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Wrong people convicted in Daniel Pearl murder, new report asserts

by Tom Tugend

January 25, 2011 | 7:00 pm

<b><a href="http://jewishjournal.com/community/pearl_project" title="Click to enlarge." target="_blank">Click to enlarge.</a></b> Graphical representation of the 27 men in connection to events surrounding Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder.

Click to enlarge. Graphical representation of the 27 men in connection to events surrounding Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder.

Who really killed Daniel Pearl?

The basic facts are known. Nine years ago, on Jan. 23, 2002, Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, while checking out leads on a terrorist network.

While Pakistani and United States officials were still frantically scouring Karachi, a video came to light one month later, showing in gruesome detail that Pearl had been beheaded.

In May 2002, Pearl’s dismembered body was discovered.

Last week, following three years of painstaking detective work, a group of researchers released a startling report asserting that the official version of Pearl’s murder convicted the wrong people of the murder, while allowing 14 conspirators to walk free.

The 74-page report, titled “The Pearl Project: The Truth Left Behind,” reads like an international crime thriller, following false leads, uncovering bungled investigations, and full of incompetent villains and cover-ups at the highest levels. 

The co-directors of the Pearl Project are two “old-school gumshoe reporters,” Asra Q. Nomani, a friend and colleague of Pearl at the Wall Street Journal for nine years, and Barbara Feinman Todd, director of the journalism program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The project is nothing if not ecumenical. Nomani comes from a conservative Muslim family of Indian descent, Feinman Todd from a liberal Chicago/Brooklyn clan, and they jokingly refer to themselves as “salaam and salami.”

Their research, aided by 32 multinational graduate and undergraduate journalism students and backed by professional investigative journalists, was conducted at a Jesuit university.

After the video of the killing surfaced, the Pakistani government, under considerable pressure from Washington, quickly put four suspects on trial and convicted them as Pearl’s murderers. One was sentenced to death, although he is still alive and appealing the verdict. The other three were sentenced to life in prison.

Leading the four was Omar Sheikh, apparently something of a professional kidnapper, who mostly exchanged his victims for ransom.

There remains apparent agreement on all sides that Sheikh did orchestrate and carry out Pearl’s kidnapping, probably for ransom or to exchange him for Pakistani prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, and that the other three men delivered Sheikh’s ransom notes to the world.

Pearl was the son of Jewish academics, an Israeli father and an Iraqi-born Israeli mother, both living and working in California, and there has been considerable speculation as to what role his Jewishness played in his kidnapping and murder.

In the final moments before his death, Pearl looked at the camera and declared unambiguously, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Based on their son’s last words, his parents, UCLA professor emeritus Judea Pearl, a computer scientist and international authority on artificial intelligence, and his mother Ruth, an electrical engineer, edited the book “I Am Jewish,” with testimonies from 174 prominent men and women on what their Jewishness meant to them.

But according to the report, the kidnappers initially did not know about Pearl’s religious and ethnic background.

In one interrogation by FBI agents, Sheikh said that he had planned to kidnap, not kill, Pearl. “I’ve got nothing against Jews per se, it’s the Zionist policies,” he told the FBI, according to the project report.

But the situation changed drastically one week after the kidnapping, when a Washington Post stringer for a Pakistani newspaper reported that Pearl was Jewish.

At that point, the report said, Omar Sheikh told the FBI, “These people couldn’t release him, once they found out he was a Jew,” and the captors’ e-mail bulletins transformed Pearl from a “CIA agent” into a “Mossad agent.”

Pearl’s fate was sealed when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda decided to take charge of the captive, in the person of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified in official reports as KSM.

The image of the disheveled, hairy, white-T-shirt-clad KSM is familiar to most people as the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.

Arriving at the compound where Pearl was being held captive, KSM took over the operation. Omar Sheikh, the mastermind of the kidnapping, and the three men in the ransom note cell were nowhere near when Pearl was kidnapped. Sheikh had left Karachi before Pearl was captured, so he would have an alibi. And the three men in the ransom note cell never even met Pearl.

The actual murder, the Georgetown report details, was carried out personally by KSM, who slit Pearl’s throat with a knife.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Nomani and Feinman Todd described the trail of clues they had uncovered — as well as cover-ups they allege were undertaken by both the Pakistani and American governments, basing their comments on the thousands of documents obtained by the project as well as information from former and current FBI, CIA and State Department officials and hundreds of phone calls to other sources.

One gruesome sidelight, they said, was that the man assigned to videotape the execution had trouble operating the equipment, so the scene had to be restaged for the camera.

KSM was captured in Pakistan in 2003, held at secret “black site” locations and at Guantanamo Bay since then, and has undergone numerous CIA and FBI interrogations, as well as some 183 waterboarding sessions.

At a 2007 military tribunal hearing, he boasted, “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” Earlier, talking about Pearl, he had told FBI agents who interviewed him at Guantanamo, “Conveniently, he was Jewish.”

The Pearl Project report found that a more scientific piece of evidence was gained in comparing the knife-wielder’s hand, shown in the video, with KSM’s hand, through a vascular technology called vein matching

In the first examination, CIA experts found that the hands “seem identical,” while later on, one of two FBI investigators concluded “he couldn’t rule out” that KSM’s hand was the same as shown in the video.

Both the Pakistani and U.S. governments were quite aware that KSM was now the prime suspect in the killing, but both had reasons to keep the findings quiet.

The Pakistanis, having already convicted kidnapper Omar Sheikh and associates for the murder, were loath to admit error and reopen the case.

As early as fall 2003, the U.S. government was pretty certain that KSM was the actual killer. On Oct. 16, Condoleezza Rice, then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, called Mariane Pearl, Daniel’s widow, to inform her of this view;  parents Judea and Ruth Pearl got a similar call from then U.S. Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales.

The debate within the government whether to make this information public continued until 2006. Then, at a meeting of high-level Justice Department, CIA and Pentagon officials, the decision was made to keep KSM out of the Pearl murder case, based on two primary reasons.

The main consideration was that charging KSM would complicate the government’s case against him for masterminding the 9/11 attack.

Another reason was that a court might throw out KSM’s own confession because of the consistent waterboarding torture he had undergone.

In a multicolored chart available online at jewishjournal.com, Project Pearl gives a current breakdown on the participants in the kidnap/murder conspiracy, as follows:

Total number of men involved: 27

Number convicted: 4 (Omar Sheik and three associates)

Dead, under violent or suspicious circumstances: 5

Free: 14

Judea and Ruth Pearl furnished valuable contacts to the project investigators and praised their intentions and probity, but they view the findings with caution and are reluctant to discuss specifics.

Although the couple received the report some six weeks before its public release, they said they were still “trying to digest” the contents.

Judea Pearl seemed skeptical of the value of KSM’s confession, saying “he had nothing to lose.” Similarly, Mariane Pearl told a British newspaper, “I’m not ready … yet.”

Nomani commented that she and Feinman Todd fully understand the reluctance of Daniel Pearl’s family to react immediately to a complicated report dealing with what remains a deeply traumatic loss.

However, the two project directors said they are certain that they got the story right, based on three years of hard digging by themselves and 32 students, who conducted hundreds of interviews across five countries and pored over 2,400 pages of court records.

In addition, the project was aided by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists at the Center for Public Integrity, while the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation underwrote the project with a $300,000 grant.

However, Nomani and Feinman Todd acknowledged that all the facts may not be in yet and agreed that “we probably have 80 to 85 percent of the whole story.”

“It’s hard to know what we still don’t know,” said Nomani, and she hopes that public release of the report will trigger additional tips and leads.

The impact of Pearl’s life continues after his death.

Through the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Judea and Ruth Pearl are fulfilling their son’s legacy with a global program of cross-cultural understanding, encompassing journalistic exchanges, music and other innovative projects.

Last year, in the presence of the Pearl family, President Obama signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, instructing the State Department to report “with vigor” on violations of press freedom anywhere in the world.

The project applauds the president’s stand but faults his administration for not opening its voluminous files on the Pearl case.

In tracking the Pearl case, the report explores the complexities of the Pakistani situation, with the shifting roles of the government, its military and shadowy Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, al-Qaeda, Taliban and other tribal and militant groups.

This kind of information, said the authors, may well be of value to present U.S. policymakers in assessing this country’s future actions in the region.

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