By Asra Q. Nomani, Kira Zalan, Barbara Feinman Todd
As dusk fell on the evening of Wednesday, January 23, the Karachi streets swelled with people bustling to get home. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl stood in front of the Village Restaurant, waiting for a 7 p.m. meeting.
Pearl thought he was about to have an interview like so many he had had in the past with dodgy characters in Pakistan. Even in the early days after 9/11, it was common for reporters to go in the vehicles of suspicious strangers to interview known extremists. It was a calculated risk. At the time, most journalists felt they had certain immunity with even the most hardened criminals or radicals because they gave voice to the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Yet, Pearl was certainly no cowboy. After war broke out in Afghanistan, he had written to a friend: “I’m dying to go to Afghanistan, but not really anxious to die.”
What was to happen to Pearl shows how the rules of the game have changed in this age of terrorism, how reporters can no longer assume they possess a special immunity to the violence. To the contrary, reporters can seem like easy targets — vulnerable and offering a way to snare global headlines. The case demonstrates the challenges that law enforcement and intelligence officials continue to encounter in attempting to pursue terrorists and prevent acts of violence. Pearl’s abduction was characterized by low-tech, personalized communications that relied on pre-established ties of friendship and family. The episode underscores how critical it is to understand what is known in defense and intelligence circles as “the human terrain,” if authorities want to uncover and prevent terrorist activities.
But, in this case, Pearl stood alone in the most populated city in Pakistan, out of the war zone, with just a writing pad, labeled “Reporter’s Notebook,” a pen, and a shoulder bag. A car arrived — by one account a red Suzuki Alto — and the driver beckoned him inside. “Daniel got in without hesitation and sat quietly,” a U.S. diplomatic cable later reported, the Alto heading up the busy Shahrah-e-Faisal road to the outskirts of Karachi.
It was an innocuous start to what was a diabolical trap set by Omar Sheikh, a 28-year-old British-Pakistani man who had used the ruse of an interview with an extremist Muslim spiritual leader to draw Pearl into his grip.
In just two-and-half days, Sheikh had put the operational details into place. Now he was nowhere to be seen: To later deny involvement in the kidnapping, he had gotten on a Pakistan International Airlines plane out of town, using the alias “Muzaffar,” according to Pakistani police. Pakistani police files, based on interrogations and other evidence, lay out what happened next.
At 7:11 p.m., Pearl received a call that lasted about four minutes. About 7:45 p.m., Pearl’s local “fixer,” Afzal Nadeem, a journalist, called Pearl to tell him he’d gotten an interview scheduled with a cyber security specialist. Pearl didn’t answer.
Around that time, just before the sunset prayer, Attaur Rehman, a local boss in the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, arrived at a compound in a remote neighborhood on the outskirts of town. A group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi men stood by, awaiting orders. They were young, low-level militants Rehman had plucked out of his Karachi neighborhood to be guards in this scheme.
“The guest is coming. Get ready,” Rehman told them.
He took two Russian-made TT-30 semiautomatic pistols from a side compartment of his Honda CD 70 motorcycle, giving one to a guard and keeping the other. He turned to one of the men, Fazal Karim, a low-level militant with five daughters, and told him to watch the gate and open it as soon as a car arrived.
When the car pulled up, Pearl was in the front seat. Karim and another guard later said it was a red Suzuki Alto, matching a description of the kidnap car later given by Rehman. The color of the vehicle would end up being an important detail, but nobody realized it at the time. Karim opened the gate. Rehman opened the front door and led Pearl out of the car. With a pistol in one hand, he put his other hand around Pearl’s neck and took him inside the small cinderblock building.
“Come on,” he said, in English.
Inside were several men. Rehman told Pearl to take off his clothes and hand over his belongings, including his camera, tape recorder, mobile phone, wrist watch, eyeglasses and case, wallet, four to five mobile phone cards, shoes, and a Citibank credit card. Pearl complied. Rehman asked Pearl what he wanted to eat. The guards suggested a hamburger.
Rehman tied the belongings in a handkerchief and, with Sajid Jabbar — the English-speaking “Imtiaz Siddique” who met Pearl at the Village Restaurant — left for the nearby neighborhood of Sohrab Goth. It isn’t clear whether Pearl just remained in his underwear, but his clothes were taken.
The men stood around not sure what to do. They were a motley crew. By day, Karim, the father of five daughters, was a driver for the owner of the compound where they now stood. He’d arranged the safe house for Rehman.
Rehman recruited a young militant, Siraj ul-Haq, 27, who was an electrician by day. Married with two young children, he’d grown up in Karachi in the Nazimabad neighborhood of Paposh Nagar in a Pashtun family, studying only until the fifth grade. The Pashtuns are an ethnic group in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and make up most of the Afghan Taliban. In their home neighborhood, he met Rehman, who talked to him about joining the jihad. He went to Kashmir, the divided region claimed by both Pakistan and India, for 40 days of training and returned a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Sunni sectarian group that Rehman headed in Karachi. In 1999, he allegedly helped kill a Shia man.
Another guard was Malik Tassadaq Hussain, 27, the son of a former mid-level Pakistan army officer. In the 1990s, Hussain went to Afghanistan for training at militant camps, illustrating how some Pakistani families have one foot in the military and the other in militancy. By day, Hussain ran a family chicken shop near the Student Biryani restaurant, one of the meeting spots used by Omar Sheikh in setting up the kidnap plot. Unmarried, he was a Sunni Muslim from the northern Punjabi Malik Awan tribe, a group heavily recruited by the Pakistani army. In 1996, at his neighborhood mosque, a local militant leader, Asif Ramzi, recruited him and some of his friends into Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a Sunni sectarian militant group. Listening to sermons, he met Rehman. Over the next years, Hussain spent time behind bars with members of his neighborhood militant cabal, and had been released from jail on October 27, 2001. Sheikh had turned to Ramzi to help him with the kidnapping plot, and Hussain got a job as a guard.
Another guard was Abdul Hayee, about 30, a militant who came from the same district in Punjab, Rahim Yar Khan, as the guard, Karim. He lived in the same Gulshan Iqbal neighborhood of Karachi as many of the other alleged culprits in the Pearl case. Standing only about 4 feet, 11 inches tall, he had a short, thick beard and a noticeable mark on his forehead. Hayee was one of ten children born to a poor couple in Karachi and grew up in his family village of Alipur in Punjab, where he memorized the Koran at a madrassa, or religious school. One of the meetings he had with Rehman, laying out his role in the kidnapping, was at Snoopy Ice Cream Shop.
For about two-and-half hours, the men sat around. At around 10 p.m., Rehman returned with food and items he bought at the Sohrab Goth flea market — bedding, chains, a lock, and a tracksuit with a jacket. The jacket was red, black, and blue.
Pearl put on the clothes, confused. “What is going on?” he asked.
Mohammad Akbar Sattar, 27, watched. He had been assigned to guard Pearl because he knew some English. He replied with a lie that the coercive arrangements were being carried out at the order of Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the cleric Pearl still thought he was going to interview.
“Is this security?” Pearl asked.
Sattar answered, “Yes, this is security.”
The guards tied Pearl’s legs with the chain and tied the chain to an old car engine in the room.
Rehman left, telling the guards, “Look after him.”