January 17, 2020
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Shaky Evidence

Omar's arrest is no end of the trail, it still doesn't tell us if Pearl's dead or alive

Shaky Evidence
Ravi Bhatia/Indian Express
Shaky Evidence
You expected him to look defeated and intimidated. You thought he would at least appear confused and crestfallen. You were sure he was bound to turn scarlet in embarrassment. You had heard so much about his cold ruthlessness, and yet you believed even the committed suffer from human weaknesses. But when Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, dressed in a Pathan suit, and ringed by gun-toting policemen wearing bullet-proof vests, stepped into the anti-terrorist court in Karachi on February 14, he had all the poise you expect of an lse (London School of Economics) graduate attending a tough tutorial. And as he started to speak to the court in English, soft and fluent, so typical of the westernised upper classes of Pakistan, you couldn't help thinking that here was one man in command of the situation.

But what Omar told the court sent a frisson of fear and disappointment among the assembled journalists and officials. This was the moment Karachi—and the world—had been waiting for; this was possibly the chance to know where the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was. And Omar dashed the hopes in a jiffy. "As far as I understand, he's dead," declared Omar, accused of kidnapping Pearl. Accused? No, not really, in fact he is the guilty. He told the judge as much, "Yes, I kidnapped him. I know he's dead. I will not defend the case." The police managed to get him remanded for 13 days.

Ordinarily, in most criminal cases, this is reason enough to celebrate. But not this time. The world media was asking the question: is Daniel Pearl dead? A few hours later on the same day Sindh police chief Kamal Shah held a press conference to explain why Omar's statement should not be believed. For one, Shah pointed out, Omar's confession didn't have legal validity (it wasn't made under oath), that it could not be used against him in a legal case. In other words, Omar could afford to be sensationally reckless. Second, and more important, the police chief pointed to the sheer welter of contradictory statements Omar had been making. He had earlier told them that Pearl was alive, that he (Omar) was the mastermind in the sensational kidnapping case but didn't know where the journalist was, that he could talk and convince the abductors to release their victim. Conclusion: don't declare Pearl dead until his body is found. At the time of writing this report, this argument was the only tenuous reason to hope Pearl was alive.

But investigators are moving with trepidation, as though negotiating a horribly-mined area. There's already anxiety among investigators that Omar's statement to the court could have been a coded message to his accomplices. "There's a serious risk to Pearl's life and the suspect has put us in a tight corner," say sources privy to the investigation. They feel Omar's statement could have led his accomplices to kill the journalist, even if it were to be expected that he was still alive till February 14.

It was precisely the fear of Omar transmitting a coded message that had dissuaded the police from providing him a cellphone to talk to his accomplices. During his interrogation Omar had offered to persuade the abductors to release Pearl. But the police officers balked at this ostensible offer of cooperation.

Omar isn't only an enigma (he left his riches to fight jehad) but also a tough nut to crack. His interrogators subjected him to third-degree treatment. Yet all they could get Omar to spill out was, "I believe what I have done is for Allah and Islam, I would not deny my crime and will do it again." In addition, he did speculate on the places in Karachi where Pearl could have been kept. These were raided; it turned out to be a wild goose chase.

Exhausted and desperate, the police now have swung to the other extreme.Earlier, they hadn't allowed him to sleep; he has now been provided a bed to rest in. Sources say the police have taken to beseeching Omar to lead them to Pearl. "He's too intelligent. And he shows no regret about what he has done," says a police officer. All he has revealed up till now is that he had met Pearl three times, that the bait the journalist fell for was an interview with the chief of the little-known Tanzeemul Fuqra, Mubarak Shah Gilani, that those whom the police nabbed for sending e-mails containing Pearl's photograph post-abduction had a very limited role.

But such information the police had already obtained during their pursuit of the lse alumnus. The Omar trail itself had been long and tortuous, ultimately compelling the police to resort to what some would call deplorable tactics. Intelligence sources say Omar agreed to surrender in return for the immediate release of all his relatives whom the police had taken into custody in various Pakistani cities. Among those arrested were Omar's wife, Sadia, who holds an MA degree in English, and his 90-year-old grandfather. Sources say a family member, Sheikh Rauf, who is a sessions court judge in Muzaffargarh town, informed the Punjab police about Omar's willingness to swap the immediate release of his family members for his surrender.

The police agreed. Omar was subsequently taken into custody in Lahore and then flown down to Karachi. There the joint interrogation team comprising US federal agents and the Sindh police questioned him. Since Omar hasn't led the police to Pearl, dead or alive, there are some who feel that he isn't perhaps the leader of the team responsible for the journalist's abduction. In other words, just as Pearl shouldn't be considered dead without any conclusive proof, Omar can't be accepted as the ringleader until he provides incontrovertible evidence. And that means he has to lead the police to Pearl, dead or alive.

But first, the Omar trail itself. He emerged a key suspect in the abduction drama following the arrest of Fawad, Salman and Sheikh Adeel, who confessed to having sent e-mail messages and photos of Pearl to newspaper offices. They said Omar handed these to them in a floppy. They also provided vivid details of their meetings with Pearl, besides emphasising that Omar was not the leader, that he was acting at the behest of someone else. The trio said they had seen Omar in the company of two people (they weren't introduced to them) at Karachi's Sabeel Wali Mosque where, on January 24, they were assigned the responsibility of arranging a camera and a scanner so that Pearl's pictures could be taken, scanned and attached to the e-mails that were to be sent to newspapers worldwide.

Sources say Salman is a hardcore jehadi with bullet wounds all over his body; Fahad is a computer expert. Both claimed the motivating factor in supporting Omar was their religious commitment and nothing else. They also told their interrogators that they were committed to jehad in Afghanistan and Kashmir and demonstrated no remorse for their activities.

Sheikh Adeel's background is even more interesting: he's a serving inspector with the intelligence department of the Sindh police. Perhaps his own duty of keeping tabs on jehadis turned him into an Islamist radical. He took two years leave and headed to Afghanistan. There, Adeel met Omar, whose commitment to the "cause" was enough to inspire him (Adeel) to become a suicide-bomber in Kashmir. During his interrogation, Adeel and others claimed their action was aimed at safeguarding the interests of Islam and Pakistan.

Yet the three denied any knowledge of the true motive underlying Omar's decision to kidnap Pearl.Was it because his investigation into jehadi organisations had yielded explosive stuff? Was it motivated by anger at Washington's action in Afghanistan, and the treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners? Or was it a vanquished jehadi simply looking for a "white American target"?

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies have gathered information showing that though Pearl was a resident of Mumbai, he had contacts among Indian sleuths in Delhi. They had provided Pearl access to an Indian intelligence agency report questioning the Pakistani authorities claim of having clamped down on jehadi activities post-September 11. But Pearl wanted to verify the Indian report; more specifically, he wanted to investigate the Bahawalpur connection of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

From Bahawalpur, Pearl filed a story which was featured prominently on the front page of the January 1 (Asian) edition of The Wall Street Journal. The headline summed it up: "Militant Groups in Pakistan Thrive Despite Crackdown". The strapline was even more damaging: Jaish-e-Mohammad says it is still operating after police detained some staff. The report proceeded to raise serious doubts about the Pakistani government's efforts to curb terrorism.

Could Pearl's Bahawalpur investigation have led the intrepid reporter to tread upon the toes of those who wanted to hide something? This led the investigators to turn the spotlight on Maulana Masood Azhar's JeM. The Fawad, Salman and Sheikh Adeel trio had anyway, by now, confirmed Omar's culpability in Pearl's abduction. One of the several measures the investigators took was to persuade Maulana Azhar, incarcerated at the Mianwali jail in Punjab, to call Omar on one of the many cellphones he possesses. Omar, however, flatly denied his involvement. Azhar then told the investigators that Omar could have been acting on his own in Pearl's abduction.

The joint investigating team wasn't willing to accept Azhar's take. It's still not known what prompted the team to change focus, but there is no denying that fbi sleuths, 72 hours before February 12, the day Omar surrendered in Lahore, started working on a new hypothesis: renegades from the Pakistani intelligence fraternity, upset at the U-turn on Afghanistan, could have kidnapped Pearl. The first thing the fbi did, say sources, was to demand a list of those Inter-Services Intelligence (isi) operatives who had in the last five years worked in the organisation's Afghan cell.

Soon several isi operatives were detained. Among them were Khalid Khawaja and Aslam Khan Sherani. Khawaja was picked up because of his close links with Fuqra leader Gilani. What was so special about him? Well, it was the attempt to organise an interview with the Fuqra leader that led Pearl to contact Mohammad Bashir aka Omar; it later transpired that Pearl had met even Khawaja in this regard. (Post-retirement, incidentally, Khawaja had been in touch with Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.)

Sources in Lahore say Khawaja and Sherani did provide valuable leads in the Daniel kidnap case, enabling police to get on to the Omar trail. With time fast running out, and keeping in mind President Pervez Musharraf's meeting with US President George W. Bush in Washington, it was decided to take Omar's family into custody, hoping to compel the Jackal of the subcontinent out of his hideout.

Omar and others are all under interrogation, underlining the setback the isi has suffered. Its relationship with jehadi groups too will now bear scrutiny. But Pakistan government officials say if it is true that the two former isi officials are involved in the Daniel case, then it can be only at the behest of India. They say the government has already started investigating possible links of Masood Azhar and Omar with Indian intelligence agencies.The reason: the duo had been in Indian prisons for several years and were never tried. They express surprise at the involvement of Azhar, Omar and the Jaish in all incidents damaging to Pakistan and the Kashmir cause—from the kidnapping in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, of western tourists in 1994 to the hijack of IC-814 to the attack on the Kashmir assembly and Indian Parliament. They could be playing a double game, so goes their theory.

But the other question is: why didn't the Pakistan government curb JeM's activities? Why didn't they seek to nab Omar, who was responsible for remitting money to Mohammad Atta, the hijacker who rammed his plane into the World Trade Center? Omar also received from Atta the leftover amount he had been allocated to finance his operation. Government officials say it was because of the protective policy of former isi chief Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed, who was responsible for raising the Jaish. But wasn't Ahmed sidelined way back in October last year?

It's back to mutual recriminations between India and Pakistan; it's back to questions few have answers to. All that's left to cling to is the hope that Pearl may be alive. But then you realise he was kidnapped on January 23, and your heart misses a beat.

Mazhar Abbas in Karachi and Amir Mir in Lahore

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