Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

Author’s note: I started writing this article, with the above title, before it was announced that Daniel Pearl was killed. Since then this fact has apparently been confirmed, which makes the thesis of this article even more relevant.

That Daniel Pearl was dead had become increasingly likely for some time. Enough clues were available that Daniel Pearl would not be found alive for a simple reason — the truths he would reveal would prove to be too embarrassing to the Pakistani government.

There is a perception in the western media that the intent of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping was to embarrass Musharraf’s government and to prevent the clampdown on banned organizations like the Jaish-i-Mohammad. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction. According to a report in the Pakistani daily The News International (Jang) on Feb 2, 2002, the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl was likely related to the fear that his reporting would expose the failure of the Pakistani government to clamp down on groups like Jaish-i-Mohammad. The Jang editorial on Feb 2, 2002, states:

“…another possible cause for Pearl’s ordeal could be the story he was following which said militant groups in Pakistan were thriving despite crackdown. He had quoted Jaish-e-Mohammed representatives saying that police “left behind enough people to keep their office running.” He also found a Jaish regional centre near Bahawalpur operating, as well as a still functioning bank account despite a freeze ordered by the State Bank.”1

Among other embarrassments to the Pakistani government, that Pearl was investigating, was the large presence of escaped Taliban and Al Qaeda members in Pakistan. Writing in the Pakistani daily The News International, on February 4, 2002, respected Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai recounts a meeting at his home in Peshawar with Daniel Pearl and his wife about 10 days before Pearl’s kidnapping on Jan 23.

“The couple wanted to discuss a host of issues, ranging from the happenings in Afghanistan to the crackdown by President General Pervez Musharraf’s government on radical Islamic groups in Pakistan.

They were also curious whether any Taliban leaders who may have crossed over to Pakistan after collapse of their regime in Afghanistan would be willing to meet them. I told Pearl and Marianne that some Taliban leaders may be hiding in Pakistan but it was impossible to meet them. Such a meeting would make public their presence in Pakistan, cause embarrassment to the Musharraf regime and intensify the hunt by Pakistani law-enforcing agencies and the US military for any Taliban or al-Qaeda officials hiding in the country.”2

Western media has, in general, been fixated on reporting that Daniel Pearl was on a reporting project related to Richard C. Reid, the man who was arrested on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December with explosives in his shoes. It is unlikely that the scope of his investigation was that narrow.

If indeed the Pakistani establishment had the most to lose by Daniel Pearl’s reporting, the question about who kidnapped Daniel Pearl remains. The linkages between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the presumably banned terrorists groups remain both strong and murky. It is sometimes unclear who is driving whom. So there are three possibilities for who arranged for Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping.

      1. The first possibility remains that this was planned and executed entirely by people belonging to Jaish-i-Mohammad and related groups, under the direction of Omar Sheikh, a protégé of Maulana Mashur Azhar, without any involvement of the ISI.

2. The second possibility is that this was initiated by mid-level elements in the ISI using Omar Sheikh and his ilk as a front, and possibly also involving what are being called “former” ISI agents in the operation. These could, in fact, be the very ISI elements that were being asked to break, or at least bury deeper, their alliance with the Jihadi groups.

3. The third possibility is that it has been initiated at a fairly high level within the Pakistani military establishment, concerned that a media outlet of the credibility of the Wall Street Journal would expose President Musharraf’s soft implementation of the much-publicized clampdown on the militant organizations. It could also be intended to serve as a warning to other international journalists to “know their limits.”

Option (1) has been the forerunner in the mainstream press. The stated motivation has been to embarrass the Pakistani government and to protest the professed clampdown on the Jihadi organizations. Option (2), the involvement of elements of the ISI in the kidnapping has received some coverage in the international and Pakistani press3. Option (3), while unlikely, cannot be ruled out. To an impartial observer, it would be clear that any such scheme would have negative PR repercussions for the Pakistani government, especially if the truth were to come out. However, Pakistani military generals used to browbeating the domestic press could possibly have convinced themselves that such a move would be in the “national interest” and any negative fallout could be managed. They could also convince themselves that it would be fairly easy to manage the PR fallout by attributing the kidnapping to “Indian agents.”

Regarding the involvement of the ISI and the military in the drama, it would be worth examining some facts. The first is that, in case of such a plot it is clear that it would need to be done in a very secretive manner, and non-military organizations like the police would certainly be out of the loop on this. There is evidence of the fact that the police and the ISI were often working at cross-purposes in the investigation. The chief accused in the case, Omar Sheikh, was reported to be in the custody of a “non-police agency,” most likely the ISI up to a week before he was handed over to the Karachi police4. His handover to the Karachi police was when the news of his arrest was made public and this was timed to coincide with President Musharraf’s arrival in the United States.

That the military and President Musharraf viewed the Daniel Pearl kidnapping as mostly a media management problem is disconcerting. The military spokesman for President Musharraf first raised the issue of the “Indian link” to the kidnapping. This link was not given much credibility by the Karachi police officials who were investigating the case. However, the military despite a lack of supporting evidence continued to make the claim.

There are some reports that suggest that Daniel Pearl was considered suspicious by the establishment since he was a Jew and was based out of India. According to a report in theJang on Jan 30, 2002,

“…some Pakistan security officials… are privately searching for answers as to why a Jewish American reporter was exceeding “his limits” to investigate Pakistani religious group. These official are also guessing, rather loudly, as to why Pearl decided to bring in an Indian journalist as his full time assistant in Pakistan. Ansa Nomani, an American passport holder Indian-Muslim lady who had come from Mumbai to Karachi with Pearl, was working as his full time assistant in the country.

The same group of officials is also intrigued as to why an American newspaper reporter based in Mumbai would also establish a full time residence in Karachi by renting a residence. “An India based Jewish reporter serving a largely Jewish media organisation should have known the hazards of exposing himself to radical Islamic groups, particularly those who recently got crushed under American military might,” remarked a senior Pakistani official.

A growing feeling in some government quarters, including intelligence services, that the western reporters and officials currently operating in Pakistan may not be provided an unhindered access to government installations, Islamic groups and individuals appeared to have gained momentum in the wake of Pearl’s kidnapping, officials confirmed.”5

In a military state accustomed to limits on journalistic investigation, the audacity of a “Jewish” journalist exposing uncomfortable truths to a worldwide audience could have been too much to bear.

The question remains of what, if any, knowledge President Musharraf had of the goings on in the kidnapping case. The prominent US portrait of Musharraf is that of a courageous and embattled general trying his best to clamp down on the extremist elements in Pakistan despite strong domestic opposition to these policies. While Musharraf’s actual compulsions merit separate analysis, his role in this episode remains disturbing.

Some clues to Musharraf’s involvement are found in the interview he gave to the Washington Post on Feb 8, just before leaving for the United States. There are three notable points in the interview. The first is actually an omission. The arrest of Sheikh Omar was announced on Feb 12. It is reported that he was in custody with “non-police” agencies for a week, before he was turned over to the police. This means that by the time Musharraf gave the interview, Sheikh Omar was already in custody, a fairly important event that he failed to mention, not only to the public, but also apparently to the FBI.6

The second point is that he continued to invoke “Indian involvement,” even when he knew that hypothesis had been discredited by his own police chief and he had no new evidence to support the claim. He even went so far as to say that key leaders of the Jaish-i-Mohammad, including Sheikh Omar Saeed and Masood Azhar, both of who were freed in the deal to end the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar, Afghanistan, were possibly Indian agents. Attributing the “Indian hand” to any unpalatable event is, of course, not new in Pakistan. What is incredible is that Musharraf as President of Pakistan would offer such a far-fetched hypothesis to a US interviewer, even when he knew it was unlikely to be taken seriously, given the scanty evidence. Why would Musharraf bother to repeat this charge even at the cost of losing credibility unless the truth was much worse?

The third point he made was one that identified his views most closely with the “security officials,” quoted in Jang on Jan 30, which suggested that Daniel Pearl essentially got what he deserved. In his interview to the Washington Post on the eve of his visit to the US, the Postreported:

“…he (Musharraf) was critical of Pearl’s conduct, suggesting that the 38-year-old reporter had risked too much by pursuing contacts with Pakistan’s terrorist underworld.

“According to my information, Mr. Pearl was also trying to get overly involved with people who are maybe dangerous,” Musharraf said. “I wonder whether it was because of his over-involvement that he landed himself into this kind of a problem.””

These are ominous words coming from the President, and could suggest that Musharraf knew more of what happened to Daniel Pearl than he was letting on, and possibly knew that Daniel Pearl was already dead at the time of this interview.

While none of this is conclusive evidence it certainly raises some very troubling questions:

1. Who were the kidnappers of Daniel Pearl? What was their motivation for holding Daniel Pearl? Why did they not try to negotiate their demands once they had kidnapped him?

2. Why were the Pakistani military and police spokespersons making contradictory claims about the Indian involvement?

3. Why were the Pakistani police investigators and the FBI kept in the dark for a week by ISI investigators that they were holding Sheikh Omar?

4. Why did President Musharraf not mention the arrest of Sheikh Omar in the interviews he gave several days after the incident?

5. Why were Musharraf and other Pakistani “security officials” upset at Daniel Pearl?

6. Has Jaish-i-Mohammad really been banned in Pakistan?

Any enterprising investigator should remember that trying to find the truth behind these questions could be injurious to your health. This is at least one lesson to take from the Daniel Pearl saga.


1. Editorial, “The Danny Pearl affair,” The News International, Feb 2, 2002.
2. “Kidnapping to harm Islamic groups” by Rahimullah Yusufzai, The News International, Feb 4, 2002.
3. For example, “Strange fish caught in Daniel Pearl dragnet” by Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online, Feb 2, 2002.
4. “A Struggle in The Shadows: How Pakistan’s spy service may have tried to spring Daniel Pearl” by Zahid Hussain, Newsweek International (Feb 25 issue, online on MSNBC).
5. “Indian connection in US newsman case” by Kamran Khan, The News International, Jan 30, 2002.
6. “A Struggle in The Shadows: How Pakistan’s spy service may have tried to spring Daniel Pearl” by Zahid Hussain, Newsweek International (Feb 25 issue, online on MSNBC).

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.


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