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The Truth Left Behind: Catching the Mastermind

March 30th 2011

Terrorism - Daniel Pearl

Kidnapping plotter Omar Sheikh had scurried out of town after turning over Daniel Pearl to local militant leaders in Karachi. Sheikh later told police that Asif Ramzi, an operational leader, called him and told him that Pearl had been killed. Sheikh recalled that he immediately phoned Amjad Farooqi, his contact to the local militant leaders, and asked him to get the details. Farooqi met Sheikh in Lahore and confirmed that Pearl was dead. This account has Pearl dead before Sheikh was arrested. It isn’t clear how Sheikh responded, but when he was arrested he claimed to police that Pearl was still alive.

Sheikh had experience as a kidnapper, nabbing tourists in New Delhi in 1994, but, as far as is known, wasn’t a killer. Was his intention to carry through on the Pearl death threat, or was he playing to see what he could get? After all, he was sprung from jail in India by militants who had demanded and won his freedom in return for passengers aboard a hijacked Indian passenger flight. By his account, he was going to free the American he kidnapped in India, Bela Nuss. Police investigators familiar with Sheikh see him as a man who approached his crime as a tactical strategist, like the chess champion that he was as a British schoolboy, rather than as a cold-blooded killer. Even before the Pearl kidnapping, he had evaded U.S. efforts to extradite him for the Delhi kidnapping.

On March 10, 2002, about four weeks after ISI officials handed Sheikh over to police custody, FBI agent Tarine “Ty” Fairman sat across from Sheikh, plying him and the Pakistani intelligence and police officials in the room with tea and cookies. Fairman had never been in Pakistan before, but he did know how to build rapport. Sheikh told the agent his life story. “Omar stated that the first time he did a kidnapping he had sort of a pain of conscience. The second time he did a kidnapping it was not so bad, and the third time it got easier and so on,” according to the FBI interview report, called a “302.”

About the practice of beheadings, Sheikh said, “I think it strikes fear in the enemy.”

But, about Pearl’s murder, he said, “My intention was to kidnap him, not kill him,” and that “I’ve got nothing against Jews per se, it’s the Zionist policies.” He added: “I would target a Zionist, not a Jew … I knew that Daniel Pearl was a Jew before the second e-mail; I read it in the newspapers … When I said to release him, referring to Daniel Pearl, they already knew he was a Jew.” (That is questionable: The article identifying Pearl as Jewish was published on January 30, 2001, the day after Sheikh had told his lieutenants to edit his second ransom note to claim that Pearl was an agent for Israel’s Mossad.)

But he said Pearl’s captors had to hold him once the local newspapers revealed he was Jewish. “Those people couldn’t release him once they found out he was a Jew,” he said.

Sheikh said another militant had told him Pearl was a “reporter who wished to infiltrate a number of Jihadi organizations, and interview their leaders,” which was an indicator for him that he was working for the CIA.

Sheikh told the FBI agent, “I feel bad, I tricked him, Pearl, into coming there and he was killed.” Later in the interview, he said, “Daniel Pearl would not be dead if I didn’t do what I did.” He acknowledged, “I feel sorry for Pearl’s wife,” but added, “What should I do? Give food packets to Mrs. Pearl, like the Americans dropped food packets to the Afghan people?”

It would be four months before Pakistani police would get a clue about what happened inside the secret compound outside Karachi. That break came when Fazal Karim, a guard, was picked up in connection with the bombing of the Sheraton Karachi Hotel on May 8. By then, the trail to the killers had long gone cold.

For the moment, the cops would only be left with clues to the mastermind, Omar Sheikh, and his low-level operatives—men who never witnessed Pearl’s captivity or murder.

There is nothing that indicates that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind who later confessed to killing Pearl, was in on the original kidnapping plan so, for him, Pearl’s murder may have been a crime of opportunity. Pearl’s poking around, looking for Reid’s facilitator, might have raised alarms that Pearl would stumble across family business and ultimately learn that KSM’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, was actually Reid’s facilitator.

While KSM slipped back into Al Qaeda’s furtive network in Pakistan, a manhunt was closing in on Omar Sheikh.

As it turned out, February 4, 2002, was a critical day for the investigation—and would become a very problematic one. Across the bustling city of more than 12 million, police SWAT teams fanned out to nab Sheikh’s kidnapping associates one by one.

There was mounting pressure on Pakistani law enforcement officials to find the abducted American journalist before it was too late. Pearl had gone missing on January 23, 2002, and now, twelve days later, his friends, family, and colleagues continued to hold out hope for his safe return despite threatening ransom notes.

Police surrounded the homes of members of Sheikh’s extended family, demanding to know Sheikh’s whereabouts and threatening to detain those related to him.

As the pressure on his family intensified, Sheikh’s father and uncle convinced him to surrender.

Unlike Omar, these were respectable men. Saeed Ahmed Sheikh, the father, had obtained British citizenship in 1986. As a royal chartered accountant he had enjoyed a prosperous life in London, sending his other children to Oxford and Cambridge. The uncle, Rauf Sheikh, was no less distinguished. He was a judge in Punjab province, which includes the historic city of Lahore.

The police strategy worked. Judge Sheikh later testified in court that he called a senior police official in Lahore, asking the authorities to go easy on the family and that he would produce his fugitive nephew. That afternoon, February 5, the father and uncle told the court, they went to a mosque in a neighborhood called Gulberg in the heart of Lahore. Shortly before early afternoon prayers, the younger Sheikh arrived, the father and uncle later said. They said he assured them that he wasn’t involved.

To piece together what happened next requires picking through a near-impenetrable morass of facts and rumors. It has provided fodder for conspiracy theories which, appropriately enough, revolve around whatever connections Omar Sheikh may have had with Pakistan’s powerful, secretive intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s version of the CIA.

What retired Gen. Ehsanul Haq, the ISI chief at the time, acknowledged in an interview with the Pearl Project is that on February 5, Omar Sheikh gave himself up to Ejaz Shah, the home secretary for the province of Punjab, a retired army brigadier and close ally of then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Sheikh told the FBI he was in Shah’s care for the seven days. Shah had worked as an intelligence officer for the ISI. He also came from the same ancestral village, Nankana Sahib, as Omar Sheikh’s mother. Later, in court testimony, Omar Sheikh’s uncle and father made no mention of the ISI, simply stating that they handed the young man over to Lahore police, asking the police not to beat him. Whether Sheikh sought refuge in Shah’s custody because there was a family connection and would, therefore, provide a soft landing into the legal system, or whether it was because Sheikh had a long history with the ISI is still unresolved.

This interlude has raised numerous questions. Was the ISI protecting Sheikh? Was it holding him to make sure he wouldn’t spill any of its secrets? Was Omar Sheikh hoping the intelligence service—perhaps the most powerful institution in Pakistan—would provide him some protection? Most provocatively, were elements in the ISI, which have backed the Taliban and Pakistan militant groups, knowledgeable about Omar Sheikh’s kidnapping activities? Even worse, was the ISI involved? Haq denied any ISI involvement in the kidnapping.

On such questions, American officials found their Pakistani allies distinctly unhelpful. If there was a limit to Pakistani cooperation, the subject of the ISI was it. In an interview, Chris Reimann, the FBI’s legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad during the Pearl investigation, confirmed his understanding that Sheikh was held in ISI custody for at least five days. Reimann said, “During the Pearl investigation, I was upset when I found out, when it became public knowledge that Omar had been secretly kept in ISI custody. I contacted my Pakistani intel sources, but no one would tell me what happened or what Omar said.” Reimann said that he had assumed that Ejaz Shah, the former ISI officer, was a relative of Sheikh’s.

Former FBI case agent Jay Kanetkar, who oversaw the Pearl investigation from the FBI’s Newark, New Jersey, office, said that he had always wondered what happened during the time Sheikh spent in ISI custody. “That has never been resolved,” he said. “It will probably never be resolved.”

After the “seven lost days,” on February 12, Sheikh was handed over to the Pakistani police in Lahore. It would be another month until he was formally charged by the Pakistanis—by then not only with the kidnapping but also the murder of Pearl, whose barbaric slaughter had been captured on video.

On February 21, 2002, FBI special agent John Mulligan fielded an unexpected phone call at the U.S. Consulate. It was an agent-friend from the FBI’s New York office. He had a lead, Mulligan recalled. A “source” had a “source” who said that he had a video that documented Pearl’s murder, Mulligan said. “We had about 20 minutes from when I got the call that he was willing to make the deal,” Mulligan said. “All I knew was, 'Hey, I gotta get this.’ If he says he's only going to give it to somebody from NBC News, then that's who I'm gonna be.”

That evening, Khalid Choudhary, a man standing a shade over six-feet tall, crossed the lobby of the Karachi Sheraton to meet Mulligan. Ironically, both introduced themselves as journalists. Choudhary called himself “Abdul Khalique” from Online International News Network, Mulligan recalled. He and a second FBI agent posed as reporters for NBC News. In the man’s hand: a compact digital video camera.

Choudhary had gotten the video from a young man, Fazal Karim, who had been a guard during Pearl’s captivity. Karim later told police his militant boss had told him to publish Pearl’s murder video, and he had asked a friend, Shaikh Shahid, a militant whom he believed was raising funds for the Taliban in Karachi, for help in selling the murder video. Shahid introduced Karim to Choudhary, who told him he had a buyer. He didn’t tell him it was the FBI.

“Probably the most nervous I've ever been in my career was when we got the tape,” Mulligan recalled. He stood face to face with the man for the exchange. The price to be paid to Online International News Network if the tape proved to be authentic: $200,000.

At 9:40 p.m. Karachi time, Mulligan got custody of the tape.

Choudhary walked away from the meeting at the Sheraton, supposedly under surveillance by Pakistani police. According to one FBI official, the plan was for Choudhary to return later to collect his payment when the tape's authenticity had been verified; the plan was to give him a bag packed with money and a secret tracking device to lead investigators to other participants in the plot. However, after word of the tape leaked out, the kidnappers didn’t answer their phones.

U.S. documents identified Choudhary as a U.S. citizen with an extensive drug-related criminal record in New York City going back to 1992. The Pearl Project confirmed his identity with a brother of Choudhary, who lives in Orlando, Florida. In Karachi, Pakistani police interviewed Choudhary, as did FBI agents, but former FBI agent Tarine “Ty” Fairman called Choudhary “one of those no-touch people.” Fairman last saw Choudhary leaving the U.S. Consulate in Karachi with a Pakistani police escort.

During the time between when Sheikh was taken into police custody in February and the trial began in April, Sheikh was frequently interrogated. At times he refused to eat or speak. An FBI agent documented that Pakistani police, known for harsh interrogation techniques, put him through what was euphemistically called “softening” while interviewing him.

In part for these reasons, before a trial in Pakistan began, U.S. officials decided not to press for extradition of Sheikh to face a subsequent American trial for the kidnapping. “It would be a nightmare of a case,” according to Kanetkar, the FBI case agent. And he said that “the U.S. did not want to do anything that would cause the Pakistani government” to release or retry Omar Sheikh.

There were other priorities, too. Pearl was dead, the U.S. was still hunting Osama bin Laden, and it hadn’t caught the operational chief for 9/11. Finally, in March, the U.S. got a break, not in the Pearl case, but in the 9/11 case.

In the city of Faisalabad in the province of Punjab, in a bloody nighttime raid, Pakistani and U.S. forces nabbed an Al Qaeda operational man, Abu Zubaydah, out of a safe house he had set up for characters such as “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and French Muslim operative Zacarias Moussaoui, according to the U.S. Defense Department. An FBI agent put a photo in front of him that Frank Pellegrino, an FBI agent tracking KSM for years, had given him. “That’s Mukhtar,” and he oversaw the operational details for 9/11, Zubaydah said, according to FBI agents familiar with the case.

U.S. officials said that Padilla said that, after meeting Zubaydah in Faisalabad, he met Al Qaeda operatives KSM, Ramzi bin Al Shibh, and KSM’s younger nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, at a safehouse in Karachi in March to discuss “a nuclear/dirty bomb operation.”It didn’t take sophisticated data analysis to see that, while there wasn’t a direct line to be drawn from Pearl’s case to those of some of the deadliest terror plots to date, there were certainly overlapping circles. KSM and his nephew, as well as Richard Reid, all intersected with the Pearl case.

With these pressures, Pakistan’s leader, President Pervez Musharraf, wasn’t inclined to send Sheikh for an American trial. A powerful though divisive political figure at home, Musharraf wanted to show Washington that he was fully an ally in the terrorism fight. On March 28, a month before the trial got underway, The Washington Post quoted U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin as saying that Musharraf had unequivocal words on the subject of extraditing Omar Sheikh: “I'd rather hang him myself.”

Asra Q. Nomani, Barbara Feinman Todd, Kira Zalan, Afgan Niftiyev, Jill Phaneuf, Douglas J Lane, Clara Zabludowsky, and JP Finlay write for the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article, part 9 of the Pearl Project series, is reprinted.


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