Seized kidnap suspect was schoolboy radical

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The Independent Online

A former British public schoolboy turned Islamic militant was arrested yesterday as chief suspect in the kidnapping of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the son of a wealthy Pakistani businessman, was seized in Lahore, near the village where his father was born. Mr Sheikh still has relatives in the city and an aunt had appealed to him to surrender. The arrest was announced as Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, flew to Washington for talks with President George Bush.

Omar Sheikh did well enough at his studies to get into the London School of Economics, where he read mathematics and statistics. He was a brilliant chess player, competed in the world arm-wrestling championships, and writes smooth and expressive English. But he also has a fiendish temper and a dire addiction to showing off. And he has chosen to funnel his talents in a peculiarly nasty direction: kidnap specialist for the Islamic jihad.

Last night Mr Sheikh was reported to have told investigators that Mr Pearl was still alive. When the Wall Street Journal correspondent was kidnapped on 23 January in Karachi, Pakistan, an organisation nobody had heard of claimed responsibility: the Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty.

The main demand was completely unrealistic ­ Pakistani citizens held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be returned for trial in Pakistan ­ but couched in the language of undergraduate debate. The Pakistani authorities were baffled. But for those who had followed Mr Sheikh's career, all the signs pointed in his direction: the reckless exhibitionism, the literary flourishes, the desire to be recognised as a fearsome holy warrior and a man of wit.

His parents emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and Mr Sheikh was born in London in December 1973.

At Forest School, a public school in Snaresbrook, east London, with many children of immigrants among its students, Mr Sheikh was brilliant but prickly. A contemporary remembers him coming out of chapel one day when he was about 10, declaring "Well, that was crap." When a classmate responded, "Your religion is crap," Omar chased him around the cricket field for the rest of the break.

In 1987, when Omar was 13, his father wound up his garment business in London and moved back to Lahore. What Mr Sheikh went through in his parents' homeland is unclear, but Indian agents who interrogated him in the mid-1990s said he became "known for his temperamental behaviour".

When the family moved back to Wanstead, east London, and Omar returned to Forest School for the sixth form, his fellow students found him changed. "He claimed he had hijacked buses and was the schoolboy boxing champion of Pakistan," the same contemporary (who requested anonymity) recalled. Mr Sheikh's radicalisation had begun. "Most people avoided talking to him ... unless they were prepared for a long opinionated diatribe."

A trip to Bosnia in 1993, ostensibly working for an Islamic charity though conceivably on a jihadi mission, seems to have confirmed him in his new direction. Later that year he flew to Pakistan and trained as an Islamic militant in a camp in Afghanistan under the eyes of Pakistani army officers.

His first big test came in July 1994 when he flew to Delhi. His mission: to kidnap Westerners, preferably Americans, to force India to release a leading militant, Maulana Masood Azhar. He succeeded brilliantly, snaring four luckless backpackers, three British and one American. A tip-off led Indian police to Mr Sheikh's remote mountain hide-out, and all four were released unharmed.

In custody, Mr Sheikh wrote a long, vain and needlessly detailed account of the kidnappings for the Indian courts. At one point he recalled visiting an American school in the hills and applying for a job, "partly because I wanted to see whether cutting short my academic career had affected my competitiveness in the job market".

On another occasion he strolled into the BBC office in Delhi and gave the letter with the kidnap demands "to the rather nice girl at the reception ... thinking, tonight she'll be telling the whole world that this big, monstrous, terrorist-looking sort of chap came to me in person ... Tomorrow I'll ring her up and say, 'Actually, my dear, I'm not like that at all'."

Mr Sheikh was freed from Tihar jail in India in December 1999 after militants hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. Since then he is believed to have been influenced by the Taliban leadership and Osama bin Laden. He is suspected of having sent $100,000, part of the takings from a Calcutta kidnap job, to Mohammed Atta as part of the finance for the World Trade Centre atrocity.

In 1994, Mr Sheikh told one of his British victims that he "would only kidnap people who he considered intelligent and wanted to spend time with".

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