The arrest of Omar Sheikh

AT AN ABSTRACTED or general level, the arrest of Omar Sheikh in Pakistan is a striking illustration of the continued pressure exercised by the United States on Pervez Musharraf to crack down on terrorism and uphold both the substance and the spirit of his historic January 12 address to the nation. But the U.S. also had two very specific reasons for wanting Sheikh apprehended. The British born public-schoolboy-turned-Islamic-militant is the key suspect in the kidnap of the Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl (whose fate remains unclear). Sheikh is also wanted in connection with the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Preliminary evidence collected from various sources suggests that Sheikh's links with Mohammed Atta, who planned and executed the attacks, could throw an enormous amount of light on the wider conspiracy behind September 11 which, until today, remains to be unravelled.

In arresting Sheikh, who has been charged along with others for kidnapping Daniel Pearl, Islamabad has effected an embarrassing u-turn. After making the ludicrous charge that New Delhi was behind the abduction (an allegation which was greeted with a distinct note of displeasure in Washington), the Pakistani Government seems to have recognised that it is both profitless and counter-productive to use the India bogey in this case. Sheikh's arrest may have been effectuated under pressure but it is also an illustration of how far Islamabad can go if it is really serious about cracking down on terrorists on its soil. It is exactly this that New Delhi must emphasise as it attempts to canvass international opinion towards persuading Islamabad to widen its engagement with Islamic extremism and take its self-declared war against terrorism to its meaningful and logical end. From India's point of view, this does not merely mean getting Pakistan to take some action on the list of 20 terrorists that New Delhi wants extradited/deported. It also means securing a commitment that Islamabad's covert patronage of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir must truly end.

As for Sheikh himself, New Delhi cannot help but note that his criminal record — as a serial abductor — dates back well before the kidnap of the Wall Street Journal's reporter. Sent to India in the mid-1990s, after having received training as a militant in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sheikh abducted four British and American tourists but eventually ended up in Tihar jail. His release was secured a couple of years ago as part of the dubious hostage-militant trade-off which was effected following the hijack of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar. Now that he is arrested, India has a `claim' on Sheikh but so perhaps do the U.S. and the U.K. in the process of bringing him to justice. The U.S. in particular would be keen on determining what information, if any, his interrogation will reveal on September 11 and on those elements of the Al-Qaeda network who continue to operate. Sheikh's belated arrest is welcome but it would be simplistic to assume it was a coincidence that he was apprehended on the very same day that Gen. Musharraf began his three-day visit to Washington. Clearly, the Pakistan Government hoped that announcing his arrest would set the appropriate tone for the visit, which is not only about terrorism but also about arms and aid for Pakistan. Apparently, Gen. Musharraf is prepared to go a pretty long way in keeping Washington happy — or at least in keeping it from being unhappy. But the war against terrorism, if it is to attain a sincere and meaningful character, is about more than merely being alive to the sensitivities of one powerful country. It is not about American interests alone but the annihilation of the very phenomenon itself.

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