March issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

As the journalists at the Karachi office of the Online newswire agency popped the video tape into a VCR on the night of February 22, they could scarcely control their excitement.  They had only just been handed the tape, after three days of negotiations on the phone with unknown people who were initially demanding 200,000 US dollars for it but who eventually apparently supplied it for free on the condition that it would be broadcast on international television news channels.

As the tape started playing, however, excitement soon gave way to shock and horror and the newsmen could feel their stomachs churning. Because on the screen they could see a journalistic colleague, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, being slaughtered and then decapitated.

The journalists at Online, who had informed their head office in New York about the negotiations, were asked by their superiors to take the tape to the Sheraton Hotel that very instant.  At 10:45 pm they handed over the tape in the Sheraton lobby to a man identified only as ‘Mr. John’, who it turned out was the head of the American FBI team in Pakistan.  After viewing the tape for themselves and confirming its authenticity, the Americans confirmed to the world through the US State Department that Daniel Pearl was dead.  The news broke on wire services and television stations at around 2:00 am, sending a wave of revulsion and despondency throughout the world, but especially in Pakistan.

This was the proof that authorities — and indeed people — in Pakistan had been hoping never to see, evidence confirming that the saga of the American journalist’s abduction and hostage-taking by religious extremists was at a tragic close.  Up until that very day — almost a month to the day that Pearl disappeared from Karachi — investigators were hoping against hope that they could still recover the journalist safe and sound from his captors, who they believed were on the run.  This, despite statements during interrogation, of prime suspect Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh aka Sheikh Omar, that he believed that Pearl had already been killed.

Mystery still shrouds the exact time and circumstances of Pearl’s death.  Many investigators believe that it was never the intention of his captors to free him and that he was probably killed within a week of his abduction.  They point to the vagueness of the demands put forward by the kidnappers as evidence of their malafide intentions.  In addition, Sheikh Omar, who has confessed to organising the kidnapping, told investigators that he left Karachi on January 30 and when he contacted his accomplices on February 5, they told him in coded words that Pearl was already dead.

The initial reports about the undated videotape claimed that Pearl’s throat was slashed while he was talking to the camera. But further analysis has revealed that the 3 minute 16 second video was actually an amalgam of three edited sections.  In the first section, Pearl is seen talking, probably being forced to read a statement, which includes denunciations of US policies and his admitting that he was Jewish, as was his father.  The third segment consists entirely of a radical harangue against the “enemies of Islam” over edited clips from Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia.  The operative second segment shows Pearl’s throat being slit, but investigators now believe he may already have been dead, or at least unconscious, when this was filmed.  Pearl’s decapitation may have been part of the plan to dispose of his body, which has still not been recovered.  But another theory is that he was actually shot trying to escape around January 31 and the abductors decided to film their gruesome scene purely to send their message of terror to the world.

What exactly the kidnappers hoped to achieve by abducting and then killing Daniel Pearl is still a matter of speculation.  But it is becoming increasingly obvious that one of the main targets of the kidnappers’ wrath was the Pakistani government.   Sheikh Omar gave an indication of this at a court appearance, stating, “I think our country should not be catering to America’s needs.”

The kidnapping took place on January 23, only 11 days after General Musharraf made his hard-hitting speech, vowing to crack down on religious extremists.  All the suspects so far in custody have direct connections with Jaish-e-Mohammad, one of the organisations banned in that speech.  Another two suspects still not in custody, Hashim Qadeer and Amjad Hussain Farooqui — known to Pearl as Arif and Imtiaz Siddiqui respectively — are activists of the Harkatul Mujahideen, the militant organisation on the US terrorists list and whose activists later spawned Jaish.  Both organisations, as well as most of the suspects, had direct connections with the Taliban, and possibly Al Qaeda. Sheikh Adil, the Sindh police constable arrested for helping Shiekh Omar send the e-mails about Pearl’s capture, for example, had spent two years on leave, fighting inside Afghanistan.  According to sources, investigators are also looking for three Arab men, thought to have helped carry out the plan.

There is no doubt that the abduction was meant to send a message to General Musharraf and the Americans that the ‘jihadi’ organisations may be down after the US-led assault on Afghanistan, but certainly not out.  The New York Times quoted American investigators to say that the plan was actually part of a larger plot that included an attack on the US Consulate in Karachi.  There is some speculation that it may also have been meant to sent a message to the hundreds of extremist activists who have gone underground after the government’s crackdown, to re-organise and re-assert themselves.  Omar himself gave an indication of this when he told investigators that Pearl’s abduction was “merely the first stone”  in the extremists’ backlash against the government’s support to the US against the Taliban.

The recent resurgence of targeted sectarian killings in Karachi and the murderous attack on the Shah-e-Najaf imambargah in Rawalpindi certainly give credence to this theory.  The internal linkages between many ‘jihadi’ organisations operating in Kashmir and Afghanistan and virulently sectarian organisations in Pakistan are well known and membership across them is often fluid.

But even more alarmingly, there is a fear that certain rogue elements of the country’s powerful intelligence agencies may have had some involvement in the Daniel Pearl episode.  Government and military spokespersons have vociferously denounced any talk of rogue elements within the ranks of the intelligence agencies, but many troubling questions remain unanswered.  It is difficult to believe that, given the infiltration of intelligence operatives within the ranks of organisations such as Jaish, an operation as well planned as Daniel Pearl’s abduction, could have been carried out without the knowledge of at least some operatives.

It is also incredible that a British national such as Sheikh Omar, who had been arrested in India in 1994 for a similar offence — the kidnapping of four Western tourists — and released in a swap-for-hostages deal in the hijacking of an Indian airliner, was allowed to roam around Pakistan completely unmonitored.  If the fears have any credibility, the implications for General Musharraf’s government are severe.

American demands for Sheikh Omar’s extradition also pose a headache for the intelligence agencies.  US authorities secretly indicted Omar last November for the kidnapping of an American citizen in 1994 but also want to investigate links between him and Al Qaeda members such as Mohammad Atta, the man the US accuses of destroying the World Trade Centre.  The problem for the ISI is that, as a militant in Kashmir, Omar undoubtedly had access to sensitive information about operations that they would not want falling into US and — by extension — Indian hands.  On the other hand, given Pakistan’s current position as a frontline US ally, it is very unlikely that Pakistan could resist US demands.

At the very least, however, the authorities stand accused of mishandling the Daniel Pearl case.  There is no doubt that police investigators in Karachi had little to go on initially, given that Pearl — in serious errors of judgement — had left little trace of the shadowy people he was meeting.  Researching a story on desperate people is dangerous in any case, but Pearl had walked into the trap laid for him by failing to take some common sense security measures, despite  advice by US authorities.  Nevertheless, police — aided by other investigating agencies and the FBI — made the initial breakthrough by identifying the first militant Daniel Pearl met in Rawalpindi as Harkat activist Hashim Qadeer.  But the real turning point in the case came when Sheikh Omar turned himself in on February 5 to those euphemistically identified as “non-police officials.”

In fact, Sheikh Omar had turned himself in to Ejaz Shah, the Punjab home secretary, who until 18 months ago had been associated with the ISI.  As is now obvious, authorities delayed informing even the Americans about his ‘arrest,’ hoping perhaps to recover Pearl before General Musharraf’s departure for the United States.  In the meantime, on Sheikh’s pointation, they arrested the three Karachi-based men accused of sending e-mails to news organisations after Pearl’s abduction.  Sheikh was only “shown” as arrested on February 11, after General Musharraf had met US President George Bush in Washington.  But Sheikh himself gave the lie to this claim when he told a court in Karachi that he had actually been in custody since February 5. This raises serious questions about where he had been kept for the period and why had intelligence agencies not shared this vital information with the FBI.

To further complicate matters, other government officials — eager to show progress in the case — publicly identified the main suspects, including Sheikh Omar, before any of them had been caught.  This in itself might have spelt doom for Daniel Pearl if he were still alive, since his abductors could not then have afforded to let him go free.

The final bombshell came, however, when Sheikh Omar was brought to court in Karachi to seek a police remand on Feb 12.  Here he was allowed to make a statement in front of the judge and some reporters, which was then relayed by the media.  “As far as I know,” Sheikh said, “he [Pearl] is dead.”  Most analysts are convinced that even if Daniel Pearl had still been alive up to that point, this statement would have been a signal to Omar Sheikh’s accomplices to execute the death warrant.