It's been nineteen years, and I’m still haunted by the murder of Daniel Pearl

Pakistan has its own system of indefinite detention and house arrest, where terrorists are kept far from the prying eyes of courts and the media

The New York Times January 12, 2021 07:07:05 IST
It's been nineteen years, and I’m still haunted by the murder of Daniel Pearl

File image of Daniel Pearl in captivity. Reuters

Nineteen years have passed since Daniel Pearl, a gregarious Wall Street Journal reporter, was beheaded on videotape in Pakistan. That’s enough time for his then unborn baby to grow up and be admitted to college; enough time for Angelina Jolie to play his widow in a movie; enough time for that movie — and the era of the war on terror that it depicted — to fade from public memory.

But I can’t forget. Daniel Pearl and I were both trying to interview the same reclusive spiritual leader in Pakistan when he was kidnapped and killed. “Don’t worry,” a spokesman for the spiritual leader assured me. “If anyone gets an interview, it will be you.” But Pearl, a more seasoned journalist who served as The Journal’s South Asia bureau chief at the time, found someone who promised to arrange the coveted interview. He jumped into a taxi and disappeared.

Weeks later, Pearl’s beheading shocked the world. That was the moment I realised that this thing we do called journalism contained dangers I hadn’t contemplated before. It was a fitting lesson for the era of the 11 September terrorist attacks, which opened the country’s eyes to how easily it could become a victim. And so it was upsetting to read recently that a Pakistani court ordered the release of Omar Sheikh, the British-born militant who orchestrated the kidnapping of Pearl. Sheikh had been sentenced to death in 2002, but the execution never happened. Last year, a Pakistani court downgraded his conviction to a simple abduction — punishable by seven years in prison, which he had already served.

The court rulings open old wounds and illuminate a central question at the heart of the war on terror that remains unresolved: Are there some crimes so terrible that we must never let the perpetrators walk free, even if a judge orders it? The United States opened the prison for suspected terrorists on Guantánamo Bay on the premise that the “worst of the worst” were too dangerous to release, regardless of the outcome of a trial. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 11 September attacks — who confessed to beheading Pearl — has yet to go on trial, more than 14 years after his arrival at Guantánamo Bay. Americans seem to have made a problematic peace with the contradictions of believing in the rule of law and indefinite detention at the same time.

The war on terror’s legacy is arguably even more of a problem in Pakistan, where intelligence agents have supported religious militants who attacked targets in India and Afghanistan, only to arrest them when the global outcry over their misdeeds grew too great. Pakistan has its own system of indefinite detention and house arrest, where terrorists are kept far from the prying eyes of courts and the media.

I didn’t know much about any of this when I boarded a plane for Islamabad in the adrenaline-filled days after the 11 September attacks. I was a 27-year-old metro reporter for The Boston Globe who believed that I could solve any mystery if I just tried hard enough. I’d been at the paper for less than two years.

US officials proclaimed that the war on terror had to be fought in the streets of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq so that it wouldn’t reach New York and Washington. “If you see something, say something,” we were told. Tips poured in about innocent people. The American military ran headlong into enormous military undertakings in Afghanistan and Iraq. American journalists scoured the countryside of Pakistan and Afghanistan, searching for answers. But reporting on the war on terror was not like reporting on other wars. This conflict had no boundaries, no fixed rules, no uniforms, no end. It was difficult to know who the enemies were.

I joined the flood of American journalists who camped out at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. A colleague introduced me to Rana Mubashir, a Pakistani journalist who seemed to know every spy and police officer in town. I hired him to help me navigate the country and trusted him with my life. He had a friend in Waziristan, a semiautonomous tribal area considered off limits even for the Pakistani military at the time. That friend — the son of a tribal chief — told us that Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, had been spotted in the area. So naturally, we travelled there and took a look around. We didn’t find bin Laden, but I learned a great deal about how unpopular Americans were in Pakistan. People referred to Operation Enduring Freedom — the US bombing campaign in neighbouring Afghanistan — as Operation Endure Our Freedom.

We also travelled to Lahore, a gorgeous old city on the border with India, where intelligence agents kept a watchful eye on militants who did Pakistan’s dirty work abroad. The terrorists who hijacked an Indian plane and landed it in Afghanistan had ended up there. Mubashir made some calls. Before long, we were drinking tea with an alleged hijacker and his handler at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. (To free the hostages of that hijacked plane, India released a jihadist who had been imprisoned for kidnapping tourists: Omar Sheikh.)

I was still in Pakistan when a Black British man on an airplane tried to light a bomb that was hidden in his shoe, setting off another wave of panic. Mubashir got a tip that the would-be shoe bomber had been a follower of a reclusive spiritual leader in Lahore named Sheik Gilani. We poked around some religious institutions that were said to be affiliated with him and left a letter requesting an interview at his compound. I interviewed a Pakistani intelligence source who claimed that Gilani was being investigated for possible ties to the shoe bomber. I also found a person who lived near Gilani’s compound who claimed to recognise the shoe bomber in a picture. But associates of the spiritual leader vigorously denied any association, claiming it as a plot to discredit him. I wrote the story and included the denial. After it ran, I kept trying to follow it up with an interview. I heard that a Wall Street Journal reporter was also working on a story. I had never met Daniel Pearl, but I worried that he would scoop me.

Eventually, my assignment ended. I flew home. It all seemed like a great adventure — until Daniel Pearl disappeared.

From my living room in the Boston area, I read news reports from Pakistan with growing alarm: The spiritual leader had been detained briefly and questioned about Pearl’s whereabouts. He denied any involvement in Pearl’s disappearance and accused me and Pearl of being spies.

It got worse. Pearl’s kidnappers sent ransom notes demanding that Pakistani prisoners in Guantánamo Bay be returned to Pakistan for trial: “If the Americans keep our countrymen in better conditions we will better the conditions of Mr. Pearl.”

After they learned that Pearl was Jewish, they asserted falsely that he was a spy for Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and would be executed.

The police swiftly located Omar Sheikh, who surrendered to a man he’d known for years: Ijaz Shah a powerful figure in military intelligence who now serves as Pakistan’s minister for narcotics control. The military interrogated Sheikh for more than a week before turning him over to the police. Then came the shocking video of Pearl’s beheading, which sparked a global outcry. In 2002, a civilian counterterrorism court sentenced Sheikh to death. Ever since, he has filed appeals. He claims to have played only a minor role in the plot.

Little is known about how Sheikh handed Pearl off to those who actually beheaded him. But his claims to have played an insignificant role are laughable. “Omar Sheikh was of course deeply involved,” Hassan Abbas, a former police officer in Pakistan who is now a professor at the National Defence University, told me. But the police in Karachi had also identified another man in military custody who was considered just as guilty but had never been handed over for trial. For that reason, among others, the legal case against Omar Sheikh is viewed as flawed.

Asra Nomani, a longtime friend and colleague of Pearl who had been hosting him in Karachi the day he disappeared, spent years investigating his murder as part of The Pearl Project at Georgetown University. She told me there is little doubt that Omar Sheikh is responsible for the murder.

“Without Omar Sheikh, Danny never would have been kidnapped and killed,” Nomani told me.

Pearl would have been suspicious of the other men involved in the plot who “walked and talked like jihadis,” she said. But Sheikh, who had studied at the London School of Economics, had gained his trust. Sheikh and Pearl had even swapped messages about their wives, who were both pregnant at the time.

That’s why Nomani and Pearl’s parents and older sister are fighting to keep Sheikh in prison. I hope they succeed. But when it comes to militants in Pakistan, nothing is what it seems. Even if he is let go, Sheikh will almost certainly not walk free. He’ll disappear into that netherworld of secret military detention, safe houses and house arrests that has swallowed up so many religious militants in Pakistan. Courts are no more prepared to bring terrorists to justice today than they were in 2001. The rise in extrajudicial killings of terrorists — with drones and special forces soldiers — serves as naked admission that courts around the world can’t handle these cases without shining light on things that spies would rather keep hidden.

Nineteen years after that trip to Pakistan, I’ve become more cautious. I know now that there are some mysteries I can never solve. There are days when I wonder whether Daniel Pearl would still be alive if I hadn’t written that story. Or would Omar Sheikh have simply found another ruse to lure him in? I feel bad that the spiritual leader got caught up in the case. He appears to have had nothing to do with the shoe bomber, after all. I think back to all the things that were done that cannot be undone, in the name of a war that has sullied us all.

Farah Stockman c.2021 The New York Times Company

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