A Murder Most Foul

"My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew, and I am a Jew." In the last moments of Danny Pearl's life, his kidnappers forced him again and again to denounce his family, his country and his religion, and to warn the world that he would not be the last to suffer if the United States did not change its ways. A video camera trained on his unshaven, sleepless face, Pearl mumbled the terrorists' script. "Americans can't walk around free as long as our government's policies continue," he said. "America will bear the consequences of our government's unconditional support for Israel." Photographs of weeping Arab women, the supposed victims of American and Israeli aggression against Palestinians, periodically flashed on a screen as he spoke.

Sources familiar with the contents of the vicious home movie, obtained by the FBI on Friday, say Pearl's throat is then suddenly slit with a knife. A hand is shown holding his severed head. The tape cuts to his captors repeatedly stabbing his lifeless body. Pearl's head is then shown lying on a pile of newspapers as a message scrolls in the foreground: "If our demands aren't met, there will be more scenes like this."

In the agonizing month since Pearl was snatched from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, his family and friends--and the U.S. and Pakistani governments--had held out hope that The Wall Street Journal reporter was still alive. But as time passed, it seemed ever less likely. His captors, members of a fiercely anti-Semitic Islamic terrorist group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, are known for their brutality, and made demands that seemed impossible for the United States to meet: release Taliban and Qaeda prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and deliver long-delayed U.S. fighter planes to Pakistan, or Pearl dies.

The terrorists' deadlines passed. Then silence. There were contradictory reports about his condition. Some had him alive in Pakistan's remote Northwest Frontier Province. Others had him dead, his body dumped in a Karachi graveyard. Intelligence agents and diplomats worked feverishly to find answers in a corner of the world where the truth is often maddeningly elusive.

Now that the gruesome truth is known, the United States and its allies face a difficult question: how to retaliate, and against whom? Danny Pearl's kidnapping and murder were not just grisly crimes, but the first international acts of terrorism against the United States since September 11. President George W. Bush, on a state visit to Beijing, learned of Pearl's death watching TV at 4 a.m., as he worked off jet lag in the hotel gym. Within hours, Bush's national-security and law-enforcement teams were sketching out options that would bring Pearl's killers to justice, and show the world that U.S. resolve to fight terror hasn't waned.

Pearl's abduction and murder were especially frustrating for the FBI and CIA. For years, federal agents had been closely tracking the terrorist whom authorities suspect masterminded the Pearl plot, London-born Pakistani extremist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. In fact, an administration official told NEWSWEEK, the Justice Department secretly indicted Sheikh in November for his role in a previous kidnapping. In the weeks before Sheikh and his men snatched Pearl, U.S. officials were pushing the Pakistani government to turn him over. That raises the tragic possibility that Pearl's life might have been spared.

Intellectual and well-educated--he attended the London School of Economics--Sheikh, now 28, first caught the attention of U.S. investigators in 1994, after he organized a kidnapping of four Western tourists, including an American, in India. Sheikh demanded the release of jailed Islamic extremists. But the plot was foiled when police found the victims and imprisoned Sheikh and his accomplices.

In the five years that followed, Sheikh's comrades made two bloody attempts to win his freedom from prison. In July 1995 they kidnapped six Western backpackers, including two Americans, who were hiking and camping in Kashmir, on the India-Pakistan border. They demanded the release of Sheikh and other militants as the price for their victims' lives. Authorities refused to comply; only one of the hostages was ever seen again. Six weeks after the kidnapping, peasant women drawing water from a stream found the headless body of one of the backpackers, a Norwegian Jew. "There was a growing recognition that this was a particularly vicious group, and that Sheikh was high up in it," says one U.S. law-enforcement official.

Sheikh's followers ultimately succeeded in forcing his release. In 1999, members of his group hijacked an Indian airliner. They flew the plane to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and once again demanded that India free Sheikh and other extremists. This time, officials complied, but only after the hijackers stabbed a passenger to death and dumped his body on the tarmac.

Sheikh was a free man, but American law enforcement wanted to bring him to the United States to answer for his part in the 1994 kidnapping. In 2001, prosecutors in Washington convened a grand jury, which ultimately indicted him, clearing the way for U.S. diplomats to begin an urgent push to extradite him to the United States. Early this year, just weeks before Sheikh and his men abducted Pearl, senior Justice officials pressed the National Security Council to ensure the matter was raised with the Pakistani government; the NSC, in turn, pushed the State Department. On Jan. 9, Wendy Chamberlin, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, brought up the subject with President Pervez Musharraf's foreign minister. Two weeks later, Pearl was kidnapped. The very next day, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Chamberlin had a previously scheduled meeting with Musharraf, and discussed Sheikh--presumably before they knew of his alleged role in Pearl's abduction.

Given Sheikh's long history of kidnapping, it didn't take long for Pakistani authorities to conclude that he was involved. On Feb. 5, as Pakistani police closed in, Sheikh surrendered--and is currently in a Karachi jail cell. Sheikh told police that Pearl was dead, but investigators had no reason to trust his word. Then, last Thursday, Pearl's kidnappers arranged to have the video handed off to a Pakistani journalist in a crowded Karachi neighborhood. The journalist immediately turned it over to the U.S. consulate.

Bringing Sheikh to justice is now a top U.S. priority. But transporting him here won't be easy. The United States has no extradition treaty with Pakistan. And officials there are fearful that simply turning him over would inflame Islamic extremists. Instead, the Feds are considering options, some realistic, others farfetched, that would allow Musharraf varying degrees of "deniability," as one official put it. On one end of the "continuum": have Pakistani authorities put Sheikh on a plane, then quietly leak his destination to the FBI. On the more extreme end: a surprise U.S. raid to grab Sheikh.

The world will remember Pearl as yet another victim of terrorist aggression. But to the people who loved him, he will be remembered as a warm, gregarious friend, a committed journalist and a devoted husband--and heartbreakingly, an expectant father. On Friday, Pearl's wife, Mariane, who is seven-months pregnant with their first child, said she hoped she "will be able to tell our son that his father carried the flag to end terrorism." His death was a bitter reminder of how far there is to go.

Join the Discussion