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.

The Pakistani generals were faced with a difficult choice after 11 September 2001. If they did not agree to US demands, Washington might follow the Israeli example and make an anti-Muslim pact with the religious extremists ruling India. But if they kowtowed, the results could be catastrophic, given that Pakistani intelligence (ISI) had been funding fundamentalist groups in Pakistan since the Zia years (1978-88). Musharraf, backed by most of his generals, decided to withdraw from Kabul, to try to persuade his supporters in the Taliban not to resist US occupation, and to open up Pakistan’s military and airforce bases to the US. It was from these bases that the US-led assault on Afghanistan was mounted.

The Wall Street Journal despatched its South Asia bureau chief to the new war zone. The Pearls intended to spend a few weeks in Pakistan and then return to Paris, where the pregnant Mariane was determined her child would be born. Contrary to stories that were circulated later, Daniel Pearl was a very cautious journalist. His wife details the memos he sent to his paper, arguing that they should train and protect journalists reporting from danger zones. They were ignored. Pearl refused to go to Afghanistan – the situation was too insecure – but he also knew that the real story was in Pakistan. He decided to investigate the links between Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber who mercifully lost his nerve, and Islamist groups in Pakistan. This was what Musharraf thought ‘too intrusive’. Pakistani officials more than once told Mariane that if he had behaved like other foreign journalists, the tragedy might have been averted. Neither she nor the FBI experts who flew to Pakistan have been able to decipher Pearl’s notes, written in code and describing, one assumes, what he found out.

I was in Lahore a few weeks after Pearl’s death. Everyone I met told me that people had been moved by Mariane’s dignified television appeal, offering herself and her unborn child to the kidnappers in lieu of her husband. The revelation in a leading daily newspaper that Daniel Pearl was a Jew and hints that he was connected to Mossad were designed to counter this sympathy, but failed. There was little support for the killers. Mariane Pearl describes the senior Pakistani intelligence officer (‘Captain’) assigned to help her as friendly and sympathetic. No doubt he was, but he was also doing his job, which was to show her, the FBI and the US consul in Karachi that the intelligence services were doing their best to locate Pearl – as some of them were.

Washington’s need for Pakistan’s support had led to a reconciliation between the Pakistan army and the Pentagon, and a lifting of the sanctions imposed in 1998 to punish the generals for developing and testing WMD. The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl was designed to deter other intrusive journalists and simultaneously to embarrass Washington and the GHQ in Rawalpindi.

Circumstantial evidence suggested the involvement of the ISI, as I wrote at the time. There was no direct proof, but it was no secret in Pakistan that Omar Saeed Sheikh, the psychopath who set up the kidnapping, had intelligence connections. In 1994, ISI-spawned Islamist groups had infiltrated him into Kashmir. A specialist in kidnapping foreigners and keeping them as hostages, he masterminded an action of this kind in Delhi to secure the release from Tihar jail of Masood Azhar, leader of an Islamist group. The kidnapping succeeded, but so did Indian intelligence: after a shoot-out, Sheikh was captured. He slapped the senior police officer who arrested him and was beaten up in return. Five years later, in December 1999, his colleagues hijacked an Indian airliner on its way to Kandahar and threatened to kill everyone on board unless Sheikh and other ‘liberation fighters’ were freed. They were.

What drove a Sylvester Stallone fan, born in East London in 1973, to become a religious fanatic? His parents had emigrated to Britain in 1968, with enough capital to establish a small garment business. Perfect Fashions did well enough for Omar to be sent to prep school. But his fondness for drink and thuggery worried his parents, who sent him back to the Land of the Pure. He didn’t last long at Aitchison College, a top private school in Lahore: after a couple of years, he was expelled for ‘bullying’. A contemporary described him to me as having had ‘strong psychopathic tendencies . . . even then’, and said he was always threatening to kill other boys. He returned to London and was sent to school in Snaresbrook, where he was a contemporary of Nasser Hussain, the future England cricket captain. He was a keen chess player and arm-wrestler, ever eager to demonstrate the latter skill in local pubs.

He did well in Snaresbrook and went to study statistics at the London School of Economics. There were a number of active Islamist groups on campus and Bosnia became their cause. The involvement of Western intellectuals in Bosnia has been well documented, often by themselves. Less well documented is the fact that remnants of the Afghan mujahedin, including some of Osama’s men, had been taken in US transport planes to fight the holy war in the Balkans. In 1993, Sheikh went to Bosnia as part of a group of Muslim students from the LSE taking medicines and supplies to victims of the civil war. It was here that he first established contact with the armed-struggle Islamist groups who converted him to their version of jihad. By January 2002 he was in Islamabad promising Daniel Pearl a much sought-after interview with the clerical godfather of the shoe-bomber.

Many questions about Pearl’s death remain unanswered. Western journalists visiting Pakistan have always been closely watched and followed. It’s impossible to believe that Pearl, burrowing away on his own, establishing contacts with members of extremist groups, was not being monitored by the secret services.

The group that kidnapped and killed Pearl supposedly called itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. One of its demands – the release of the Guantanamo prisoners – was obvious, but the second was extraordinary: the delivery of F16s, paid for but not delivered, to Pakistan. A jihadi group which supposedly regards the Musharraf regime as traitorous for selling out the Taliban, endorsing a twenty-year-old demand of the military and state bureaucracy? Impossible.

Then there is the strange episode involving Ghulam Hasnain, a stringer for Time magazine in Karachi. He was handed a video of Pearl’s killing by an unknown person (probably Sheikh) and told to leak it to the media. At the time nobody knew Pearl was dead. Before Hasnain could do anything, he was lifted by an ISI van and disappeared for several days. On his release he refused to discuss the episode.

Sheikh surrendered to the provincial home secretary (a former ISI officer) in Lahore on 5 February 2002. Officially, he was arrested in Lahore a week later. None of these matters was raised at his trial in a closed court in Hyderabad in July 2002. He was sentenced to death, his fellow conspirators to life imprisonment. Both sides appealed, Sheikh against the death sentence, the state against the sentence of life imprisonment – rather than hanging – for the other three. Sheikh wrote a statement that was read out by his lawyer: ‘We’ll see who will die first, me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me. Musharraf should know that Almighty Allah is there and can get his revenge.’ The three attempts on Musharraf’s life, two of which took place within a week and one of which came close to success, indicated that Sheikh wasn’t making an empty boast.

After her husband’s death, Mariane Pearl returned to France, where she was fêted by Chirac. Back in the US, she describes a private visit to her apartment by Laura Bush, who confided that ‘sometimes in our culture it seems as if we’ve digested so much we can’t seem to absorb something that is complex any more.’ Then ‘the door flies open and a gorgeous blonde girl in her early twenties joins us. It is Jenna, one of the Bushes’ twin daughters. She grabs a chair and sits across from us, and the conversation turns to the political apathy of American youth and the US military strikes in Afghanistan. "I have always been against the bombings,” Jenna says.’

On this issue at least, Jenna Bush is well to the left of much of the liberal intelligentsia. In December 2001, at the Berlin Literature Festival, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the German Green MEP, berated the New York poet Eliot Weinberger and myself for opposing the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan. Lévy had told the Berlin audience that he was a bit jet-lagged since he had just returned from Kabul, where he had met with the implanted leader Hamid Karzai and launched a new magazine. ‘What’s it called?’ I inquired. ‘Nouvelle Kaboul,’ he replied. The audience tittered. Perhaps they, too, suddenly saw him as Tintin in Afghanistan. At the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the mid-1960s Lévy was one of Althusser’s star pupils. He then became a leading intellectual of the French Communist Party and the editor of its cultural magazine, Lettres françaises. A decade later he discovered the gulags. Why did it take him so long? Whatever the reason, he was part of a group of left-wing French intellectuals – the nouveaux philosophes – who generated a great deal of publicity by denouncing both their own past and the gulags, which by then had been dismantled. The Pol Pot interregnum in Kampuchea undoubtedly speeded them on their journey rightwards. They all obtained gainful employment, but Lévy, who could have rivalled Gérard Dépardieu, preferred to become an official intellectual, close to the French state. It worked well for him, especially after the Berlin Wall came down and the humanitarian wars began.

Now he has written a strange hybrid of a book about his adventures in Pakistan, a country whose language he doesn’t speak and whose people he seems to hate, despite the last-page invocation of a ‘gentle Islam’, firmly placed in the medieval period and counterposed to the ‘madmen of Peshawar’. Mariane Pearl understands the diversity of opinions in the country, but Lévy sees only stereotypes. Half fiction, a quarter speculation, one-eighth film script (with BHL as himself?) and one-eighth regurgitated newspaper articles, this book gives narcissism a bad name. Is there anything of value in it? I searched in vain, hoping that his ‘diplomatic connections’ might have helped out with some previously unknown facts. Nothing. Given the absence of real content, style becomes all; and it is pure pastiche. At times, ‘my dear Sartre’ is invoked for no apparent reason, except to make it clear that Lévy is the only true heir. At another point, he is reminded of his old tutor at the Ecole Normale:

Latent homosexuality. Or, if not, perhaps no sexuality at all, pleasure is a sin, the purpose of relations with a woman is to procreate. Omar . . . has probably never slept with a woman . . . he is a 29-year-old virgin. Is this the key to the psychology of Omar? . . . Asexuality, and the will to purity that goes with it, as possible sources of the moral standards of the religion of fundamentalist crime? . . . But I remember, I cannot help but remember, a great French philosopher, Louis Althusser, still a virgin at 30 and who . . . No. Out of bounds, precisely. Because truly blasphemous. And too flattering to Omar.

If Omar had been a drunken, frazzled, dissolute believer (they exist), would that have made it any better?

Who knows whether the whole truth about the Daniel Pearl affair will ever be revealed? Was he killed by Yemenis, supervised by an al-Qaida leader in revenge for the bombing of Afghanistan? Or was he investigating links that needed to be kept secret at a critical moment for the Pakistani regime? And if so, was he eliminated by "a hard-line faction within military intelligence? Possibly. On this, Lévy and I are agreed, but there is no concrete evidence. The person who knows is Omar Saeed Sheikh: could it be that he has written an account whose publication would embarrass someone? Is that why the death sentence has not been carried out?