So now it’s official: The U.S. government believes Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s executioner was Khalid Shaikh
Mohammed, the alleged chief organizer of the 9/11 terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet something about yesterday’s announcement
smells fishy. As The Wall Street Journal noted in its news story yesterday: “Reports of Mr.
Mohammed’s alleged role as Mr. Pearl’s killer surfaced several months ago, but officials
repeatedly dismissed them.”
Why did the U.S. government change its mind? It claims to have new information but won’t
say what it is. It won’t say whether Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan last March and is
being held somewhere secret, had confessed, or where the new information came from, or how it
had been corroborated. It claims that to say anything would compromise the war on
From my reading of Bernard-Henri Levy’s maddening, egotistical, convoluted but ultimately
brave and useful book, “Who
Killed Daniel Pearl?,” at least one thing seems clear: Omar Sheikh
Saeed — the London-born terrorist who lured Pearl to Karachi for the kidnapping, who was
captured and then sentenced to death by a Pakistani court and who is now appealing his sentence
— was a double agent working simultaneously for al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence. This, too, is
not new, as Levy himself points out even as he goes to extraordinary lengths to show it (in vivid
Now, if Saeed was undoubtedly Pearl’s kidnapper and if Mohammed was undoubtedly Pearl’s
executioner, does that finally confirm what many observers, Levy among them, have been
saying all along? That the Pakistani secret service known as the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence), or
at least a significant faction of it, and al Qaeda have been working together as two sides of
the same jihadist coin?
Here’s a problem for the Bush administration: If the collusion between ISI
and al Queda is officially acknowledged, it means the war in Iraq was misconceived from the very
beginning; it means that Pakistan, a so-called U.S. ally, is where the Bush
administration should have focussed the war on terrorism instead of Iraq; it means that the
U.S. government has either been lying all along or has been so incompetent that it cannot be
believed. Either way it seems discredited.
Meantime, I don’t know how much credence to give Levy’s theory that 1) Pearl was
kidnapped and murdered not because he was an American journalist and a Jew, though both
reasons seem sufficient, and 2) not because he was investigating the al Qaeda-ISI connection and
knew too much, which hasn’t been proved, but 3) because he was investigating the possible
transfer of Pakistan’s “nuclear know-how” to the Taliban in Afghanistan and knew too much, also
not proved as well as denied by Paul Steiger, editor of the Wall
Levy could be right, although so much of his year-long investigation relies on speculation that
you have to share his leaps of faith. Further, for all Levy’s probing insight, for all the shoe leather
he wore out retracing Pearl’s footsteps, staying in the Karachi hotel Pearl stayed in, visiting the
cell at the farm where Pearl was held and murdered, contacting the ISI and gaining entry to an al
Qaeda madrasa stronghold forbidden to Westerners, even managing to question the “fixer” who
put Pearl in touch with Saeed, Levy never names Mohammad as the killer who personally slit
Pearl’s throat except as a dismissive afterthought on page 449 of a 454-page book.
On learning of Mohammad’s arrest in March of 2003, Levy writes:
According to the latest news, he’s Pearl’s assassin. Him, the “Yemeni” who
held the knife. There’s even an ex-CIA agent, Robert Baer, now a writer, who says: “That’s what
Pearl was doing … looking for Mohammed … he was on Mohammed’s trail … well, Mohammed
didn’t like it … Mohammed got revenge … Mohammed, with Omar, planned the kidnapping and
killed him with his own hands. …” To me the idea is less than plausible. I can’t believe bin Laden’s
number-three man, chief of al-Qaida operations, this rather distinguished Kuwaiti intellectual,
could have done the job himself.
But then Levy gets a look at the photo of a haggard, hairy, bleary-eyed Mohammed on the
morning of his arrest and he thinks “yes, why not … this Mohammed could have
killed Daniel Pearl …” But that’s the extent of his belief. After all his analysis and all his
guesswork, Levy missed an essential part of the answer to his question: Who killed Daniel Pearl?
So his warning that we’re in for another al Qaeda attack, this time a nuclear one, while not to be
dismissed, is less surprising than his myopia when it came to Mohammed.
At the end of his book Levy asks himself if he’s made much progress. “Do I see things more
clearly than at the very beginning of my investigation, when things seemed simpler? …” And he
replies: “Sometimes I think yes. I hang on to my conclusions. I remind myself it’s not every day
you find a killer [Saeed] who is both in the upper ranks of al-Qaida and agent of the ISI.” But
otherwise, he’s not so sure of his progress. The world of the jihadists is made of mirrors and
multiple identities, mirrors within mirrors and identities within identities. That is the
one proof of which Levy and his readers can be certain.