farthest corners of the globe, it was a shock to all who knew Weinstein when gunmen broke into his compound in Lahore and dragged the aid worker from his bedroom.
But the biggest shock was yet to come. After more than three years of hope, frustration and fear, Weinstein’s story — and his storied life — ended in a blast directed by friendly hands.
Bill Turque contributed to this report.