How Pakistani Spy Officials Blocked Justice for Daniel Pearl

By Jeff Stein

Of all the open sores in the long, painful relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the dragged-out case of Daniel Pearl’s murder hurts the worst.

Just over 20 years have passed since Pearl, an affable and gifted correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, went missing in Karachi. About a month after his disappearance on Jan. 23, 2001, his killers posted a grisly video of his beheading.

From start to finish, the people involved in Pearl’s kidnapping and murder were members of militant groups long backed by Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. Last month, in yet another outrage, Pakistan’s Supreme Court freed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man responsible for luring Pearl to his death, from prison and sent him to a halfway house. The judges had connections to the ISI.

The act exemplified Pakistan’s treacherous double game with the U.S. The Islamic nation claims to practice democratic norms, yet empowers its security agencies to collaborate with the world’s most dangerous militant groups, from Al Qaeda to the Afghan Taliban to terrorist units carrying out bloody attacks in India.

“The overturning of the convictions of Daniel Pearl’s killers reflects the tenuous nature of Pakistan’s actions against terrorists,” Hussain Haqqani, a prominent pro-Western Pakistani journalist who served as his nation’s ambassador to the U.S from 2008 to 2011, told SpyTalk.

But the case has also been complicated by the FBI and Justice Department quietly accepting false and conflicting confessions in the U.S. case against Sheikh, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Newark on March 14, 2002. One former FBI agent who worked on the case in Pakistan tells SpyTalk that his bosses and then-federal prosecutor Chris Christie “didn’t want to hear” information that undermined a murder charge against the Pakistani suspect. “There was no one else that they could stick with it,” Ty Fairman told SpyTalk in an exclusive interview. “They wanted to get him” because he’d been involved in the kidnapping of two other Americans in India seven years earlier.

Biden administration officials responded to the Pakistani court decision with unbridled anger. At the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was “outraged.” She described Sheikh’s release as “an affront to terror victims everywhere.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a lengthy statement asserting that the United States was “deeply concerned,” a message he “reinforced” in a telephone call with Pakistan’s foreign minister. Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson added that the U.S. “stands ready to take custody of Sheikh.” Pearl’s widow Marianne wrote a mournful piece for The Washington Post saying she was “convinced that true justice will never come from above.”

She is right. The case has been so tainted by corruption and interference by powerful figures in Pakistan’s security establishment that Sheikh is not only likely to go free but escape justice here—in the unlikely event he were shipped to the U.S. for trial. The U.S. and Pakistan have no extradition agreement. The case has been marred from the beginning by false, coerced and contradictory confessions that would make a murder conviction in an American court unlikely.

“It would be a nightmare of a case,” former FBI agent Jay Kanetkar, who headed the bureau’s investigation in Pakistan, told Georgetown University’s Pearl Project, which has spent years on the case. Omar Sheikh had undergone a “softening up” by Pakistani police, he said.

The case had been troubled from the beginning. Pakistani police coerced a confession from a taxi driver that he had ferried Pearl and Omar Saeed Sheikh to the spot where Pearl was kidnapped.

Former FBI agent Fairman tells SpyTalk Sheikh was nowhere near Karachi. He “was actually in his home town with his wife and family the day that Daniel Pearl was picked up [by kidnappers] in Karachi,” Fairman says, “and we all knew that. It was part of the information that we passed on. Everyone knew it.”

We got the videotape and we processed it one frame at a time. We looked at the feet, the hands, everything about the video. And we gave FBI Newark the information saying this is not Sheikh. We said it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Ty Fairman, former FBI agent

But in an unsettling allegation, Fairman says his FBI bosses and Christie, then the U.S. Attorney in Newark, who would rise to become governor of New Jersey, didn’t want to hear about it. They wanted a fast solution to Pearl’s murder, implicating Sheikh, who had already been secretly indicted for kidnapping American tourists in India years earlier.

Omar’s Alibi

Fairman, who is telling the inside story of the FBI’s handling of the case for the first time, says he told his supervisors that not only was Sheikh 840 miles away in Islamabad, an FBI forensic analysis of the execution video released by his captors on Feb. 22 ruled out Sheikh’s presence at the scene. The real killer was the infamous Al Qaeda terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was then at large in Pakistan and wanted for coordinating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“We got the videotape and we processed it one frame at a time,” Fairman says. “We looked at the feet, the hands, everything about the video. And we gave FBI Newark the information saying this is not Sheikh. We said it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”

“They weren’t happy with that information,” Fairman added. He says he was demoted and eventually forced out of the FBI because of his objections. “Chris Christie was not happy with the information.” Nor were the Pakistanis. Authorities “deliberately discounted testimony suggesting” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was responsible, the BBC reported.

The Justice Department and FBI declined to comment. Chris Christie, who now runs a lobbying firm, did not respond by press time.

Gone Free

KSM, as he’s universally known, was captured by U.S. agents in Pakistan in 2003 and immediately hustled out of the country to a succession of CIA black sites, where he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Four years later at Guantanamo, he confessed to FBI agents that he “personally slit Pearl’s throat and severed his head to make certain he’d get the death penalty and to exploit the murder for propaganda,” the Pearl Project reported. But he has never been charged in the case. His trial by a military court on the 9/11 charges has been repeatedly delayed, most recently because of coronavirus concerns.

Fairman says Pakistani authorities “refused to allow us to interview the taxi driver. It was off limits. We were told to leave him alone—don’t even push the issue. And that’s it, don’t touch it.” And he added, “That was a smoking gun. If you have no proof to put Omar Sheikh in Karachi at the same time that Daniel Pearl was picked up and actually kidnapped, you can’t really tie them together” in a murder charge.

Not that Sheikh was entirely innocent—hardly. He’d volunteered to police that he’d arranged for Pearl’s kidnapping, but nothing more. Fairman says Sheikh told him he had planned to kidnap Pearl in a grand scheme to ransom him for U.S. F-16 warplanes that Pakistan had paid for but never received because of congressional concerns over Islamabad’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. But then Al Qaeda intervened, Sheikh told him.

“He did admit to me that he was orchestrating the kidnapping,” Fairman said in a telephone interview from Sierra Leone, where he now lives and works. “But when Al Qaeda found out [Pearl had been kidnapped], that’s when they came in and took over. And he was pissed off with Al Qaeda and had issues with them on why they would circumvent his operation.”

That’s not what Sheikh was telling authorities, however. In a deposition a few month later he told the anti-terrorism court he had nothing to do with Pearl’s disappearance, that “he had never met him.” The judges didn’t buy it, convicting him of murder and sentencing him to death by hanging. Only 17 years later, in a bid for a new hearing to get the sentence overturned, did he admit complicity in the crime, arguing that his involvement was “a relatively minor one….”

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