Last Thursday, taking advantage of a world overwhelmed by the COVID19 pandemic, the high court in Pakistan’s Sindh province ordered the release of four men convicted of participating in the 2002 murder and kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Among them was Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-Pakistani national who orchestrated Pearl’s abduction.
While the four men will remain in custody for 90 days as state prosecutors appeal the decision to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, they could soon go free. That would be a devastating setback for justice that would also send a dangerous message to Jihadi militants in Pakistan and around the world, who have systematically targeted journalists in the 18 years since Pearl was killed. To understand what’s at stake, one must look to the origins of the crime.
The day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Pearl, who was the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, traveled from his base in India to neighboring Pakistan, where he eventually got on to a story about Richard Reid, who would come to be known as the shoe bomber.
In December 2001 Reid tried to blow up an airplane with plastic explosives molded into his sneakers. Pearl believed that Reid had a relationship with a reclusive leader named Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. As word spread that Pearl was looking to interview Gilani, Sheikh saw an opportunity.
Sheikh, 28 at the time, was a graduate of the London School of Economics, and had an air of ease and sophistication. He had deployed his wiles before. In 1994, Sheikh had organized the kidnapping of four Western tourists in India. He was convicted of that crime but freed after Islamic militants in Pakistan hijacked a plane and demanded his release.
On January 11, Pearl met Sheikh in Islamabad. Sheikh told the reporter he could arrange a meeting with Gilani in the port city of Karachi. Ten days later, Pearl flew there, accompanied by his pregnant wife Mariane. Sheikh, meanwhile, had used the time to assemble a kidnapping team made up of two dozen militants and criminals recruited from Karachi’s underworld.
On January 23, Pearl asked his taxi driver to drop him at a popular restaurant in Karachi. He was later seen climbing into a red Suzuki that he believed would take him to Gilani. Instead, he was brought to a house, where he was chained to a car engine in a cinder block outbuilding. Sheikh himself had already left Karachi, so he could deny connection with the crime. He called the kidnappers and instructed them to send photos of Pearl to the media along with demands to release prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operations chief who had masterminded the 9/11 attacks and who had fled to Karachi, read about the kidnapping in newspapers.
Exactly what happened next is not clear. But sometime in late January or early February 2002, Mohammed, known as KSM, showed up with two other men, a shopping bag of knives, and a video camera. They beheaded Pearl and used the macabre footage to create a 4-minute video entitled The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl that included a statement from Pearl made under duress and reiterated demands for the release of Muslim prisoners. The video of Pearl’s muder was actually a reenactment, since the camera jammed on the first take.
Prior to the Pearl murder, Al Qaeda had a very different relationship with the media. Like countless radical organizations throughout history, the group cultivated journalists. When Osama bin Laden declared Jihad against the United States, he did so in an CNN interview with Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett, who asked him about his future plans.
“You’ll see and hear about them in the media, God willing,” Bin Laden responded. When I spoke with Bergen a few years back while researching a book on press freedom, he told me that as a journalist “once you came into bin Laden’s inner circle you never felt threatened. He did fairly active outreach with the media, and threatening journalists would have been counterproductive.” As Lawrence Wright noted in The Looming Tower, his masterful history Al Qaeda, “Publicity was the currency that bin Laden was spending, replacing his wealth with fame, and it repaid him with recruits and donations.”
Bin Laden’s approach to media relations may explain why he was upset with KSM following the Pearl murder, according to the findings of the Pearl Project, a masterful investigation into the crime carried out journalism students at Georgetown under the guidance of former Journal reporter (and Pearl friend) Asra Nomani. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo Bay Military Commission, alleged in court documents that “Osama bin Laden was angry that KSM had slaughtered Pearl so publicly and brutally, arguing that the murder brought unnecessary attention on the network.”
“The murder sent a chill through so many journalists,” recalled Asra Nomani. “It became open season on journalists in Pakistan and around the world.” Hundreds of journalists were kidnapped and killed by Islamist extremists in the next two decades, mostly local reporters working in their own counties. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere, kidnapping generated hundreds of millions in dollars in ransoms as well as videos used to gain publicity and recruits.
Al Qaeda, which was largely cut off from the traditional media following the Pearl murder, developed its own communication infrastructure that evolved as new technologies came online. The group leaked video tapes to Al-Jazeera, and used a network of militant websites that published their press releases. The Pearl murder also created a new Jihadi iconography. The slickly produced snuff video as a media strategy reached its terrible apogee in Syria with the Islamic State. But the ISIS beheading videos, including those of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were the direct descendents of the Pearl murder tape, and the process set in motion by Omar Saeed Sheikh in Pakistan.
For his role in the Pearl murder, Sheikh was sentenced to death. The punishment was never carried out, despite 18 years in custody. Meanwhile, KSM remains at Guantanamo. He has never been brought to justice for any of his terrible crimes.
The Sindh High Court, in ordering Sheikh’s release, determined that he was guilty only of kidnapping, which carries a sentence of seven years. “We were shocked, we did not expect this,” said Tamara Pearl, Danny’s sister. “The kidnapping clearly led to the murder.” Judea Pearl, Danny’s father, called the decision a “mockery of justice.”
Pakistan’s security services have long used their relationship with Islamic extremists to apply pressure on India and as leverage in the proxy war in Afghanistan. The question now is whether, in the throes of a global pandemic, the media and the fractured international community can apply enough pressure on Pakistan to ensure that justice is not subverted.
What’s at stake is not only justice for Pearl, but the hundreds of journalists killed around the world by Islamist militants in the last two decades.Joel Simon is a fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism. His next book is The Infodemic: How Censorship Made the World Sicker and Less Free co-authored with Robert Mahoney.