Why did they pick on Daniel

On Monday, a verdict is expected in the case of Daniel Pearl, the likeable Wall Street Journal reporter whose cold-blooded murder in Pakistan shocked the world. Richard Lloyd Parry pieces together the tragic story of his final assignment

Thursday 09 January 2014 05:18
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Any violent or tragic death – especially that of a young person; especially a death so insurpassably brutal as that of Daniel Pearl – transforms the past, as well as the present. The days and hours leading up to it become laden with significance; banal events become retrospectively charged with a fateful power. What caused the woman in the rail crash to miss her usual train? What made the drowned boy lean over the rotten bridge? In the case of journalists, who are expected to face danger, but not to risk their lives, this is especially true.

When the Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes was killed in East Timor in 1999, it was like that: if he had travelled down the fatal road half an hour later, he would have completely missed the convoy of murderous Indonesian soldiers. When four foreign journalists were executed in Afghanistan last November it was the same: why were they alone stopped by the unidentified murderers, and not their colleagues in the same convoy? But it was not like that with Daniel Pearl.

No single piece of bad luck, no one wrong turn or innocent misstep lead to his kidnapping and murder, by decapitation, in late January or early February this year. Whatever fates connived in his death did so over weeks, rather than hours or minutes. To some of his colleagues, he was a naive victim who strode willingly towards danger. But someone always says that after a journalist is killed, and in some ways it is true: to be killed on the job is the ultimate professional failure.

Two days ago, the trial of four men charged with Daniel Pearl's murder drew to a close in a fortified prison in the city of Hyderabad; a verdict is expected on Monday. Few in Pakistan doubt that they will be found guilty. Almost certainly they will eventually be hanged. But whether the full, murky story about the death of Daniel Pearl will ever be known – that is a very different question.

Every journalist who travels there knows that Pakistan is a dangerous place, but in January of this year it seemed less dangerous than it had been for several months. The war in neighbouring Afghanistan had passed its climax, at the battle of Tora Bora the previous December. Western aid and military support were reaching most parts of the country, the Taliban leadership had retreated, and the al-Qa'ida forces were scattered and beleaguered. It was obvious that only a small proportion had been captured and that many had melted into Pakistan to blend in with their many hardline supporters there. But there was an atmosphere of anti-climax and almost of relief. Eight reporters had been killed in Afghanistan during the war, but none in Pakistan. The most serious journalistic casualty before Pearl was The Independent's Robert Fisk who was badly beaten in December near the Afghan border.

It was in this ambiguous and deceptive atmosphere that Daniel Pearl was working. Pearl, 38, was the Bombay-based correspondent of The Wall Street Journal, and was married three years earlier to a Frenchwoman named Mariane who was expecting the couple's first child. Even allowing for the goodwill extended to the dead, he seems to have been unusually likeable. He grew up in California, and graduated from Stanford and began his career on local papers in Massachusetts. He played the bluegrass electric fiddle and collected Persian rugs. As a reporter he was described as energetic and assiduous to the point of obsessiveness. A former editor described having to bully Daniel into filing, because he always wanted to make one more telephone call. Pakistanis whom he met noticed this energy about him too, including a man named Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the four men who is likely to be hanged for Daniel Pearl's murder. "We had nothing personal against Daniel," Sheikh is said to have remarked. "Because of his hyperactivity, he caught our interest."

Pearl had been 12 years with the Journal, and had worked for the paper in Atlanta, Washington, London and Paris, none of them cities that prepare one for the rigours of the Indian subcontinent. But he had also worked on assignment in countries such as Iran, Sudan and Kosovo, and had written at length about Muslims and Islam. It is easy to question his editors' wisdom in sending the child of Israeli parents to a country such as Pakistan at a time of such tension. But Daniel Pearl had experience of operating in difficult places with people who would regard him as a natural enemy – as an American, as a Jew, and as the representative of the house paper of American capitalism.

But he was not a journalistic risk taker of the usual kind. During a Thanksgiving meal in Pakistan, a few days after the killing of four journalists in Afghanistan, he told colleagues why he would not be volunteering to go across the border. "It's too dangerous," he said. "I just got married; my wife is pregnant. I'm just not going to do it."

Daniel and Mariane had arrived in Pakistan in September 2001 and he had written extensively about the country by the time he was abducted. A key question, then, is whether he was deliberately targeted; whether he died because of the stories he was filing. Pakistan is a sinister country of spooks and real-life conspiracies. It is an open secret that the country's secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence, known as the ISI, is filled with Islamists who sympathise with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Daniel wrote stories about links between the ISI and a humanitarian outfit said to have links with Osama bin-Laden, and about a banned jihadi group that continued to flourish, apparently because of its ISI connections. But events inside Afghanistan were more dramatic, and Daniel's Pakistan scoops were buried inside the paper. Colleagues dismiss the idea that, if they didn't interest his editors in New Jersey, they would have caused any concern to the ISI.

In his last few weeks in Pakistan, Daniel followed up a new story about Richard Reid, the British citizen arrested after trying to set off explosives concealed in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami. A Journal colleague in Afghanistan had found a computer containing files that described Reid's movements. In Pakistan, Daniel Pearl sought an interview with a Muslim leader named Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, who lead a band of holy warriors named Jamaat ul-Fuqra, and who had met the shoe bomber. He asked Pakistani contacts to put him in touch with Gilani. A friend, it turned out, had a friend who knew a man named Chaudry Bashir. On 11 January, Daniel Pearl met Bashir in his hotel in the city of Rawalpindi. Bashir's real name was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Sheikh, by any standards, is a remarkable and unusual character. He was born in 1973 in Wanstead in east London, the son of prosperous Pakistani immigrants. He went to Forest, a private school in east London, and the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, from which he was expelled for fighting. Back in London, he began to study maths and statistics at the LSE and competed in Geneva as a member of the British arm-wrestling team. In 1993, after seeing a film about Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, he dropped out of university and travelled to the Balkans where he met Pakistani veterans of the war in Afghanistan and was converted to the cause of Islamic jihad.

He travelled to Afghanistan and spent 40 days training in guns, explosives and urban warfare. In 1994, he travelled to India where he was given the job of striking up friendly conversations with western tourists and then enticing them for kidnap. Two Britons and an American were grabbed but later rescued by a police raid in which Sheikh was shot in the arm and arrested. He spent the next five years being held without charge in an Indian prison before being released in exchange for a passenger plane of Indians which had been hijacked and flown to Afghanistan by his jihadi comrades. "We immediately struck up a rapport," wrote a British traveller named Trevor Matthews, who narrowly avoided being snatched by Sheikh's group. "As a fleeting acquaintance, Sheikh was charming, knowledgeable and an ideal introduction to a country that I grew to love... I felt a degree of admiration for the calm, almost apologetic manner in which he must have drawn the others to such danger."

It was this calm which disarmed Daniel Pearl. In their first meeting they talked for three hours, and Daniel pressed him for * an introduction to Gilani. "I never asked Daniel to do anything," Sheikh is quoted as having said. "It was always him insisting." He promised to pass copies of Pearl's articles on to the Islamic cleric, and the two stayed in contact by e-mail. With disingenuous cool, Sheikh gave his new friend a choice: either submit questions by e-mail or come down to Karachi to meet Gilani in person. Daniel agreed to meet his friend there on 23 January, the day before he and Mariane were to fly out of Pakistan.

Karachi is Pakistan's most frightening and dangerous city, and Daniel Pearl was warned. A friend named Ikram Sehgal, the owner fo a security company warned him to meet with contacts only in public places, and not to get into anyone's car. "He would always say, 'Yes, you're right, Ikram, I ought to do that.' But you always ahd the feeling that what he was saying was perfunctory."

Friends were holding a farewell party for him and Mariane that night, but Daniel Pearl never came. Four days later, e-mail were sent to American and Pakistani papers with digital photographs attached showing Daniel in chains, with a pistol pointing at his head, and the caption, "CIA officer Daniel Pearl who was posing as a journalist".

The note that accompanied it contained a list of demands, including the delivery to Pakistan of American F-16 fighters and the release of Pakistanis held by the US in Guantanamo Bay. It was elegantly written, with touches of sarcastic humour. The group claiming responsibility, the National Youth Movement for the Sovereignty of Pakistan, was unknown. The e-mail account from which it was sent was kidnapperguy@hotmail.com.

Some things are clear about the next four weeks, but much is not. The Wall Street Journal and the CIA were prompt to dismiss any connection between Daniel Pearl and the world of spying. (The kidnappers later claimed that Pearl worked for the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, rather than the CIA, but there is no reason to believe that either.) The US government pleaded for his release but insisted there would be no concessions and no negotiation. On 30 January a second e-mail was received, threatening to kill Pearl if the demands were not met. Meanwhile the Pakistani authorities, under intense pressure from the US government was mobilising to hunt the kidnappers down.

Gilani, the Islamic leader whom Pearl had hoped to meet, knew nothing of him. In Karachi, the police tracked down Fahad Naseem, the sender of one of the e-mails, and through him two more of the men presently standing trial. From them, they also got the name of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

They knew his cellphone number. They arrested his relatives. They even had his aunt telephone him and beg him to spare Daniel Pearl. On 12 February the police announced the arrest of Sheikha, nd nine days later the US Embassy in Islamabad received a horrifying video.

It was shown repeatedly in court, and it can be watched at several places on the Internet. It shows Daniel Pearl talking into the camera. "My father's Jewish," he says with the air of one speaking under duress. "My mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish." The video cuts to Daniel laying on the floor, apparently unconscious as a pair of hands hack through his neck with a long knife. It cuts again to Daniel's severed head being held aloft by its hair. In May, after atip off, human remains were found in a shallow grave in the outskirts of Karachi. The results of DNA tests are pending, but the clothes found with the remains appear to be those which Daniel wore in the e-mailed photographs.

Sheikh, Fahad Naseem and two other men – Salman Saqib and Sheikh Mohammed Adeel – were put on trial three months ago. Even by the best estimation the evidence against them is shaky. During the trial, a taxi driver described dropping Daniel off and seeing him "whisked away" in a car accompanied by Sheikh. But the defence claims that he is the brother of two policemen set up to stengthen the prosecution's case. The video undoubtedly shows the American being murdered – but it is impossible to tell by whom. Without a murder weapon, a witness or even an indentified body, the prosecution case in circumstantial. As if in acknowledgement of the shakiness of the trial, it has been held behind closed doors, off limits to the press, in a fortress like jail in Hyderabad.

Disturbing, too, is the history of Mr Sheikh since his arrest. The police claim this took place on 12 February, but Sheikh claims that he surrendered himself a week before to acquaintances in the ISI, who belatedly handed him on to the police. Apart from violating his right not to be held without charge, it raises questions about the realtionship of Pakistan's intelligence agency to a known kidnapper and terrorist. "I know people in the government," Sheikh has said about that week. "And they know me and my work."

And so even at the end of the trial, the most interesting questions remain unanswerable. Was the trap set by Sheikh a carefully laid one, or was it spur of the moment opportunism? Did Sheikh plan it alone, or was he merely the agent of others? Who might these others have been and what was their relationship to the ISI? Was Daniel chosen because of his Jewishness, his Americaness or just because of his rash persistence and naivety? It is comforting, in some ways, to think of violent death as something which is born out of a simple moment – a single mistake, an isolated stroke of bad luck. Daniel Pearl's destruction, though, is more complicated and mysterious, a coming together of motives, politics and personalities that may never fully be understood.

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