May 30, 2020
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E.O.M. Daniel Pearl

The Wall Street Journals scribe's brutal murder has increased President Musharraf's headaches

E.O.M. Daniel Pearl
At 3 am on Friday, February 22, a little more than 24 hours before Pakistan was to begin celebrating the festival of Eid-ul-Zoha, the ominous ring of the telephone had me spring out of the bed. The tremulous voice on the line whispered: "It's confirmed, Daniel Pearl is dead." Soon, journalists were scrambling around on the streets of Karachi, newspaper offices stopped press and stories were hurriedly written under the banner headline confirming what most had feared—the Wall Street Journal reporter couldn't possibly have survived the abduction.

Only the incorrigible optimist and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had thought there was still hope for Pearl. Yet, when the newspapers hit the stands early morning, the normally indurate city of Karachi, which has witnessed nearly 6,000 deaths in sectarian violence since 1985, was shocked and numbed at the gruesome murder of Pearl. The response of Shazia Haider, a lady doctor, was typical of the city's denizens: "His murder saddens me and many others, not only because it's inhuman and un-Islamic but also because of the plight of his seven-month pregnant wife Mariane."

Hundreds of kilometres away in New York, Mariane, though, demonstrated tremendous resilience and fortitude, eschewing emotions of anger and retribution for compassion and understanding. She said: "It's far more valuable in my opinion to address this problem of terrorism with enough honesty to question our own responsibility as nations and as individuals for the rise of terrorism." Mariane then went on to say that she hoped she would be able to "tell our son that his father carried the flag to end terrorism, raising an unprecedented demand among people from all countries not for revenge but for the values we all share: love, compassion, friendship and citizenship far transcending the so-called clash of civilisations". Brave and thoughtful words from a woman who had suffered an irreparable loss.

But back to last Friday morning. As bleary-eyed journalists trooped into their offices, the dominant emotion was of deep shock both at the grisly murder of Pearl and the method the kidnappers adopted to provide proof of their dastardly act. A videotape was ostensibly handed over to Ahmed Jan, the marketing man of a Peshawar-based newspaper posted in Karachi. This was then handed over to the US consulate in Karachi. Jan was subsequently detained for questioning. Sources in the Karachi police say Jan is an undercover agent for the US' fbi, which has been assisting the Pakistanis in investigating the Pearl case.

The video itself could well go down among the most macabre acts in the history of terrorism. Lasting three minutes and 50 seconds, the video shows Pearl speaking to the camera—his last sentence was that he was a Jew as was his mother—before a hand suddenly emerges and slashes his throat with a blunt weapon. So then, Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, the principal accused in the kidnapping drama, wasn't lying when he told the anti-terrorist court in Karachi on February 14 that "as far as I understand, he (Pearl) is dead".

Not necessarily, argue those investigating the case. They still don't rule out the possibility that Pearl was alive till the day Omar deposed in the court, and that his testimony could have been a coded message to the abductors to murder their victim. The problem before the investigation team has been the many contradictory statements Omar had been making, rendering it difficult to sift truth from dissimulation.

In fact, after the February 14 court deposition, Omar changed his version again. He told the investigators that he had tried to secure Pearl's release early February and even talked to the abductors over the phone in the hope of convincing them. But Omar was told in a succinct coded statement that "the patient wasn't alive". The kidnap mastermind then sought proof of the crime, prompting the abductors to send the videotape to Karachi.

But there are others who feel even this version could have been crafted to ensure Omar isn't directly implicated in the crime. It's possible he had a hand in the murder. Since the precise date of the crime isn't known, Omar could well argue that his role was confined only to kidnapping Pearl and not his murder. One investigator told Outlook, "I believe the kidnappers had killed Pearl within a week after he was abducted, but they played with the Pakistani and US authorities and kept the issue alive." Others, though, think Omar refused to confess because he wanted his accomplices to cover their tracks and escape into safety.

There are indeed several loose ends the investigators still have to tie up. Exactly where and when was Pearl murdered? At the moment, Pakistani police are still scouring graveyards and searching deserted areas in the city, hoping to find Pearl's body.

The police have yet to nab all the suspects. Among them is Mohammad Hashim, whom two journalists in Rawalpindi, Asif and Zafar, had introduced to Pearl. The Wall Street journalist was hoping to gather leads into the connection between Richard Reid, who has been accused of attempting to blow a commercial airline with explosives concealed in his sneakers, and Al Qaeda. The police are also searching for an Arab friend of yet another missing suspect, Amjad Hussain Farooqui, whose family have been detained. There are many who, in fact, feel the way Pearl was killed has the signature of Arab extremists, known to have a penchant for slashing throats instead of shooting their victims.

Pearl's murder also poses a tough challenge to Musharraf on two counts. For one, it shows the radical Islamists have decided to close ranks and challenge the Pakistani government's new anti-jehadi policy. Says Tauseef Ahmed, a professor at an Urdu government college in Karachi: "It's definitely a reaction against Musharraf's decision to ban militant outfits.... But this means that he'll now only have to toughen his position. Any retreat from here would be suicidal for Musharraf."

Also, the Musharraf government has to fashion its response to Omar's confession that he was an Inter-Services Intelligence agent. During interrogations by a joint team of security officials belonging to the US and Pakistan, sources said they were shocked when Omar volunteered to describe his role in the explosion outside the j&k state assembly building, the attack on Indian Parliament on December 13 and the American Centre in Calcutta in January 2002. His confessions also show that all these had isi's backing, and that he claimed to be on their payroll.

The Pakistani foreign office has denied some of these claims. A senior isi official, however, thinks Omar's confession is yet another ploy to embarrass Musharraf and provoke India into retaliation. It is, indeed, hard days ahead for Musharraf.

Mazhar Abbas in Karachi With Amir Mir in Lahore
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