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Death in the shadow war

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Was Daniel Pearl's brutal murder part of a plot against the U.S.--or Musharraf and his reforms?

Daniel Pearl's beard had not grown much since our last glimpse of him, in the e-mailed pictures with his hands in chains and the gun to his head. So the videotape of his execution, discovered last Thursday, left investigators to conclude that the Wall Street Journal reporter had really been murdered weeks ago, and we had been living on faint hope and false promise since then.

The tape was cut and pasted into a three-minute clip, so there may be a longer and even more gruesome version of it yet to be found. As fits the frame of holy war, in which everyone is a soldier and belief is a battlefield, it appears that Pearl's last words were a forced affirmation of faith and identity. "I am a Jew," he said to the captors offscreen. "My father is a Jew." He recited some criticisms of U.S. policies, as though from a script that echoed his kidnappers' demands. Then the tape cuts out and starts again as a knife stabs his throat. Then he is on the floor, wounded. And then, another cut, another image, as his severed head is waved in front of the camera.

The savage end to the senseless crime left families and newsrooms and governments reeling. Pearl was the victim, but Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf--despised by some in his country for having abandoned his extremist allies in favor of the U.S.--may have been just as much a target. News of Pearl's murder reminded us what an ominous storm Pakistan is, with war at its edges and zealots in hiding and a President willing to risk everything by siding with the U.S. in its war against terror. His effort to drag Pakistan away from its tradition of fostering religious militancy may have inspired the country's holy warriors to wage their own war against him: a battle in which Pearl may have been the first American casualty.

Pearl, based in India as the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, had decided not to travel to Afghanistan after the war broke out. He and his wife were expecting a baby, and it was just too dangerous. But that did not keep the war from coming to him. He was in Karachi, reporting on the militant mentors of accused shoe bomber Richard Reid, on Jan. 23, when he went to a restaurant in hopes of meeting a prominent but reclusive Muslim cleric. It was typical of Pearl's approach: take the risk, listen to all sides, try to figure out how they think. His wife Mariane, a free-lance journalist, had planned to go with him but, in her sixth month of pregnancy, wasn't feeling well that day. So she stayed home.

Pearl never came home again. In two e-mails from "kidnapperguy," a previously unheard of group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty demanded, among other things, that the U.S. release Pakistani detainees being held in Cuba and the U.S. They accused Pearl of being a spy, first for the CIA, later for the Israeli Mossad. The charges were so absurd that experts immediately looked elsewhere for the real motives at work.

Musharraf, traveling to Washington two weeks ago, suggested that the kidnapping may have been part of an effort to rattle his government, particularly after his decision last month to crack down on Islamic militants and regulate their schools. He had already begun to purge their sympathizers within Pakistan's premier intelligence unit, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. "The extremist minority must realize that Pakistan is not responsible for waging armed jihad in the world," Musharraf said in a speech on Jan. 12. The U.S., meanwhile, was doing what it could to return Musharraf's embrace, dropping economic sanctions and offering $600 million in loans and aid. In such a moment of mutual need, the abduction of Danny Pearl reminded both sides of the cost of openly doing business together.

Pakistani investigators were working the Pearl case hard, but unlike the standard Karachi kidnapper, these culprits did not negotiate. After the first two e-mails, all that followed were hoax messages, leaving authorities uncertain about Pearl's condition. Still, everyone held out hope, particularly after U.S. intelligence agents were able to trace the e-mails and guide Pakistani police to three suspects, all of whom were arrested. Musharraf was greeted in Washington as a hero, riding into town upon news of the arrest of the suspected ringleader, British-born Muslim radical Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, 27.

When Saeed appeared in court in Karachi on Valentine's Day and confessed to orchestrating Pearl's kidnapping, he delivered a grim shock. "As far as I understand," he said of Pearl, "he's dead." According to the Washington Post, Saeed said he learned that Pearl was dead when he called his accomplices and told them to let him go. It was too late. "Dad has expired," an accomplice reportedly replied in code.

But it took last week's videotape to confirm the worst fears. "The entire government is in depression because of this," says Jameel Yusuf, a senior investigator on the case. Pakistani police are notorious for their use of physical coercion to extract confessions, but it is believed they were being careful with the suspects in this case for fear of risking Pearl's life. Now that he's confirmed dead, it's assumed that they will spare no one as they try to track down the four remaining suspects. Even so, "it will take some time to find them," concedes an investigator. "It won't be easy."

Saeed claimed during his interrogation that the kidnapping was actually part of a larger plot against U.S. targets in Pakistan. But was Saeed really the mastermind? He may have helped lure Pearl to the restaurant and recruited the accomplices who sent the e-mails, but it was not clear that he had Pearl in his control or had conceived the assault in the first place. Some Pakistani investigators and newspapers in the U.S. have speculated that rogue elements linked to the ISI wanted to demonstrate to Musharraf and the world that they were not so easily tamed. But others note that the ISI, while it has as a matter of policy supported and funded radical Islamist groups in the past, is a state organ that answers to both the political and military leadership. Musharraf, who is also a general, was able to cut the extremists loose after Sept. 11 and replace the hard-line, pro-Taliban ISI chief with a loyal progressive. Pearl's murder may provide fresh impetus to purge the unit of any other rebel factions.

None of that will bring Pearl back. "His murder is an act of barbarism that makes a mockery of everything Danny's kidnappers claimed to believe in," said Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. Friends and colleagues noted that Pearl was the kind of journalist who spent his career exploring and explaining the gaps and grievances among people and cultures. And for all that he had seen, he had not become hardened himself. "The terrorists who say they killed my husband may have taken his life," said Mariane on Friday, "but they did not take his spirit." Her son, she added, would learn one day how his father had died fighting terrorism, in his own way.


Cover Date: March 4, 2002


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