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Murder in Karachi

Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

by Bernard-Henri Lévy, translated from the French by James X. Mitchell
Melville House, 454 pp., $25.95

Karachi is the saddest of cities. It is a South Asian Beirut: a city on the sea, rich and almost glamorous in parts; but also a monument to hatred among different sectarian and ethnic groups, and to the failure of a civic society. It is a city at war as much with itself as with the outside world. The most populous metropolis in Pakistan, Karachi is a profoundly troubled place, intermittently engulfed in terrible bouts of killing and kidnapping. It is a city where the police sit huddled in sandbag emplacements for their own safety, and where the foreign consulates now resemble great fortified Crusader castles—which is how the people of Karachi look on them: the unwelcome, embattled bridgeheads of alien powers.

In the American consulate, surrounded by razor wire and a spiral of shrapnel-marked barriers—it is only sixteen months since the last suicide attack on the complex—one can see a map that shows Greater Karachi in all its sprawling complexity. At first sight, with its different zones colored different primary colors, it resembles the subway maps of many major capitals. Only on closer inspection is it apparent that the colors signify the different types of industry that are the particular specialty of each quarter of the city.

The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence. Jihadi-minded Afghan refugees rot in camps to the north, a zone colored bright purple. A slim yellow streak in the center of town—the diplomatic enclave—denotes the zone of relative security, where only the occasional plot to fly explosive-packed aircraft into consulates, or the occasional bombing, breaks the consular calm. Of all the postings offered by the American Foreign Service, Karachi has the highest rating for personal danger except for Kabul and Baghdad, both of which have just experienced a US invasion and occupation. Karachi has not, at least not yet, but there are few places in the world where Americans are more unpopular.

Ten years ago, in the early 1990s, the city put aside any lingering notions of unity and coherence, and embarked on a bout of internal bloodletting that at times came close to matching the civil violence of Beirut twenty years earlier. The Muhajirs, who came from India following Partition, attacked their neighbors, the local Sindhis and Punjabis.1 Sunnis gunned down Shias; the poor kidnapped the rich. Only the US bombing and invasion of Afghanistan succeeded in diverting attention toward what was then perceived as the common enemy: the US. This was finally something practically everyone in Karachi could agree on. Beginning in the autumn of 2001, the city was engulfed in a paroxysm of Death to America demonstrations, in which hundreds of US flags and presidential effigies were burned.

It was at this moment that an idealistic thirty-eight-year-old American journalist arrived in Karachi to report on the unrest for The Wall Street Journal. It could not have been a more dangerous time to visit, or a more risky assignment for an American, especially a Jewish American with family roots in Israel. On January 20, 2002, a few weeks after his arrival, Daniel Pearl was lured into a trap and kidnapped. Before long his throat had been cut, live on videotape, after he had been forced to say, “My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.” His body was then dismembered.

Now two books have appeared, filling in the bare outlines of this barbaric murder. One is a book of love, a simply written but very moving tribute to a murdered husband by a bereaved and grieving wife. The other is a book of hate, a passionate denunciation of a city and a country by a man who regards Karachi as a living hell, and Pakistan as a country of pure evil. Both books are of great interest; though the second is unsound on matters of fact and riddled with errors.

Mariane Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s widow, is clearly a remarkable woman. Five months pregnant when her husband was abducted, she impressed many people with her passionate appeals to his kidnappers on CNN, and the extraordinary strength and beauty she showed in doing so. The tragic story she has to tell in her narrative, A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl, is heart-rending, and she tells it simply and effectively.

She clearly outlines the complex events: how Pearl was trying to arrange an interview with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the guru of the shoe bomber Richard Reid (whose explosive heels are the reason hundreds of thousands of us still have to shed our footwear at American airports, as if at some vast pajama party). Lured to a restaurant in Karachi, Pearl was escorted to a car, then taken blindfolded to a remote suburban nursery. He was kept there, chained to an engine, for probably just over a week before being brutally murdered.

Mariane Pearl, formerly a reporter herself for French radio, tells of her own efforts to track down her husband’s murderers, and of the help she received from the Pakistani police, the FBI, and the American consulate. She particularly highlights the brilliant detective work of a Pakistani policeman she calls “Captain,” who traces the kidnappers’ e-mail messages to a student hostel and then identifies the man responsible: a jihadi named Omar Sheikh, with a long record of kidnapping.

Sheikh, she writes, was a British-born Pakistani from a prosperous middle-class background. He attended the same British public school as the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, then went to the London School of Economics, before being drawn toward the life of a jihadi after witnessing horrors among the slaughtered Muslims of Bosnia. Following a period fighting against the Indian army in Kashmir, Sheikh was captured by the Indian police while trying to kidnap a group of Western backpackers in Delhi in 1994—only to be released from prison in early 2000 after some of his colleagues hijacked an Indian Airlines jet in Kathmandu. He then went to Pakistan where he became a member of Harkat ul-Mujahedin, a militant group that had contacts with both al-Qaeda and the ISI, the principal Pakistani foreign intelligence agency. He apparently kidnapped Pearl with the intention of using him to negotiate the release of Islamist prisoners. He later gave himself up and confessed to having abducted Pearl; he is now appealing his death sentence.

This political background is interspersed in Mariane’s narrative with a more personal account: a series of flashbacks telling how she met Daniel Pearl at a party in Paris, how they fell in love, traveled to Cuba to return her mother’s ashes to her birthplace, and decided to move to Bombay for Pearl’s paper, The Wall Street Journal. Throughout, Mariane’s picture of her husband is entirely convincing, and she never steps over the border into sentimentality. She describes Pearl as a liberal, intelligent, and charmingly goofy journalist, an appealing lover, and a mandolin player, whose life work he saw as building understanding between East and West, between Islam, Christianity, and his own Judaism. It was clearly a close and passionate marriage; and the story of a beautiful and courageous pregnant woman, forced to wait day after day as her husband is kidnapped, imprisoned, and finally brutally murdered, is almost unbearably moving.

As a work of autobiography, her book is also remarkably controlled: despite suffering such a desperate loss, Mariane Pearl never indulges in self-pity. More striking still, true to her husband’s efforts to reconcile different cultures, she resists falling into hating either Islam or the country in which Daniel Pearl was killed. Her generosity and calm strength—she describes how she considered and decided against committing suicide—raises her book from a simple widow’s narrative into something larger: not just a personal triumph over a great personal tragedy, but a lesson in not giving up the attempt to understand.

The second book about the murder, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (or BHL as he is known in Parisian gossip columns), is a more ambitious work, with pretensions to both original investigative journalism and novelistic prose; but it is deeply flawed, riddled with major factual errors, and in every way a lesser book than Mariane Pearl’s.

Although attempting to create a new literary form—what Lévy calls a romanquête—mixing reportage with John Berendt– or Truman Capote–like novelization, it is apparent from its opening pages that with Pakistan Lévy is way out of his depth. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? does, however, raise issues of great importance, for all that much of it is invented and its political analysis ill-informed and simplistic.

The book’s principal problem is the amateurish quality of much of Lévy’s research. The section on the English childhood of Omar Sheikh begins raising one’s doubts about the author’s veracity: Omar Sheikh’s family live, we are told, on Colvin Street, which does not exist on the London A–Z street atlas. Once we arrive in Pakistan the factual underpinnings of the book fall away. BHL’s grasp of South Asian geography is especially shaky: he thinks Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir (and the major jihadi center on Pakistani soil), is in India. The madrasa, or religious school, of Akora Khattack, not far from the Indus, he thinks is in Peshawar (it is more than eighty miles outside), while the town of Saharanpur, four hours’ drive from the Indian capital, is said to be a remote part of Delhi.

More importantly, Lévy quickly shows that he is deeply ignorant of South Asian politics. Abdul Ghani Lone, the leading Kashmiri moderate, assassinated on May 21, 2002, almost certainly by ISI-backed Islamists for being willing to reach a democratic settlement with India, is said to be “notorious” and his presence in a hotel in Rawalpindi proof of its links to the darker side of Pakistani intelligence. His party, the Hurriyat, now the main force for compromise in Kashmir, is elsewhere mistakenly described as a fundamentalist Islamic NGO. Gossip and hearsay are repeated as fact: bin Laden, we learn, went to Peshawar to have medical treatment after the bombing of Tora Bora. A few pages later, bin Laden is said to have been given shelter in a madrasa in Karachi. This of course would be a major scoop if true, for Lévy would have solved a problem that has eluded the combined resources of every Western intelligence agency: how bin Laden was nursed to fitness under the noses of the Pakistani military. But no source is quoted, no evidence presented. It’s just a throwaway remark.

More seriously, there are numerous occasions where Lévy distorts his evidence and actually inverts the truth. While seeking to prove that the ISI and al-Qaeda were jointly responsible for abducting Daniel Pearl, for example, he cites three precedents in which journalists were “kidnapped in Pakistan by ISI agents suspected of being backed up by al-Qaida.” In reality, in two of the cases he cites—Najam Sethi and Hussain Haqqani—both were arrested by the regular Punjab police as part of a campaign by Pakistan’s last civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to intimidate the press. The case of the third journalist, Ghulam Hasnain, remains a mystery: he was picked up for a day and then released. He has never identified the agency that arrested him; but no connection has ever been shown—or, up to now, even suggested—with al-Qaeda. Lévy’s misuse of evidence here is revealing of his general method: if proof does not exist, he writes as if it did. The ISI has been involved in many dubious activities, but there has never been any suggestion that it has abducted Westerners, least of all an American. This record is important evidence against any direct link between the ISI and Pearl’s abduction rather than the reverse.

  1. 1

    The Muhajirs were those who emigrated to Pakistan from India at the time of Partition in 1947—ironically to seek shelter from communal riots in Hindu-dominated India. Sindhis are the local people of Sindh, of which Karachi is the provincial capital.

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