April Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 19 years ago

British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh, convicted for the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has admitted to having met Bin Laden twice in Afghanistan, but says he is more committed to the one-eyed Taliban spiritual supremo, Mulla Omar, whom he considers “the overall leader of all mujahideen.”

In his first-ever interview given from Adiala jail, which was perforce conducted surreptitiously, with the questionaire being smuggled in and out, Omar said he admires the “grief” Bin Laden maintains in his heart for the “plight of Muslims world-wide” and the sacrifices he has made, but said he doesn’t necessarily agree entirely with the methods he has chosen to achieve his ends.

Shaikh Omar, who was arrested in February 2002 and declared a “dangerous prisoner”, was shifted from the Karachi Central Jail to a more secure colonial-built jail in Hyderabad in April 2002 because the authorities feared his comrades-in-arm may attempt to break into the Karachi prison and whisk him away.

On July 15, 2002, he was sentenced to hang by a one-judge Anti-Terrorism Court after he was found guilty in the case relating to the kidnapping of the 38-year-old American, Pearl, on January 23, 2002, and his subsequent murder.

In the accompanying interview with Newsline, Omar admits to “involvement” in the kidnapping of foreigners in India in 1994 for which he served time in that country, and the abduction of Wall Street Journal South-Asia bureau chief, Daniel Pearl, but adds that he “didn’t [physically] take part in the actual events.”

This claim ties in with new evidence unearthed by the authorities in which it was revealed that while Omar was part of the conspiracy to kidnap Pearl — which included luring the reporter to the site of the abduction by e-mail, he was not physically present either at the time of the kidnapping, or his murder. However, Omar is believed to have played the role of advisor to the kidnappers, reportedly orchestrating from the background how best to get maximum mileage from the scheme.

Police insiders disclose that local authorities have arrested almost 90 per cent of the militants who took part in the abduction and slaying of Pearl, but since the former have already made a case against Shaikh Omar and four others who are charged along with him, and the new evidence, if pursued, would mean a retrial and the possible opening up of a Pandora’s box, none of the men — not even those who have confessed to involvement in the crime — have been charged to date.

Last month, police in Karachi announced they had arrested Sohail alias Habib, who they say co-conspired with Omar in the kidnapping and murder of Pearl. Sohail is believed to have told interrogators that Shaikh had given him the Polaroid camera which was used to take pictures of Pearl, taught him how to use it and gave him the list of demands to be released to the media for Pearl’s safe release. Sohail, has, however not been charged with the crime because, according to Pakistani police sources, the government believes that reopening of the case would reveal how badly Pakistan bungled the original investigation.

These sources disclosed that the group of militants who have been picked up over the last one-and-a half-years — roughly a dozen men which include veteran militants Fazal Karim, Qari Asad and Imtiaz Siddiqui — were actually arrested for drug-trafficking and other crimes unrelated to Pearl’s death.

After interrogating the men, however, the authorities learnt the men had links to the Pearl abduction and murder. Several of them were familiar with intimate details of Pearl’s kidnapping which had not been made public — for example, that he was not forcibly taken from a restaurant but willingly went with his abductors in the hope of an interview with a jihadi leader named Mubarak Shah Gillani; how he was given English reading material during his captivity and how he had made at least one escape attempt three days before he was killed. “He tried to scale the wall but couldn’t because both his hands were tied. He was caught and chained,” one of the militants reportedly told police.

According to their confessional statements the detained militants have revealed that three men including senior Al-Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (now in custody in the US), Abdul Rahman and Nasrullah — both Kuwaiti nationals fluent in Arabic, Balochi and Persian — arrived at the scene at the behest of Saud Memon, who is believed to be Al-Qaeda’s chief financier in Pakistan and who owned the house where Pearl was held and took over the operation. The authorities are reportedly still searching for the Kuwaitis.

On the day Pearl died, two Pakistani men acting as guards were also present: Ali Khan, arrested several months ago, and Fazal Karim, an employee of Saud Memon. During questioning, one of the men reportedly told interrogators how before murdering him, the Arabs tried to sedate Pearl, first by injection, then by doctoring his tea. However, the reporter did not cooperate. “I think he understood that he was going to be killed; he refused to drink the tea. He also resisted being injected,” said the guard.

His assailants also forced Pearl to acknowledge his Jewish background and express sympathy with the detainees in Guantánamo Bay before taking the knife to his throat — all this on camera. However, the actual act of slitting Pearl’s throat had to be reenacted after the actual event, according to the guard, because of a malfunction in the camera.

“When they were slaughtering him it seemed like a bad dream. I had seen goats and chickens being slaughtered many times, never a human being,” he added. The gruesome film of the murder was, of course, subsequently seen across the globe, courtesy the internet.

Some of the information extracted under interrogation from Pearl’s abductors is particularly poignant For example, they revealed how the reporter’s efforts to converse with his captors were limited since the latter spoke only broken English and Pearl had no Urdu or Arabic. “However, he made clear that he was a Jew and his wife a Buddhist. In fact, he used to imitate the way she prayed, and sing hymns and songs whenever he thought about her,” disclosed one of the kidnappers.

The men reportedly also gave interrogators other chilling details of the case that Islamabad would certainly not want the public to hear. Police sources disclosed that senior government officials are petrified if the militants are charged they might reveal information demonstrating how the case against Shaikh Omar, whom Islamabad identified as the ringleader of Pearl’s killers, was substantially spurious, since Sheikh’s testimony, in which he denied direct involvement in the Pearl case has now been corroborated by the independent accounts of several of the men in custody. In fact, the police now allegedly believe that Pearl’s kidnappers actually had planned to release him after receiving the ransom payment. “Conspiring to kidnap is a heinous crime under Pakistani law and is punishable [with] life imprisonment,” says one Pakistani legal expert familiar with the case. However, Sheikh has been charged with far more serious crimes, which carry the death penalty.

Police officials contend that if the government allows the group of men to testify, their evidence could not only possibly exonerate Omar of the murder, but also reveal how once Omar was arrested, the Pakistani police stopped looking for other suspects, stumbling upon the band of men now held only by accident. It is being conjectured in some quarters that the Pakistani government may even have fabricated evidence linking Omar to the killing.

Thus, this line of thought goes, to cover its tracks it is now allegedly releasing some of those men who were recently arrested in order to avoid prosecuting them and subjecting itself to evidence emerging in the event that might incriminate or embarrass it. In fact, two men have reportedly already been released, “because all we had on them was a case of possessing illegal weapons and other minor charges,” says a police official who is privy to the investigation. Others have been charged with crimes like narcotics smuggling or sectarian violence, and while they may be sentenced for these crimes, police sources say that none will ever be charged for their involvement in Pearl’s murder.

Shaikh, for his part, has challenged in the Sindh High Court the verdict to execute him. His appeal has been pending for the past two years. He recently confided to a source that he would like to talk to the media and reveal all the details of the Pearl case at some stage, but said he has “been quiet till now” because his father has strictly asked him “to remain silent.”

Omar is presently detained in an isolation ward in Hyderabad Jail, where jail officials maintain he is being guarded round-the-clock. According to these officials, the guards stationed outside his cell are rotated almost daily, because he is the kind of person who has the ability to “influence” anyone he meets.

Prison insiders revealed that Shaikh actually managed to “convert” the first four police constables who were stationed outside his cell, with all of them growing beards — considered a sunnat, or one of the symbols of Islam — within days after they were assigned to guard his ward. “If we don’t rotate the constables outside his cell every day, he is capable of converting the entire jail staff,” remarked a prison official.

His questionable role in the Pearl case apart, the authorities suspect that Omar has links with the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up to assassinate Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf. They believe that the assassination attempt owed to the death penalty awarded to Omar.

Omar’s interrogators describe him as both, “tough” and “temperamental.” “Sometimes he will be very cooperative, but when he is not in the right mood, he will refuse to talk to anyone,” said one of his interrogators, adding, “and once he refuses, he will not open his mouth even under severe physical torture.” The same official recalled an incident when Omar insisted that his interrogators follow him in prayer, failing which, he threatened, he would disclose nothing. “He finally compelled all of us to say our prayers after him,” said the official.

According to jail officials, Omar is presently trying to learn Arabic and translate the Holy Quran into English. Shaikh is also reading books on history, particularly on World War-I and II, the Cold War and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “I’m also reading up on economics and issues dealing with the day to day problems of people,” says Omar.

Omar’s present motto, in his own words, is to “talk less, eat less and sleep less.” And he now believes the most important thing to learn is “time management.” “A person will succeed or fail depending on how well he uses his time,” he maintains. While he refuses to divulge the name of his most recent mentor, investigators reveal that Omar revered Asim Ghafoor — a local militant and activist of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, who died in a shootout about two months ago in Karachi and was responsible for orchestrating the hijacking of an Indian airliner in December 2000.