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Mystery Wrapped In Enigma

The Omar Sheikh riddle remains unsolved. If he knows some deadly secrets about the involvement of Musharraf himself, all the latter has to do is to have the appeal dismissed by the court and have him executed quickly. What gives?

Mystery Wrapped In Enigma
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Every year, as we enter a New Year, my mind goes back to Daniel Pearl, the Mumbai-based American correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, who met with a brutal end to his young life during a visit to Karachi in January 2002 to enquire, inter alia, into the suspected Pakistani links of international jihadi terrorists.

In his keenness to find out the truth, Pearl fell into a treacherous trap laid by a mixed group of Pakistani terrorists belonging to different organisations and orchestrated by Omar Sheikh, a British resident of Pakistani origin, who had participated in the so-called jihad against the Serbs in Bosnia before shifting to India. He was arrested in India on a charge of involvement in kidnappings for ransom to help the terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). He was one of those released by the Government of India in December 1999 to meet the demands of a group of terrorists belonging to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) of Pakistan, who had hijacked an Indian aircraft to Kandahar, then under the control of the Taliban. The HUM is one of the founder-members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People floated in February, 1998.

After his release by the Indian authorities, who in a shocking submission to the terrorists handed him over to the Taliban, he crossed over into Pakistan and started helping the IIF. He opened an office at Lahore to help Al Qaeda in its fund collection and other activities. He revisited Kandahar shortly before 9/11 and met Osama bin Laden. Shortly after the kidnapping of Pearl and before his murder, Omar Sheikh surrendered to a former official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who was then posted as the Home Secretary of the Government of Punjab at Lahore.

The ISI kept him in its custody for some days without making an announcement of his surrender. It then transferred him to the custody of the Lahore Police, who, in turn, handed him over to the Karachi Police. During his interrogation by the Karachi Police, he was reported to have admitted not only his role in the kidnapping of Pearl, but also in the planning of the explosion outside the J&K Legislative Assembly in October, 2001, and in the attack on the Indian Parliament at New Delhi on December 13,2001. He also reportedly stated that during his visit to Kandahar to meet bin Laden before 9/11, he had come to know of Al Qaeda's plans for the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US. He reportedly claimed that on his return to Pakistan from Kandahar, he had met Lt.Gen. Ehsanul Haq, then Corps Commander at Peshawar, and conveyed this information to him.

Shortly after the kidnapping of Pearl and before his decapitated dead body was found, Pakistan's military dictator President General Pervez Musharraf had gone on his first bilateral visit to the US since he seized power in October,1999. He was the toast of Washington DC because of his perceived co-operation with the US in its military operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

During his stay in Washington DC, he was kept informed by the ISI of all developments relating to Pearl. He concealed the true facts of the case from the US public. He sought to give the false impression that Pearl was still alive so that the positive atmosphere surrounding his visit was not damaged.

Shortly after his return to Pakistan, the ISI announced the discovery of the dead body of Pearl. A video-recording made by the perpetrators of his murder showing how his throat was slit was also found. This was the third instance in South Asia in which this modus operandi, which has become the trade mark of the Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisations, had been used. The first was in the case of a Western tourist to J&K, who had been kidnapped by the HUM, then known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA), in 1995 under the name Al Faran.

The second was on board the hijacked Indian aircraft as it was being taken to Kandahar in December, 1999. The HUM hijackers asked all the business class passengers to shift to the economy class, separated a newly-wed Hindu boy from his young wife, took him to the business class, slit his throat, and sat around him as he bled to death and kept reading from the Holy Koran.

Pearl's brutal death was the third instance. Since then, there have been many more such instances and this trade-mark killing of the Pakistani jihadi terrorists has been adopted by the Abu Sayyaf of southern Philippines and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Amir of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Salafis of Algeria had been using it for many years.

Slitting the throats of non-Muslim victims--like one slits the throat of a sacrificial goat--that has been one of Pakistan's despicable contributions to jihadi barbarity.

The accomplices of Omar Sheikh in the kidnapping and murder of Pearl were arrested by the Police and all of them prosecuted before a court of law. Some of them were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment and some others, including Omar Sheikh, were awarded the death penalty.

The state as well as the accused went in appeal against the sentences. The state has demanded the death penalty also for those sentenced to only imprisonment. Omar Sheikh and his accomplices awarded the death penalty have challenged it. It has been nearly three years now since the appeals were filed. There has been no progress in the hearing of the appeals due to repeated adjournments of the hearing under some pretext or the other. It is said that there have been 40 such adjournments so far.

Both Mr. Nawaz Sharif, when he was the Prime Minster, and Musharraf had repeatedly amended the Anti-Terrorism Act in order to prevent the terrorists from resorting to such delaying tactics. Musharraf himself had repeatedly used these provisions to pre-empt the efforts of terrorists to delay trials. He had never hesitated to send to the gallows terrorists sentenced to death. The latest example was in respect of some military personnel sentenced to death for their involvement in the attempts to kill him in December, 2003. He got them quickly executed without a moment's hesitation.

Why is he avoiding the execution of the death penalty awarded to Omar Sheikh by having the hearing in the appeal heard quickly and the penalty confirmed? He seems to feel that an Omar Sheikh dead will be more dangerous to him than an Omar Sheikh alive. Or, to put it differently, he seems to feel that an Omar Sheikh alive might be more useful to him in his attempts to keep himself sustained in power than an Omar Sheikh dead. Why?

In the meanwhile, Omar Sheikh is as active as ever from the jail keeping in touch with jihadi terrorists not only in South Asia, but also in the UK and other countries of Europe. Last year, through his lawyers and with the connivance of his jailers, he had statements disseminated all over Pakistan and Afghanistan condemning the US for the alleged desecration of the Holy Koran by the US guards at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Well-informed sources in Pakistan claim that two of the perpetrators of the London explosions of July 7,2005, had met him in jail during their visit to Pakistan and that it was he, who had motivated them to launch the terrorist strike in London.

To find out the truth about 9/11, the brutal murder of Pearl , the London explosions, the violent anti-US demonstrations in Afghanistan and many other incidents, it is important to have Omar Sheikh brought out of Pakistan and interrogated by independent non-Pakistani investigators.

Since 9/11, Musharraf has, without a moment's hesitation, co-operated in the rendition to the US of many brutal terrorists from Pakistan. According to one estimate, about 300 Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and terrorist suspects had been flown out of Pakistan by the CIA, with the help of Musharraf. The more prominent among them were Abu Zubaidah, Ramzi Binalshibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Faraj al-Libbi. According to Musharraf's own statements, Abu Faraj was the Al Qaeda mastermind of the two attempts to have him (Musharraf) assassinated in December, 2003. One would have, therefore, expected Musharraf to have retained him in Pakistani custody and questioned in order to identify other military personnel involved in the plot. He did not do so. Instead, he handed him over to the US.

There are only two instances in which Musharraf has fiercely rebuffed suggestions for similarly handing over suspects to the US or the international community--the cases of Dr. A. Q. Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, and Omar Sheikh.

In the case of A. Q. Khan, the reasons for Musharraf's fears are clear. Under interrogation by foreign experts outside Pakistan, he might have exposed the role of the late Zia ul-Haq in the transfer of military nuclear technology to Iran and of Musharraf in the transfers to Libya and North Korea.

What is Musharraf afraid of -- if it is fear which is responsible -- in the case of Omar Sheikh? If Omar Sheikh knows some deadly secrets about the involvement of Musharraf himself, all the latter has to do is to have the appeal dismissed by the court and have Omar Sheikh executed quickly. That would have been the end of the fear. Why is he not doing it?

The more I think of these questions, the more I am bewildered. The more I have tried to find answers to them, the more I have failed.

Anyone finding the answers would be making a remarkable contribution to solving one of the biggest mysteries of the so-called war against international jihadi terrorism.


B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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