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Murder in Karachi

Toward the end of the book, Lévy presents a series of elaborate and unprovable conspiracy theories. He claims that Omar Sheikh got ISI money and used it to help finance the September 11 attack. He cites an article Pearl wrote with Steven LeVine for The Wall Street Journal saying that a former director of the ISI may have been involved in giving information about nuclear weapons to Osama bin Laden and others in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Pearl, he goes on to conjecture, continued to pursue this story, and may have stumbled across important new evidence. For this reason, he says, the ISI had him murdered. Pearl’s employer, The Wall Street Journal, and his colleagues there have made it clear that, contrary to Lévy’s speculations, they have no evidence that Pearl was continuing to work on any such story, while Pearl’s father told the Los An-geles Times that Lévy’s hypothesis “doesn’t jell with the facts.”2

Throughout his book Lévy shows an intermittent disdain for Islam, and something approaching hatred for Pakistan. He rightly criticizes Paki-stanis for their anti-Semitism, and for regarding Israel as evil incarnate, but then goes on to use the same prejudiced language about Pakistan. It is “the Devil’s own home,” “drugged on fanaticism, doped on violence,” a “silent hell, full of the living damned” and their “nightmare mullahs.” Karachi is worse still: “a black hole,” full of “the half-dead,” where “fanatic… long-haired dervishes with wild, bloodshot eyes” howl outside “the house of the Devil.” Lurid comments are stacked up to support this picture of national delinquency: one cabinet minister is “amiable in the extreme,” but when he thinks BHL is not “looking, a gleam of murderous ferociousness would shine through.” The ordinary people of Pakistan are portrayed as fanatical Orientals who “scowl” as Lévy passes and “narrow their eyes” with a “tarantula-like stare.” One man, “his smile venomous,” actually issues a snake-like “hiss.”

Remarkably for a country distinguished by its astonishing numbers of beautiful women, Lévy’s Pakistan is a “world entirely devoid of women.” By chance I read his description of the scowling all-male Pakistani atmosphere at Karachi Airport while sitting in its glitzy departure lounge. Looking around at the chic Pakistani women journalists, models, and politicians in the room as smiling turbaned waiters circled to offer us cups of chai, I found myself wondering whether BHL was describing the same country, or if indeed he had ever actually been here.

In the country of Lévy’s imagination, everyone is to be feared—particularly if you are any sort of a writer, since this is, we learn, “a country where all journalists are, as such, in permanent mortal danger.”3 Driving in from the airport, BHL speculates whether the fact that Daniel Pearl “kept an apartment in Bombay…confirmed him as an enemy of the country, the agent of a foreign power and, therefore, a man to eliminate.”

This shows a profound misunderstanding of Pakistani feelings about India—as well as of the realities of journalism in a country where most of the Western correspondents who cover it (myself included) have usually done so from bases in the Indian capital. In all the seventeen years I have written about Pakistan, mostly from my home in Delhi, I have traveled throughout the country meeting nothing but hospitality, and never once felt personally threatened. Certainly it is possible to meet the odd mullah or general for whom India is an inherently evil place, but for most Pakistanis India is a complicated country that they admire as much as fear. Pakistanis love Bollywood film songs, and watch Indian satellite TV. Posters of Indian cricketers and actresses are on sale in every bazaar. India is, in short, more a source of feelings of envy and insecurity than an object of hatred, although its enormous military superiority and its domination of the Kashmir Valley are sources of anxiety and resentment.

The problem with Lévy’s wholesale denunciation of Pakistan and its inhabitants is that it gives a portrait in which there is no room for subtlety and nuance. Lévy entirely misses the essential point that in Pakistan the “clash of civilizations” is taking place at least as much within the country as between it and the West. An educated Westernized elite struggles to maintain control of a country nearly half of whose vast population is illiterate and 20 percent is undernourished. It is moreover a feudal world dominated by clan and tribal alliances, from which the urban middle class is largely excluded from decision-making.

Yet Lévy makes no distinction between secular Pakistanis and their Islamist rivals, between the military and the democrats, or between the dominant, tolerant, Sufi-influenced Barelvi form of Islam and the newly resurgent, more intolerant Wahhabi and Deobandi forms of the religion which are now spreading rapidly as Pakistan, partly as a result of heavy Saudi funding of extremist madrasas,4 becomes more and more radical. It is difficult to see how anyone who fails to make such distinctions between the many different competing elements in Pakistan can begin to comprehend so complex and fractured a society.

Most ludicrous of all is the self-portrait of the aspiring James Bond figure BHL draws of himself as he casts himself as the hero of his own spy story: “I reactivate the old networks from my earlier investigations,” he tells us portentously at one point. He changes hotels every night, pretends he is writing a novel as a “cover,” and believes he is being constantly followed. At times this farce comes close to being an Inspector Clouseau–like parody of Gallic self-importance, and it is difficult to read some of Lévy’s observations without hearing an echo of Peter Sellers: “Everywhere I go, I feel he has been—and yet I find no trace of him. With every step I sense his presence—but it is as insubstantial as shadows.” At this point, you half expect Clouseau’s Chinese manservant, Kato, to jump out of a Karachi cupboard and practice his martial arts on the fearless Lévy.

It is an alarming reflection of how widespread is the ignorance of Islam in general and of Pakistan in particular that only one of the many reviews of the book that I have seen in the US, by a Pakistani writer, has called attention to BHL’s errors and elisions, or even bothered to note his disturbing expressions of contempt for ordinary Pakistanis.5 If Islamic terrorism is to be defeated, its causes and terrorists themselves must first be clearly and objectively understood. Instead, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is not only an insult to the memory of a fine journalist who refused to accept the sort of crude ethnic stereotyping that Lévy indulges in, and who was notably rigorous in checking his facts. It also shows the degree to which, since September 11, it has become possible for a writer to make inaccurate and disparaging remarks about Muslims and ordinary Pakistanis as if it were perfectly natural and acceptable to do so.

For all his carelessness about facts and his unsupported conspiracy theories, Lévy does, however, highlight an important question, one which is also raised by Mariane Pearl’s book. For the sordid facts of Daniel Pearl’s murder clearly establish the complicity of both the Pakistani state in general, and the ISI in particular, in the continuing presence and support of innumerable violent jihadi groups on Pakistani soil.

Contrary to what Lévy attempts to prove, it is most improbable that the ISI had a direct hand in Pearl’s abduction and murder; but equally it is highly unlikely that Omar Sheikh, widely known to be a violent extremist, was living in Pakistan without the knowledge and support of Pakistani intelligence. Sheikh may well have had links with the ISI since his student days in London; he was certainly connected with its officials after he joined the militant Islamist group Harkat ul-Mujahedin, which was active in Kashmir and almost certainly backed by the ISI. Once he had been released from an Indian prison as a result of the India Airlines hijacking, his position as a high-ranking jihadi was well known and it would have been impossible for him to either enter or settle in Pakistan without ISI clearance. Other evidence makes it apparent that Sheikh was more than merely tolerated by the ISI. When the Pakistani police began to close in on him a month after the kidnapping, he avoided arrest by formally surrendering himself to Brigadier Ijaz Shah, a senior ISI functionary who acted as the link with Harkat during Sheikh’s days in Kashmir.

After his surrender on February 5, the ISI debriefed Sheikh in secret for an entire week before passing him over to the Pakistani police on February 12. This not only implies that his case was at first being handled by officials at the highest level of Pakistani intelligence; it also shows how little interest the ISI had in helping the police solve the crime. When he surrendered, Pearl had probably only just been murdered. If the ISI had moved quickly to turn him over to the police, rather than engage in what appear to have been delaying tactics, it might still have been possible to apprehend the entire jihadi network responsible for his death.

To add to the embarrassment of the Pakistani authorities, evidence has emerged, some of it after both of these books were published, that al-Qaeda was actively involved in the final stages of Daniel Pearl’s ordeal.6 The kidnapping itself was planned by Omar Sheikh, using jihadis from a variety of different Karachi militant groups, probably with the intention of using Pearl as a hostage in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange. According to recent information, however, Pearl’s actual murder was apparently the work of a completely different cell, which was led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of bin Laden’s closest aides, and allegedly a planner of the September 11 attack, who was arrested in Rawalpindi in March 2003. According to both the testimony of the janitor in the building where Pearl was held and reports from American authorities about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation, he was assisted by three Arab assassins. Both Lévy and Mariane Pearl say they were Yemenis but I have heard from intelligence sources that they were in fact two Saudis and one Yemeni. The same sources say that cell-phone taps have shown that the murder was carried out after a series of calls to Saudi Arabia. It is still unclear to whom the calls were made, but one possible implication is that permission was being sought from someone in Riyadh.

Many details of Pearl’s kidnapping and murder remain unknown, but a preliminary summary of what happened to him would take account of Omar Sheikh’s previous kidnappings, which had been intended to gain the release of Kashmiri militants held by India. It seems probable that he had similar motives in planning to kidnap Pearl after Pearl, trying to find the cleric who was Richard Reid’s guru, made contact with Omar through a Pakistani intermediary, or “fixer,” Pearl had employed. Omar deceived Pearl by masquerading as an emissary of the guru. Just why the final decision was made to kill Pearl, and by whom, remains a matter of speculation. One strong possibility is that Omar lost control of the kidnapping once Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and al-Qaeda took an interest in it, following the widespread publicity about Pearl’s disappearance. Pearl may have been killed in an act of revenge for Taliban and al-Qaeda losses in Afghanistan, especially after his Jewish background was revealed in an article in the Pakistani press in late January.

Even though the Pakistani officials have been cooperating with the US in hunting down al-Qaeda and are trying to appear as loyal allies of America in Bush’s “War on Terror,” the uncomfortable fact remains that Daniel Pearl seems to have been kidnapped by a man with strong links to Pakistani intelligence, who was also working closely with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the most senior figures in the central command of al-Qaeda.

Pakistan is a nation that sees itself as under mortal threat from its giant neighbor, India, and its military leaders have evolved a double strategy to protect it from this perceived peril. On one hand it desperately needs an alliance with Washington, the source of much of the equipment for its army, navy, and air force. On the other hand it sees a jihadi-led insurgency in Kashmir as the most effective way of tying down the huge Indian army that it can never hope to defeat in a conventional conflict.7

For this purpose, the ISI has a large pool of jihadi manpower to draw on. While al-Qaeda has dominated the news since September 11, 2001, there are dozens of similar groups made up of freelance Islamic radicals trained since the 1980s in camps on the Afghan border. Many of these were run by the ISI and funded initially by the CIA (one reliable estimate puts the US contribution at $7 billion8 ), and later, after the Soviet withdrawal, by Saudi intelligence. Until September 11, Pakistan also used jihadis to back the Taliban as a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul.

I went to Islamabad to see General Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI, to ask about this. Gul is a fervent Islamist who since the 1980s has done as much as anyone to form the intelligence policy of Pakistan. A man in his sixties, with a carefully waxed pepper-and-salt moustache, Gul lives in a neat middle-class suburb of Islamabad. In the center of his living room lies a large piece of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the people of Berlin for “delivering the first blow” to the Soviet Empire—a reference to his work, when he ran the ISI, in directing the mujahedin who expelled the Soviets from Afghanistan.

Gul is a plain-spoken man who makes no secret of his friendship with Osama bin Laden and his admiration for him. He describes his friend as “a romantic figure…sensitive, humble, polite. He was fondly nurtured by the CIA: they admired him. A prince who gave up luxury and lived in caves and hovels for a noble cause. I used to hear all about him from all the CIA people here—operators, officers. They were always inviting him to garden parties at the embassy.”

About Pearl’s murder, he insisted, as one would expect, that “the ISI has never been involved in the assassination of Westerners—it’s not the sort of operation they do.” But about ISI involvement in Kashmir, Gul was quite open and wholly unapologetic: “If they encourage the Kashmiris it’s understandable,” he said. “The Kashmiri people have risen up in accordance with the UN charter, and it is the national purpose of Pakistan to help liberate them. India is so huge, so large, so ruthless. If the jihadis go out and contain India, tying down their army on their own soil, for a legitimate cause, why should we not support them?”

Here then is the crux. Along with Pakistan’s alliance with Washington, the selective deployment of violent Islamists still lies at the very heart of Pakistani policy. This is a contradiction that is becoming increasingly difficult for Pakistan to resolve.

Moreover, the jihadis supported by Pakistan are neither easily monitored nor contained. The ISI may believe that they can use men like Omar Sheikh for their own ends in Kashmir and Afghanistan, but as the murder of Daniel Pearl shows, the Islamists tend to put their own interests first, which often works strongly against the national interests of Pakistan. The different jihadi groups have now outgrown and outmaneuvered all their various creators, and have succeeded in bringing havoc not just to Indian Kashmir but also to the Pakistan that gave them birth in their attempt to destroy what is left of its civil society from inside. Since the 1990s thousands of religiously motivated killings have been committed in Pakistan by jihadis trained in the Islamist camps. One of Omar’s assistants in Pearl’s kidnapping, for example, was a killer named Naeem Bukhari, sought by the Pakistan police for the murder of dozens of Karachi Shiites.

There are strong indications that President Musharraf understands the threat that the jihadis pose to the continued existence of Pakistan as a workable centralized state. He has replaced many of the more pro-Islamist ISI generals, including its director, Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed. Moreover Pakistani officials now seem to be cooperating more closely with the US, arresting some of the Arab and other al-Qaeda suspects hiding in Pakistan, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But Pakistan’s Kashmir policy remains essentially unchanged; and large Taliban fighting units are now openly based in Pakistan’s tribal territories and in Quetta, capital of the Pakistani border province Baluchistan. Clearly the ISI is not doing what it can to prevent the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Such a two-faced policy cannot be sustained much longer. Pakistan will have to choose—it cannot have both support from the Americans and alliances with the jihadis. The choice it finally makes will do much to determine not just its own future, but that of America’s prospects for dealing with Islamic extremism around the world.

—November 5, 2003

  1. 2

    The article raised important questions about the safety of nuclear secrets in Pakistan and whether elements in the ISI wished to pass such secrets on to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Pearl and LeVine discussed one visit made to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in August 2001 by the ex-director of the ISI, General Hamid Gul, when he and a Pakistani nuclear scientist, Bashiruddin Mahmoud, may have had an audience with bin Laden. Gul, whom Pearl interviewed personally for the article, does not dispute the fact of the visit to Afghanistan, but says that he met neither bin Laden nor Mahmoud on this visit, though he does not deny that he is friends with both men. Pearl and LeVine’s article was published in The Wall Street Journal on December 24, 2001, following similar stories on the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, published in The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Contrary to Lévy’s speculations, there is no hard evidence from Pearl’s e-mails, or from conversations he had with his superiors at The Wall Street Journal, or his colleagues, or indeed his wife, that he was continuing to investigate this story, important though it was.

  2. 3

    Compare the verdict of Owen Bennett Jones, a correspondent with long experience in Pakistan, in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press, 2002), generally acknowledged to be the most reliable and up-to-date study of Pakistan: “Pakistan is an easy place for a journalist to work. Most Pakistanis…love to talk about politics…. Pakistan remains a very open country. Indeed, Pakistan’s willingness to tolerate the scrutiny of local and foreign journalists is one of the reasons it has an image problem. Countries such as Saudi Arabia manage to avoid hostile media coverage simply by refusing to grant journalists sufficient access to do their work.”

  3. 4

    The correct Arabic plural for madrasa is actually madaris. But since madrasas has recently become a common usage in journalism I will use it here.

  4. 5

    See the review by Mahnaz Ispahani in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 28, 2003.

  5. 6

    This was not a surprise since there has long been convincing evidence of links between Omar Sheikh’s Harkat ul-Mujahedin and al-Qaeda. In 1998, when President Clinton bombed al-Qaeda training camps, Harkat’s spokesman Fazil Rahman revealed at a press conference that several of Harkat’s own men had been killed in the attack, clearly implying that the two shared training camps. See Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (Free Press, 2001), p. 211. Bergen also states that bin Laden personally “played a key, behind-the-scenes role in the negotiations between the Taliban” and Harkat in the hijacking that brought about the release of Omar from prison in India.

  6. 7

    According to Owen Bennett Jones of the BBC, the ISI “not only monitored all activities at the [Kashmir training] camps, it also supplied military equipment and even kept registers of those who volunteered for training.” See Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, p. 27.

  7. 8

    The figure represents the entire US contribution to the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. See Pakistan 2000, edited by Craig Baxter and Charles Kennedy (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 157.

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