Daniel Pearl Murder: Pearl Project Investigation Reveals New Details

A 3 1/2 year investigation into the kidnapping and murder of the American journalist shows that 27 men were involved in the crime—and 14 of them remain free on the streets of Pakistan.

Almost nine years ago, on January 23, 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped off the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, brutally killed a week or so later, beheaded, and chopped into 12 pieces. In July 2002, four men were convicted of Pearl’s murder, including mastermind Omar Sheikh and three men involved in sending out ransom notes to the world. Pakistan closed the case. The U.S. let the case go dormant, with one FBI agent told by his boss, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

In “ The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl,” a 3 1/2 year investigation by the Pearl Project, reveals that, in fact, justice was not served. Leads weren’t followed. Suspects weren’t interviewed. And alleged co-conspirators weren’t prosecuted. The truth was left behind. The Pearl Project is a faculty-student investigative reporting project at Georgetown University published by the Center for Public Integrity. What we uncovered is a tangled web of militancy, extremism, and terrorism in Pakistan. What we’ve learned is that there were 27 men involved in the crime. Of those men, 14 remain free on the streets of Pakistan, one of them allegedly making suicide vests in Waziristan.

A window into “the Punjabi Taliban” that threatens Pakistan today, the case reveals the dangerous nexus between the militancy in Pakistan and al Qaeda. It offers many lessons in trying to understand Pakistan, from the rule of law to the use of Karachi as a safe haven for militancy and the draw of extremist Islamic interpretation, such as Deobandism, to young men described in our report as “sons of darkness.”

If the U.S. and Pakistan had pursued the case more vigorously, we would have gotten earlier signs of the militancy inside Pakistan. Unbeknownst to Pearl, who was on the trail of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, the reporter had walked into the lion’s den where the Pakistani militancy and al Qaeda meet. The Pearl Project has learned that The Wall Street Journal bureau chief was kidnapped by foot soldiers in the Pakistani militancy that is the “Punjabi Taliban,” many of the men coming out of Pakistan’s Punjab province, and he became al Qaeda’s next target of opportunity after the 9/11 attacks.

The Pearl Project learned that when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and the towers collapsed, he said, “Shit,” according to people familiar with interviews that he did with FBI agents in Guantanamo Bay. The FBI agents were part of a “clean team,” getting “clean” evidence against Mohammed. “I think we bit off more than we could chew,” he told the FBI. He worried how President Bush would respond, saying, “We had no idea what the cowboy would do.”

When the towers fell, Mohammed told the FBI, he thought, “We’ve awakened a sleeping bear.” Indeed, soon after, Mohammed’s buddies started dying in Afghanistan as the U.S. dropped bombs. One of the men killed: al Qaeda’s military chief, Mohammed Atef, a somber Egyptian strategist whose daughter was married to one of Osama bin Laden’s sons. In November 2001, as the U.S. shelled Afghanistan, Mohammed said, Atef was killed, and a top Qaeda leader, either Ayman al-Zawahiri or Saif al-Adel, sent Reid, the “shoe bomber,” to Mohammed; the hapless young man arrived in Karachi to meet him. “I was given all his crap,” Mohammed told the FBI, talking about Atef’s operatives. He didn’t want anything to do with Reid, said people familiar with the interview. “He said he looked like trouble.” Mohammed said he told Reid, “You better shave.” He said Reid responded, “I’ve been a drug dealer.”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told FBI agents he had a purpose in the Pearl killing: “I wanted to make sure I got the death penalty” if the U.S. caught him, and so he wanted blood on his hands.

The Pearl Project learned that Mohammed was incredulous at what an amateur Reid was. “Whether you are picked up for being a drug dealer or a terrorist, you still end up in jail,” Mohammed said he told Reid, according to people familiar with the interview.

In Karachi, Mohammed handed off Reid to someone he could trust: his twentysomething nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, with instructions to give Reid money and teach him how to send emails. The nephew allegedly had already proved himself capable with other delicate work: wiring money to the 9/11 hijackers. Mohammed told the FBI he didn’t like Western operatives because they felt they knew better.

Pearl knew none of this, and soon after, he was on the trail of Reid’s facilitator in Pakistan, leading him to the interview from which he was kidnapped. In late January 2002, the newspapers were filled with headlines of Pearl’s kidnapping, but Mohammed wasn’t involved in the kidnapping.

Then, one day in Karachi, soon after the Pearl kidnapping, Mohammed told FBI agents, he received a phone call from a trusted senior leader in al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian who is on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $5 million reward; his name means “sword of justice” in Arabic. Mohammed wasn’t sure who had contacted al-Adel, but his colleague told him about Pearl. “He says, ‘Listen, he’s been kidnapped. These people don’t know what to do with him. They want to know if we want him.’ He thought this was an opportunity. We can take advantage of it. He said he wanted to make sure it’s an al Qaeda thing,” said the people familiar with the interview.

Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on al Qaeda based in Singapore, told us, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at that time wanted to send a message to the United States that we go tit for tat.”

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Mohammed didn’t implicate his relatives or anyone else by name. He said he just took the one trip that day to the secret hideout where Pearl was being held captive, and he picked up two random men to help him. But he told FBI agents he had a purpose: “I wanted to make sure I got the death penalty” if the U.S. caught him, and so he wanted blood on his hands. Another reason, he cited: “propaganda.” He told the FBI, “Conveniently, Danny was Jewish.”

Pearl had stumbled into his kidnappers’ hands through his effort to find the identity of the man who gave instructions to Reid in Pakistan. The man was wrongly thought to be cleric Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. In his final moments of life, Pearl may have come face to face with Richard Reid’s facilitator, though he would never know it. Some U.S. and Pakistani officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was accompanied by one of his nephews, Musaad Aruchi, and then the very man Pearl was chasing: Reid’s facilitator—another Mohammed nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali—making the murder a family affair.

The following people also participated in the Pearl Project: Kira Zalan, Katie Balestra, Haya Al-Noaimi, Adil Awadh, Mary Cirincione, Rachel Claytor, Shilpika Das, Erin Delmore, JP Finlay, John Gregory, Rochelle S. Hall, Hammad Hammad, Margo Humphries, Karina Hurley, Dmitri Ivashchenko, Douglas J. Lane, Katherine Major, Caitlin McDevitt, Sean Patrick Murphy, Afgan Niftiyev, Jill Phaneuf, Bonnie Rollins, Jessica Rettig, Amanda Silverman, Rebecca Tapscott, Clara Zabludowsky, Phil Perry, Claire Callagy, Sakshi Jain, Fatima Bahja, Alex Joseph, Saman Sheikh and Derek Henry Flood.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. [email protected]

Barbara Feinman Todd, co-director of the Pearl Project, is the journalism director in Georgetown University’s English Department. She is a former ghostwriter who has worked on the memoirs of several high-profile politicians and journalists.