By Asra Q. Nomani
Paris, July 2002
Every story has a moment when it was conceived, and this one is no different. In the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, in the summer of 2002, I sat in a café with Jill Abramson, now managing editor for news at The New York Times. It had been five months since our friend Daniel Pearl, or Danny as we called him, had been murdered in Karachi, Pakistan. The three of us had been friends since our days together at the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Danny’s reporting had led him from India, where he was The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, to Pakistan. Danny had been chasing a Boston Globe story identifying “shoe bomber” Richard Reid’s alleged facilitator in Pakistan. That lead had turned out to have fatal consequences.
On that clear Parisian day, I told Jill that while four men had just been convicted in Danny’s murder — the mastermind, Omar Sheikh, and three co-conspirators — there were still men on the streets who had been allegedly involved but not charged. And we didn’t have a clue who had actually killed him.
Jill told me about the Arizona Project, an investigative reporting project by professional journalists into the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. Her eyes lighting up, Jill said, “We need an Arizona Project for Danny.”
Jill’s idea was a good one. I looked into the history of the Arizona Project and was moved by what I learned. Like Danny, Bolles had been lured to an interview that was a deadly hoax: the reporter believed he was going to meet with an informant regarding a land deal involving Arizona politicians and the Mafia. The source never showed up, and when Bolles returned to his car, his Datsun exploded, a bomb detonating after he started the engine. He died an agonizing death 11 days later. Among his last words: “They finally got me.” After he died, reporters from all over the country descended on Phoenix to report on the corruption that Bolles had been investigating. It was a horrifying story, but also an inspiring one to put to rest all the unresolved issues surrounding my friend’s murder.
I had been on book leave in Karachi when Danny and his wife, Mariane, had come to stay with me. Danny had left my home for the interview from which he was kidnapped, leaving Mariane to enter motherhood a widow. During the search to find Danny, I learned that I, too, was pregnant, but the biological father of my unborn child had not stepped up to the responsibilities of parenthood. Perhaps scared off by the frightening attention of the investigation into Danny’s murder, or the more prosaic fears of becoming a father, he had abandoned me.
I had moved to Paris to be near Mariane when she delivered her son, Adam. Soon after I saw Jill, I returned to my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia, to give birth to my son, Shibli, and with my parents’ help, settled into life as a single mother. The realities of life got in the way of my pursuing a “Danny Project” and it would be longer than I had hoped before I could turn my attention to such an undertaking, but the vision stayed with me.
Morgantown, West Virginia, 2007
By 2007, five years after Danny’s murder, I had moved forward with my life — my son was four years old and thriving. I had left The Wall Street Journal and cobbled together a professional life as the author of two books, and I had become active in the Muslim community as a feminist activist. I also wrote pieces as a freelance journalist for publications such as The Washington Post, Time magazine, and Salon.
But inside there was a hole caused by a persistent, burrowing grief. As I’d done in other difficult times, I turned to my craft. Jill’s idea for a “Danny Project” was still on my mind, and in my heart. And so, in the spring of 2007, I wrote a proposal to apply for a Nieman Foundation fellowship at Harvard University. It would give me a stipend and the time I needed to pursue an investigation.
I hoped to take a fresh look at Danny’s case — where it was both in terms of the U.S. and Pakistani governments. Harvard wasn’t exactly the right place, but I didn’t know what was the right place; I knew only that I needed resources and an institutional home for this idea.
And then, in March, a friend introduced me to Barbara Feinman Todd, the director of journalism at Georgetown University. She was trying to get more Muslim students interested in journalism. Our mutual friend thought maybe I’d have some contacts for her. Our e-mails back and forth quickly turned from the original topic to my dream for a “Danny Project” to investigate his death. “Come to Georgetown,” she said. “I’ll give you a classroom full of smart students.” I paused. “I’ll help you. I’ll do all the grading,” she added, a saleswoman if I ever met one.
Barbara and I are an unlikely team, our roots diametrically opposed. I was the Bombay-born daughter of conservative Muslim parents from India. At the age of four, with my parents and brother, I had migrated to the United States, and grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, where my father was a professor of nutrition and my mother a boutique owner. Barbara was the daughter of liberal Jewish parents from Chicago and Brooklyn, grandparents from Russia and Austria. Her father was an 18th century English literature scholar turned businessman and her mother a high school English teacher.
But we had something in common: we were grounded in old-school gumshoe reporting. Barbara had been a research assistant to Bob Woodward in the mid-1980s on a book about the CIA, after Bob and his partner Carl Bernstein had forged new ground in investigative journalism with their reporting of the Watergate scandal. Since then, she had become a ghostwriter and editor to well-known journalists and politicians, including Hillary Rodham Clinton. Soon after, I drove to Washington, D.C., to meet Barbara. She had the enthusiasm and the students. What she didn’t have was the funding beyond paying me a modest salary for one semester. “We’ll fund-raise it,” she said confidently. It wasn’t until later, after we got funding, that Barbara admitted that she had no clue how to raise the money we needed for a proper investigation. “I just told myself somehow we’d find the money,” she said.
Phoenix, Arizona, June 2007
In early June 2007, as Barbara and I began to plan our seminar for the following fall, we decided to travel to the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the world’s largest association of investigative journalists, forged out of the Arizona Project. It was conveniently being held in Arizona. Convenient because Randall Bennett, formerly the regional security officer for the State Department at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, was going to be stateside in Phoenix. Randall and I had gotten to know each other during the horrible weeks after Danny had been kidnapped. Randall was a compelling figure, straight out of central casting, the kind of guy who comes to mind when you hear words like “swagger,” and in fact, he had been portrayed in Hollywood’s version of Danny’s story. I wanted Barbara to meet him.
We picked up Randall and drove to a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. Barbara asked about the day Pakistani officials found Danny’s remains. Randall paused, then spoke eerily, his voice low, as he described going to the site in May 2002, watching as Pakistani cops with shovels dug in a corner of a walled off compound and unearthed Danny’s mutilated remains. I just remember a candle on the table with the smoke wafting into the air as Randall spoke and Barbara grew silent.
I learned later that Barbara was sick to her stomach that night and couldn’t sleep. What bothered her more than the gruesome details was the fact that my face remained impassive during Randall’s narrative. She admitted later that caught in a long security line, trying to catch a flight back to Washington, D.C., the next day, she started to cry. She was bothered by how I seemed unmoved by the horror of what we heard. She also wondered whether she could remain stoic enough to do the investigation, whether she could teach our students to be professional when her own veneer was cracking.
On the logistics of support for our project, Barbara had been close: the money found us. In late June 2007, Marian Cromley, an advisory committee member from the Oklahoma City-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, read a piece I wrote in The Washington Post, headlined “A Mighty Shame,” arguing that the movie A Mighty Heart, about the search for Danny, was disappointing because Danny ended up with a mere cameo in his own murder. She wrote to me asking if the project needed financial support. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation was established through an endowment left by a pioneer woman journalist from Oklahoma, Edith Gaylord, who covered Eleanor Roosevelt.
Marian invited us to her home to talk about our project and our funding needs. A former journalist herself, now in her 80s, she followed our complicated tale involving more than 20 suspects. She assured us that the foundation would want to fund our cause and that she would be in touch. “She’s our fairy godmother,” Barbara said, leaving Marian’s home in northern Virginia after our first meeting, a basket of blueberries — a gift from Marian — in her hands.
Wheaton, Maryland, August 2007
Barbara would soon learn that my impassivity was a mask, both to the world and to myself.
In Karachi, I had hand-drawn a chart to identify links between suspects. There was now software, I learned, that could do the same work. Every morning, I set off with my father for an office building in Reston, Va., to learn how to input data into a program called Analyst’s Notebook. My father, now a retired professor, was my de facto researcher, at least until the Georgetown class got started and I could get help from our students. I sat in the second row of a classroom filled with clean-shaven Mormon members of the Utah National Guard, in training before a stint in Afghanistan as drug intelligence analysts. An instructor taught my father and me how to fill the “fields” on individual people’s entries. We mapped a drug case. I was beginning to see how the events leading up to Danny’s murder could be translated into data with patterns, networks, and metrics. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was really going to be going back into the trenches of Danny’s kidnapping and murder.
One night, I tucked Shibli, my four-year old son, into bed. I told him I’d get a book from downstairs. I didn’t return.
“Mama?” Shibli yelled, as he ambled down the stairs.
He saw me in the living room, slumped on the hardwood floor. My mother came downstairs. She had seen me through such a range of emotions the past several years, and thought I had just gotten tired and fallen asleep on the floor. “Asra, wake up,” she said, to no response. She pulled me onto the sofa.
Waking up the next morning, groggy and tired, I went upstairs to slip into bed, but I fell before reaching the bed, unable to make my body do what I was willing it. “Call 911,” I said. The emotional weight of what I was about to embark upon had perhaps slain me. My body was shutting down. For his part, Shibli was thrilled to ride in an ambulance. The physicians couldn’t diagnose what had happened to me, and within a few days I was back to normal and back on the job.
Washington, September 4, 2007
The clock read 5:48 p.m. Twenty eager students assembled behind the desks in a classroom on M Street, off the campus of Georgetown University— the first class of the Pearl Project. Barbara and I introduced ourselves, and I walked the students through the key moments of the case, identifying the questions students would be tasked to answer, setting up the investigation. “We couldn’t save Danny,” I said, “but, through the Pearl Project, we will find the truth left behind.”
I told the students how on the day of the kidnapping and well into that night, I sat hunched over Danny’s computer with his wife, Mariane, reading his e-mails and learning that he was going to an interview with a man named Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, how Danny had told me with great excitement the afternoon of his kidnapping that he had discovered the e-mail address to which Richard Reid was e-mailing.
“One of our jobs is to finish Danny’s work,” Barbara told the class. “We want to establish who Richard Reid’s facilitator was in Pakistan. That was the story Danny was chasing when he died.”
Next, we talked about other questions that had emerged over the years: lapses in the investigation and the court case; the identities of so-called absconders in the case.
I continued: “Another goal: To establish who killed Danny and why they killed him.”
We set up the class to operate as a newsroom, assigning students to beats, including covering U.S. and Pakistani law enforcement and intelligence, as well as the many cells that handled different stages of the crime. We taught our students how to identify and develop sources, obtain documents, and verify information. They learned to work the phones. We met our secret sources, or “deep throats,” in Yahoo chat rooms.
In one of the first classes, Tarine “Ty” Fairman, a former FBI agent who worked on the Danny investigation, told the students: “One thing that you have in this class which we did not have is that you have over 20 people with 20 different mindsets, different approaches, different backgrounds but you’re all inquisitive. Now you can take information that the bureau didn’t have access to and you’ll be able to put some things together that the bureau never did, or that they refused to do.”
Washington, January 2011
Nearly three-and-a-half years later, after conducting hundreds of interviews, scouring hundreds of documents, and filing one lawsuit, Feinman vs. CIA et al., against eight government agencies, we’ve resolved much of what we set out to accomplish. There are still some unanswered questions but, for the most part, we’ve reported out the story. It is a story of a murder case fraught with bungled leads, missed opportunities, and political expediency that stretches from Karachi to Washington. And it was done with the extraordinary help of 32 student-journalists from every walk of life — from a Russian-American immigrant to a Florida diving champion.
By triangulating information from interviews, court documents, secret Pakistani police interrogation reports, FBI interview reports, and State Department cables, we made sense of a jumble of aliases, so that we could know the faces and stories of the men with whom Danny spent his final days. These men were mostly in their 20s and 30s at the time of Danny’s kidnapping, members of the Pakistani jihadi culture born after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The story we have written is the one I think Danny would have reported.
The significance of what we were trying to untangle and uncover grew from an isolated murder case to a study of militancy, Islamic extremism, and terrorism in Pakistan, with foreign policy implications much larger than we imagined when we first began. Years later, Danny’s case offers important lessons to the Obama administration as it grapples with its policy toward Pakistan as a safe haven for Taliban, Al Qaeda, and militant fighters that U.S. forces face in the war in Afghanistan. Danny’s case was a harbinger of the issues U.S. national security officials are grappling to understand today.
At the Newseum in Washington, there is an exhibit for Danny that includes his laptop, guide to Persian language, and passport. There is also an exhibit for Don Bolles featuring his mangled, rusted Datsun.
We hope that what follows here also serves as a tribute to Danny and to Don, and to all the other journalists around the world who have risked their lives or their freedom in the pursuit of truth.