Blithely into a trap

IN January 2002, a young American Jewish journalist called Daniel Pearl went from Bombay, where he was the Wall Street Journal bureau chief, to Pakistan to investigate the story of Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who had tried to blow up a passenger plane over the Atlantic. The focus of Pearl's investigation was Sheikh Mubarak Ali Geilani, head of the Jamaat-ul-Fuqra (Party of the Poor), Reid's "guru". Pearl's friends were covering the war in Afghanistan, but he was soon to be a father, so wanted to remain more safely in Pakistan. Shortly after arriving there, Pearl met a charming young man called Omar Sheikh (Sheikh's admirers called him "The Sheikh") in the Akbar Hotel in Rawalpindi, which was frequented by hostile Kashmiri militants. Sheikh had been born in Britain and educated at public schools in Britain and Pakistan, then at the London School of Economics. His brother and sister had been to Cambridge and Oxford respectively. Pearl, however, was unaware that Sheikh had spent five years in an Indian prison for kidnapping gullible Western backpackers in India with offers of a visit to the farm of an invented uncle. Sheikh was released in exchange for the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists and flown to Kandahar in 1999. Sheikh told the Karachi police that Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), had helped him organise the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, an incident which almost led to war with India.

Pearl stepped blithely into a deadly trap. Sheikh delayed his response to Pearl's request to meet Geilani, on the pretext that his wife was ill (he even asked Pearl to pray for her). When Sheikh eventually did claim to have arranged the meeting, he offered Pearl the opportunity of emailing his questions, rather than coming to Karachi. As Sheikh suspected, the trusting and ambitious Pearl — "over-intrusive", officials told Bernard-Henri L�vy — took the bait and headed for Karachi. He broke a golden rule, going without his minder to the rendezvous. In the car supposedly taking him to Geilani he accepted the blindfold, not realising the deception until he reached a farm. The events that follow in L�vy's Qui a tu� Daniel Pearl? make for terrifying reading.

Pearl was held for eight days before being murdered, on film, on January 31, 2002. L�vy believes he may have been dragged from hiding place to hiding place during that terrible week. Using their email address, the abductors told the world that Pearl's "inhumane" conditions would only be improved when those of the Pakistanis being held in Guantanamo Bay had been. They videoed Pearl announcing, "My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, I am a Jew" — apparently reassured that the confession would save him — then suddenly having his head pulled back and his throat slit like sheep slaughtered to celebrate the imminent 'Id ul Fitr, the feast that completes the Ramadan fast. The camera seems to have jammed, which may explain the lack of blood when the throat-slitting is shown (presumably re-enacted). In the online video, Pearl's severed head is seen lifted into the air. Deciding that the kidnap had got out of control, Sheikh had tried to cancel the execution on February 5, in the agreed code, "Shift the patient to the doctor", but had received the chilling reply, "Dad has expired. We have done the scan and completed the X-rays and post-mortem". This meant that the killing had been videotaped and that Pearl had already been buried.

Pearl was a good and likeable journalist, and sympathetic to the Muslim world. The question remains: why was he murdered? Was it because he tried to escape? Or, in trying to win over his captors, did he betray too much knowledge about the ISI's relationship with Islamic terrorism, or even about Pakistan's highly unstable nuclear politics?

L�vy's book reads like a multilayered detective story (he even told friends he was writing a novel). The French call such a book a "romanqu�te" (investigative novel). L�vy sits for hours in the very room in which Pearl died. He muses on what Pearl might have been thinking during his last moments. "He thinks of [his French wife and fellow journalist] Marianne, that last night, so desirable, so beautiful... ". L�vy has been criticised for mixing fact with fiction, but his sense of detail illuminates. He visits London pubs where Sheikh excelled in arm-wrestling bouts and Sarajevo, where the sight of suffering Bosnian Muslims turned Sheikh to terrorism. L�vy learns that Sheikh has a terrifying laugh, that he is a mythomaniac who uses pseudonyms, first telling Pearl that his name is Bashir, then Shabir. He told London friends that he had Jewish blood. He called from prison for President Bush's daughters and Dick Cheney's sons to be kidnapped. His only remorse over Pearl was that Pearl was about to become a father, as he, Sheikh, already was.

L�vy implies that the government of President Musharraf (America's friend) and the ISI have links with terrorist groups. In a seedy part of Karachi, an ISI man mocks L�vy over a missing week in his account, when the ISI debriefed Sheikh in a comfortable safe house before handing him over to the police. During the Cold War, CIA-backed groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan attracted Arab Islamists seeking to fight atheism. When the Cold War ended, after the Soviet retreat in 1989, the Americans walked away. By then the ISI was riddled with Islamists. L�vy points the finger at the Pakistani Government, noting that when Musharraf was reassuring Bush in Washington that Pearl was safe, he in fact knew he was dead. Musharraf later said, in May 2002, that Pearl had "got over-involved" in the games of the security services.

L�vy's most frightening conclusion is that there may be a nuclear dimension to the story. This book was written as American planes were bombing Iraq: "a regime largely disarmed at a time when, at the heart of Pakistani cities, nuclear secrets were being exchanged". Pearl had co-written an article in December about an Islamic NGO whose honorary president was the ISI's �minence grise, Hamid Gul, and whose head, Bashiruddin Mahmoud, was a key figure in Pakistan's nuclear programme. The article revealed that Gul and Mahmoud had visited Kabul together in August 2001, and that Mahmoud had met the Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, with the knowledge of the authorities in Islamabad. Mahmoud may have belonged to a group implicated in Pearl's murder and believed that Pakistan's nuclear bomb should belong to the Umma (Islamic nation).

In Bernhard-Henri L�vy's analysis, the group that killed Pearl felt "at home in Musharraf's Pakistan". Such groups, he argues, believe that the Qur'an and the Hadith allow them to kill an American and a Jew with impunity. I believe that he has carried this argument too far, but to those of who reject Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisations theory, Qui a tu� Daniel Pearl? makes for depressing reading, not least because it raises the very real possibility of terrorist nuclear war.

Qui a tu� Daniel Pearl?,

Bernard-Henri L�vy, Paris: Grasset, p.537, 20euros.

2 246 65051 8

� The Times Literary Supplement

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