The Terror Trail

Tariq Ali

  • A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Daniel Pearl by Mariane Pearl
    Virago, 278 pp, £7.99, March 2004, ISBN 1 84408 126 5
  • Who Killed Daniel Pearl? by Bernard-Henri Lévy
    Duckworth, 454 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 7156 3261 2

Most of those killed during the first two years of the ‘war on terror’ have already been forgotten. An exception is Daniel Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, who, early in 2002, was lured to a fashionable restaurant in Karachi, kidnapped and then executed by his captors. A video showing Pearl’s throat being slit was distributed to the Western media and a gruesome clip was shown on CBS news.

Invited to the White House to receive condolences from the president-at-war, his secretary of state and his national security adviser, Mariane Pearl told them in some detail how the United States was seen abroad and then, ‘just for the hell of it’, added that ‘my mother was born in Havana and my mother-in-law in Baghdad.’ Her father was a gay Dutch Jewish mathematician who had a one-night stand with a woman in Havana. Her mother soon settled in Paris; her father committed suicide when Mariane was nine. Her mother-in-law belonged to an old Baghdad Jewish family which had decamped to Israel, where she married a man named Judea – unhelpful antecedents for a journalist investigating the terror trail in Pakistan.

Mariane Pearl’s affecting memoir of her husband describes a warm-hearted, amusing man (she doesn’t mention how much he teased her over her Buddhism – the bells and mantras which accompanied her everywhere), who was also a tough-minded journalist with a regard for the truth. While he showed little interest in political or social theories or ideologies, he was sensitive to the moral and human costs of their implementation. This applied as much to the ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Kosovo as to clerical misrule in Iran. Some of his best pieces in the Wall Street Journal were reasoned and eloquent rejections of state propaganda, including US propaganda about Kosovo, Bosnia and the Sudan.

When his death was announced, I remember thinking that the official US response was rather subdued. What if the victim had been Thomas Friedman of the New York Times? Would Pervez Musharraf have been able to describe Friedman at a Washington press conference as ‘too intrusive’, which is what he said about Pearl? It was as if Pearl had connived in his own murder. The brother of Pakistan’s interior minister had been killed by an Islamist group a few weeks before Pearl. When, during a private meeting, the minister muttered something about Pearl bringing it on himself, a friend Mariane Pearl had brought with her asked him: ‘With all due respect, Mr Minister, would you blame your brother for having been murdered just because he was driving the streets of Karachi?’ Unknown to the public, there had been a plan to assassinate Musharraf himself in the same period.

When the Pearls arrived in Islamabad from their home in Bombay, they probably had little idea of the tension inside the military establishment. In opening the country to a US military presence, and backing the war in Afghanistan, the high command was undoing its one military achievement: the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, which would not have been possible without the active involvement of the Pakistan army. Later, one wing of the Taliban leadership developed ideas of its own, or rather adopted those of Osama bin Laden and his Wahhabi sidekicks. Their loyalty was to Islamic universalism, not to the Pakistani state. Despite this, the Pakistan-Taliban axis continued to function.

In 2000, to mark the new century and cement the special relationship, Pakistan sent a football team to Afghanistan to play a friendly. The game was about to start when Taliban security men entered the arena. There was a problem: the Pakistan team had long hair and weren’t decently attired. They were wearing normal football shorts, while the Afghans were dressed in shorts which came down well below the knee. The Pakistan players were arrested and their heads shaved (not à la Beckham); they were flogged as the stadium audience chanted verses from the Koran. Islamabad did not protest.

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