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.
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