A Reporter Under The Gun

How dangerous is Karachi? In Pakistan's teeming port city (population: 15 million), the preferred mode of hit men is the motorcycle, the better to gun down targets stuck in the city's eternal traffic jam and then make a quick getaway. When motorcycle assassins can't do the job, car bombs are always effective, or bus bombs, planted on buses full of schoolkids belonging to the wrong religious sect. Kidnappings were also routine in Karachi, at least until the authorities got together a few years ago to create an organization called the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, whose chief function has been to persuade families to stop paying ransom money.

On the afternoon of Jan. 23, as he headed off to a rendezvous with a shadowy source, Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal stopped in to consult with the committee. Pearl got the same advice from that group that he had received from several of his colleagues in the press: Don't go. Or if you do, don't go alone, and meet with your source only in a public place. Though normally a careful, cautious reporter, Pearl did not heed the warning. He was after a scoop: he had been promised a meeting with the sheik of an Islamic extremist group that reportedly had ties to Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who had tried to blow up an American Airlines plane at Christmastime. Pearl had agreed to a meeting at a local restaurant at 6:30 p.m. When he arrived, the restaurant was nearly empty. Darkness had fallen. Hustled into a car waiting outside, Pearl vanished.

Reporters sometimes believe they are protected by a kind of invisible bubble, that they can stand and watch a mob chanting "Death to America" and come to no harm. Just as the Mafia shies from killing cops and reporters, even the most wild-eyed extremists generally realize that kidnapping journalists will bring down the full wrath of the authorities without accomplishing much. But in Karachi, the normal rules do not apply. And the terror war is not like any other war. There are no noncombatants.

By the end of last week the hijackers were still making impossible demands for the release of Pakistani detainees captured in Afghanistan, while American and Pakistani intelligence officials were still searching for the real reason Pearl had been snatched. They suspected that his kidnappers were trying to stir up an international incident that would embarrass and possibly shake the regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani president is unpopular in some quarters--including, ominously, among certain officials of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI--for backing the Americans against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and trying to crack down on extremist groups in his own country. For Americans, Pearl's disappearance is a human tragedy and a reminder that the war on terror may never be over; for Pakistan, it could be a tremor signaling greater convulsions ahead.

Last week the computer gnomes of the American intelligence community were playing a complex and secret game of cyber cat-and-mouse with Pearl's captors. The Americans were able to trace the e-mails sent by the kidnappers--but the kidnappers were smart enough to keep changing their address. Meanwhile, Pakistani police sweated suspects while looking for leads. The hunters and the hunted were in a deadly race: the kidnappers kept extending the deadline to kill the American newsman, but no one could be sure when time would run out, and some suspected that it already had.

According to his colleagues, Pearl does not fit the stereotype of the pushy, swaggering cowboy correspondent. He is regarded as self-effacing and sometimes absent-minded, though sly and funny in an offbeat way. He was not rushing to get shot at. Before Thanksgiving, Pearl dined in Peshawar with some other big media correspondents who were clamoring to get into Afghanistan. Pearl said he wasn't going. "It's too dangerous," he explained. "I just got married, my wife is pregnant, I'm just not going to do it." Yet Pearl, 38, a Stanford grad and 12-year veteran of the Journal, was also known for his persistence and curiosity--and for exasperating his editors on deadline by insisting on making just one more phone call.

In Karachi, Pearl was trying to track down a dark figure named Sheik Mubarak Ali Gilani, the leader of a violent, fiercely anti-Semitic Islamist faction called Tanzimul Fuqra (The Party of Poor). The sheik had often been to the United States to recruit Muslims, mostly poorer African-Americans desperate for structure and meaning after a life of drugs and crime. There were rumors, still unconfirmed, that shoe-bomber Reid, a British citizen of Jamaican descent, had studied at Gilani's Quranic Open University in Pakistan. In Karachi, Pearl was able to make contact with some Islamic extremists who told the Journal reporter that they could set up an interview with the sheik. It now appears Pearl was being lured into a trap.

His six-months pregnant wife, Mariane, a freelance journalist who often went on interviews with Pearl, was at their rented Karachi apartment on Jan. 23. "I was sick so I didn't go," she told NEWSWEEK. By dawn, when her husband had not returned, she was stricken with fear. Three days later came the first of the chilling e-mails: photos of Pearl, bound by chains, with a 9mm pistol held to his head. The message from "kidnapperguy" made a series of demands, including the release of the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, now held by the United States; the return of the Pakistani detainees held at Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, and the provision of lawyers for Pakistanis arrested in immigration and law-enforcement sweeps in the United States. In his e-mail to a score of news organizations, kidnapperguy announced that Pearl would be held in "very inhuman circumstances" until the Americans improved their treatment of the Taliban and Qaeda detainees. The e-mail described Pearl as a CIA agent, a charge the CIA denied. An attachment to the e-mail also demanded that the United States go ahead with the delivery of some F-16 fighter planes that had been held up when Pakistan continued to develop nuclear weapons in the late '80s.

Kidnapperguy claimed to represent a group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. Few had ever heard of it. If the kidnappers were standard-issue Islamic extremists, the demand for the F-16s didn't seem to make much sense. Warplanes for the Pakistani Air Force are useless to guerrilla jihadists. Interrogated by the Pakistani police, Sheik Gilani said he was just a peaceful preacher who had never met Reid. He also claimed he had never heard of the men who had promised Pearl the interview. Police raided the home of one of those men, who went by the name of "Arif." His real name was Hashim; his family claimed to be in mourning because their son had been killed fighting in Afghanistan. The police were skeptical. Investigators were also interested in the role played by an extremist named Khalid Khawaja, a onetime adviser to Osama bin Laden who had fallen out with the terror mastermind. Hoping to find an "in" with Gilani, Pearl had spoken with Khawaja. The former bin Laden aide had told the reporter that seeing Gilani was impossible. But did Pearl's interest make Khawaja eye the reporter as a potential kidnapping target?

Khawaja is an intriguing figure in the mystery because he has also worked for the ISI, Pakistan's very powerful spy agency. The ISI, which helped create the Taliban in Afghanistan, is still riddled with Taliban and bin Laden sympathizers. Gen. Musharraf has tried to purge the intelligence agency, starting at the top by firing its pro-Taliban head shortly after 9-11, when the general cast his government's lot with President George W. Bush's war on terror. But U.S. intelligence officials are wondering: could it be that a dissident faction in the ISI is trying to make trouble for Musharraf, who is due in the United States next week to see President Bush? (Interestingly, the e-mail address used by one of the men promising to lead Pearl to Gilani was "nobadmashi"--an Urdu word roughly translated as "no troublemaking.") Fearful that the Pakistani president would be caught siding with Washington against his own nationalists, Musharraf's aides tried to find someone more convenient to blame. Last week government spokesmen pointed the finger at rival India for plotting the kidnapping, but no one took the charges too seriously.

Meanwhile, America's super-secret electronic spying agency, the National Security Agency, has been trying to track the e-mails of Pearl's kidnappers. On Wednesday came another electronic threat: to kill Pearl--now described as an agent of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service--in 24 hours. All American journalists, the message went on, would become targets if they did not leave the country within three days. On Thursday, Pearl's execution date was extended another 24 hours. Computer experts noticed that in the e-mail messages Pearl's name was rarely spelled the same way twice (Mr.danny, Mr.d.Parl, Daniel). They speculated that the kidnappers were sophisticated enough to try to defeat the government's "sniffer" programs that hunt for key words. U.S. intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK that e-mails are hard to track for another reason: the kidnappers keep changing their "hot mail" address and switching between Internet service providers.

Nonetheless, NEWSWEEK has learned, the cybersleuths, working from a tip provided by one of the men arrested by Pakistani police, have been able to follow the trail to a very forbidding place: an outlaw frontier province of northwestern Pakistan. This desolate mountain region, populated by drug dealers and arms merchants, can be described as the Bronze Age with pickup trucks and explosives. The local warlords are their own authority: holding slaves, buying and selling wives, kidnapping women (in some cases, the penalty for rape is for the rapist to marry his victim). In the past, Pakistani forces have been sent into the frontier province to make arrests, only to retreat under heavy fire. U.S. officials caution that a lightning rescue raid from Delta Force appeared unlikely.

It may be past the time for last resorts. On Friday, another e-mail was sent to CNN and Fox News: "We have killed Mr Danny Now Mr. bush can find his body in the grave yards of Karachi we have thrown him there." To be sure, death notices can be premature in these matters. In the 1980s, when AP reporter Terry Anderson was kidnapped by Islamic extremists, his family was twice told that he had been killed, even beheaded. (Today Anderson is the honorary co-chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog group.) But the Journal's normally bustling newsroom grew somber by Friday. Privately, Journal editors were complaining that U.S. officials were not pushing hard enough for Pearl's release. The FBI originally assigned the case to its Honolulu bureau, NEWSWEEK has learned, then reassigned it to the New Jersey office, closer to the headquarters of the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones. Casting about for help from any quarter, the Journal persuaded Muhammad Ali, the prizefighter who may be the world's best-known Muslim, to issue an appeal for Pearl's freedom.

In Karachi, Pakistani police searched graveyards, looking for Pearl's body, but found nothing. His wife, who had not slept for days, tried to keep a brave face. On Saturday, Dow Jones officials said they believed that the e-mail announcing Pearl's death was a hoax. They also dismissed a telephone call demanding a $2 million ransom and extending the deadline by 36 hours. U.S. and Pakistani authorities were equally doubtful about the authenticity of the new messages.

Journalists have long been at risk in some parts of the world. In 2000, 24 newspeople were killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2001, the number of fatalities jumped to a minimum of 37 and possibly as many as 55. At least 25 were murdered. The war in Afghanistan was a factor--eight reporters have died there since September 11--but not because they were getting hit by shrapnel or stepping on land mines. Five died far from the front lines: four were slain in an ambush and one during a burglary. The biggest threat was not combat, but anarchy. Around the world, most journalists are murdered in reprisal for reporting on official corruption and crime in countries like China, Thailand and Yugoslavia.

Pearl's kidnapping suggests that journalists may become political pawns in the terror war. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have publicly stated that they have encouraged their Pakistani counterparts to push for Pearl's release. If Pearl is killed, the United States will have to press for retribution as a warning to other would-be kidnappers. And if Musharraf's hand is checked by concerns for his own survival, the Bush administration, which has increasingly signaled a willingness to go it alone, may have to use American forces to exact revenge.