Bernard-Henri Levy
Bernard-Henri Levy; drawing by David Levine

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.

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

This Issue

December 4, 2003