Qui a tue Daniel Pearl?, by Bernard-Henri Levy
The subject was not breached when “courageous leader” Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was received by George W Bush at Camp David this week. They talked of the Hizb-i-Islami leading the anti-American jihad in Afghanistan, they talked of jihadis not crossing the Line of Control in Kashmir, they talked of Osama bin Laden hiding in the tribal areas. “Indispensable ally” Musharraf received a promise of US$3 billion – but no F-16s. But had Bush asked Musharraf who killed American journalist Daniel Pearl, one wonders whether Musharraf would have come up with a proper answer.
Bernard-Henri Levy’s Qui a tue Daniel Pearl? (Grasset) is guaranteed to shake the foundations of neo-conservative land when an English translation is released before the end of the year. The book has become a best-seller in France, and subject to considerable media frenzy. No wonder: since his debut as a nouveau philosophe in the 1970s, BHL – a trademark signature – has meticulously fashioned himself to the status of dandy and arbiter supreme of the Parisian Left Bank intelligentsia. A brilliant, prolific writer coupled with shameless self-promotion, BHL always switched at ease from essay to film making, from Jean Paul Sartre to the gulag, from Bosnia to Charles Baudelaire, from trophy wife to a holiday palace in Marrakesh. Inevitably, he had to confront the top subject of the times – political Islam.
BHL starts his book on January 31, 2002, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was tortured and decapitated in Karachi, Pakistan, after being kidnapped by a bunch of jihadis. BHL describes his book as a romanquete – an investigative novel. It’s in fact a variation on Tom Wolfe’s and Guy Talese’s new journalism: investigative journalism turbocharged by literature – sprinkled with a chic dash of metaphysical self-doubt. The literary influences are clear: Fyodor Dostoyevski and Baudelaire. BHL is fascinated by two main themes: the flower of evil (personified by Omar Sheikh, the intellectual mastermind of Pearl’s ordeal); and the double (Omar the killer as the double of the sacrificial lamb Pearl). Most of all, BHL is fascinated by Pearl as his own double. Pearl was an American Jewish journalist trying to come to grips with radical Islam. BHL is an French Jewish writer trying to deconstruct radical Islam.
BHL had one year, plenty of time and resources and at least four trips to Pakistan to weave his plot. The agenda couldn’t be more ambitious: BHL asks rhetorically “what, in the beginning of a new century, turns abjection into desire and destiny?” He tries to decode radical Islam, Osama bin Laden’s “new terrorism”, the “shock or non-shock” of cultures and civilizations; he wants to know whether “the crusader spirit and the combat against the ‘axis of evil’ are the adequate response to the current theological-political madness”.
This all makes for gripping reading. BHL himself had already defined the best journalism as a mix of “urgency and exigence”. He is a hell of a writer. But his whole journalistic-literary voyage – as fascinating as it turns out to be – ends up undermined by a fatal flaw. Stripped of ethnic, historical and political prejudice, BHL simply didn’t get what Pakistan is all about. Something’s wrong when a sophisticated philosopher and thinker tells us that Pakistan is nothing less than “the house of the devil”.
Maybe this had something to do with his fixers. Every journalist working in Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar since the heady days of the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s knows that a good fixer is the key to open Pakistan’s multilayered Pandora’s boxes. Alternatively, maybe this had something to do with BHL psychedelically identifying himself so much with his double Pearl (“my equal, my brother” – Baudelaire once again) that his hallucinations took over the narrative. For BHL, Pearl is a sublime martyr – while for many in South Asia he was little else than a Jewish American writer for the Wall Street Journal who landed in Muslim Pakistan from a spell in India without carefully assessing his new role.
BHL’s first hypothesis is that between “the jihadis and the great liberal journalist, tolerant, open to the cultures of the world and a friend of Islam, there was a relationship of trust, almost of bonding”. During the first part of the investigation, BHL tries to enter the mind of the sacrificial lamb; the next part is flowers of evil territory, BHL trying to understand Omar Sheikh’s motives. BHL meticulously reconstitutes the last days and minutes of Daniel Pearl before he was beheaded by three subcontracted Yemenites in a desolate Karachi suburb. Omar Sheikh was to arrange the interview Daniel Pearl was so obsessed with: the interviewee would be Sheikh Mubarak Gilani, the leader of the al-Fuqrah subsect to which belonged the notorious shoe bomber Richard Reid.
From a literary point of view, the complex, secretive, tortured Omar character is infinitely more appealing than golden boy Pearl. But BHL chooses to interpret Omar as the Western double of Pearl: Omar himself was a Westernized Muslim, born in England and having received a perfectly English education. Omar’s “master of terrorism” was Masoud Azhar, the leader of the Pakistani jihadi group Jaish e-Mohammed, “a mix of saint and serial killer”, a definition that could also be applied to Omar himself.
In perfect Oscar Wilde mode (“Each man kills the thing he loves”), one of BHL’s best intuitions is when he tells us where Omar – the personification of “evil” radical Islam – is coming from: “This enemy of the West is a product of the West. This ardent jihadi was formed in the school of the enlightenment and progress. This Islamist who will yell at his trial that he kidnapped Daniel Pearl because he could not stand the hairdressers of Guantanamo shaving the skulls of Arab prisoners … is the product of the best English education … So might terrorism be a natural son of a diabolical couple – Islam and Europe?
As Omar Sheikh is painted as a villain of anti-Christ proportions, there is also a sexual explanation for his rage: “Islamism and women … This fear and sometimes this vertigo facing the female sex, I always thought they were the very basis of the fundamentalist desire … the proof by Omar.” BHL amplifies the sexual trauma of Islamists by probing Omar’s “secret”: he suffers because he is caught in a double culture, switching from Pakistan in England to England in Pakistan. His desire is to belong. One thinks of the Saudis who lived quietly for years in the West and a few hours before September 11, 2001, were going to a sex shop, flirting with a Mexican whore and window-shopping lingerie.
The book picks up speed when BHL starts making the inevitable connections between jihadis and the Pakistani intelligence services. An example is the famous September 11, 2002 raid by a “Pakistani power in panic that a “satanic interview” about to be broadcast by al-Jazeera proved that there was an al-Qaeda cell in the heart of Karachi. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the all-important al-Qaeda operations chief, was not there at the moment and once again evaded capture. The operation against the alleged brains behind September 11, again on a September 11, was supposed to be a “birthday gift” from the Pakistani government to the US. This leads BHL to proclaim that the kidnapping, then the murder of Daniel Pearl was an initial response from dissatisfied sectors of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to an America-accommodating Musharraf: “Omar Sheikh, the Londoner who became a warrior of Allah, was instrumentalized by a branch of the ISI hostile to the evolution of Musharraf.” A few pages later, we’re entitled to a little more nuance: “Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and then murdered by Islamist groups manipulated, yes, by a faction of the services – the most radical, the most violent, the most anti-American … This faction, from the beginning to the end of the affair, behaved itself as if it was very much at home in Musharraf’s Pakistan.”
The next step could only be the inevitable connection between ISI and al-Qaeda. An informant tells BHL “how everything started by the dismantling … of a cell making fake papers for al-Qaeda clandestines”; and how the investigation led to “a trafficker specialized not only in fake papers but in the export of clandestine workers to Riyadh, 11 or 12-year-old kids selected in Karachi and Dacca to work as jockeys in camel races on the beaches of Dubai and, last but not least, al-Qaeda combatants exported, through the Oman Straits, to the Emirates, Yemen and other Middle East countries”. This man, the real target of the anti-terrorist operation of September 11, 2002, was not Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who was arrested) or alleged September mastermind Khalid Shaikh (who was not there), but Saud Memon, the owner of the lot where Pearl was kept captive, tortured, executed and buried. BHL describes it as “a house belonging to a fake welfare organization which served as a front for bin Laden”. He is referring to the Islamic NGO al-Rashid Trust, which after September 11 made it to the US list of terrorist organizations.
For BHL, the “house of the devil” – or “the terrorist Vatican” – par excellence is the legendary Binori town mosque in Karachi, which has educated many a Taliban. He takes us on a guided tour. The mosque is where Masoud Azhar, Omar Sheikh’s mentor, founded Jaish e-Mohammed in the beginning of 2000, an “organization that would lend its elite battalions to al-Qaeda”. The famous audio cassette of November 2002 where bin Laden talks about the attacks in Yemen, Kuwait, Bali and Moscow and renews his calls for jihad against the West, came from Binori town. For American, Indian and British intelligence, as well as for BHL, probably a raid on Binori town would be enough to dismantle most of radical Islam in Pakistan.
It will come as no surprise to anyone covering and following the “war on terror” that the best of BHL’s sources reveals himself to be a Saudi lawyer in Dubai – the Arab capital of big money and privileged Oriental crossroads. The lawyer paints a striking picture of Islamism as pure business: after all “we draft the papers. We establish the contracts. And I can tell you that most of them don’t give a damn about Allah. They enter Islamism because, especially in Pakistan, it’s nothing other than a source of power and wealth.” The Saudi lawyer confirms that “very few people in Pakistan become Islamists by conviction or fanaticism. They are just looking for a family, a mafia, capable of protecting them from hard times.”
BHL is scandalized by these “jihad golden boys”. And there’s no doubt these Islamist golden boys are very much aware of Omar Sheikh when he leaves Indian jails – as he was one of the three militants exchanged for the passengers of an Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked and landed in Kandahar in Afghanistan in December 1999.
When BHL starts to follow the money, his investigation really takes off. It all starts with the famous $100,000 wired to September 11’s chief operative Mohammed Atta’s account in the US by one Ahmad Umar Sheikh, following instructions by Pakistani General Ahmad Mehmoud – the ISI director general at the time. General Mehmoud was removed by Musharraf less than a month after September 11. The Pakistani press reported at the time that Mehmoud was removed because US investigations had proved a liaison between himself and none other than Omar Sheikh. So BHL then arrives at an even juicier hypothesis: “Not only an Omar linked to al-Qaeda through its most spectacular terrorist operation – but of a collusion … between al-Qaeda and ISI working together to destroy the Towers. For the Indian services, there’s no doubt about the association.”
Neo-conservatives may eventually be tortured by self-doubt, but Indian and Israeli intelligence will certainly love the fact that the information they shared led BHL to an explosive conclusion: “The possible Pakistani responsibility in the September 11 attack remains the great unsaid in George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s America … to admit that Ahmad is Omar and he wired the money … wouldn’t it be to question the whole foreign policy which, already at the time, made Iraq as the enemy and Pakistan as an ally?”
Not only because of Saud Memon – the murder scene was on his property – and Binori town – the “terrorist Vatican” – BHL slowly becomes convinced that Daniel Pearl’s murder was ordered by al-Qaeda. It may be no more than fascinating literature, but BHL is persuasive. Omar, an unknown jihadi, is freed against the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines jet. He arrives in Kandahar as a hero – and is received by Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself, who presents him to none other than bin Laden. Bin Laden is vividly impressed by “this rare mix of faith and culture, of fanaticism and competence”. So bin Laden starts thinking how he can profit from “an ardent jihadi who doubles as an unrivalled financier, an expert in electronics and the Internet, as well as a connoisseur of the West and its mechanisms”.
One of BHL’s sources – as well as, he admits, Indian intelligence – tells him that Omar successively enters the Majlis al-Shura, al-Qaeda’s political council; conceives and operates al-Qaeda’s web sites; and in the role of a hungry trader installs a computer terminal in a Kandahar house permanently linked to the world’s major financial capitals: so the short selling that al-Qaeda profited from – and paid for – September 11 might have been the brainchild not of bin Laden, but Omar. BHL’s conclusions: “Omar liberated by al-Qaeda and the ISI; Omar as an agent, very soon, of both al-Qaeda and the ISI; Omar as a precocious link between both organizations.” No one has ever been able to verify it, but according to one of BHL’s sources, bin Laden called Omar “my favored son”. So here we have Omar – the flower of evil who masterminded the killing of Daniel Pearl – as the spiritual son of bin Laden.
What about Daniel Pearl himself? The truth about his death may be much less heroic and more pedestrian than BHL claims. If we analyze what happened from a journalistic point of view, Pearl may have been merely a victim of media wars – of information treated as merchandise. He was a reporter unfamiliar with such an extremely complex beat as Pakistan, under pressure from the Wall Street Journal main office to find scoops capable of beating the New York Times or the Washington Post. What led him to his fate was a story in a rival American paper about the obscure Sheikh Gilani, leader of the Al-Fuqrah sect and alleged mentor of shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Pearl may have thought that he got a break to build a story on banned Islamist groups. For Asia Times Online’s own Pakistan-based Syed Saleem Shahzad, as well as for this correspondent, it is easy to see what happened next. He asked his fixer to try to get a meeting or an interview with Gilani. The fixer calls a journalist friend with close contacts with jihadi groups acting in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The journalist remembers a contact he saw a few times. He calls and sets up a meeting. Pearl and his fixer go to the meeting. Then they go to a house to see somebody who can lead them to Gilani. But the house is empty. They have to keep trying other leads. Then one day they call the same contact again and he says that he knows somebody who can take Pearl to Gilani. Pearl goes to yet another meeting and he finds the enigmatic Omar. It’s in the course of this tortuous process that a Western journalist operating in an Islamic hothouse has to proceed with ultimate care. If anything feels remotely weird, the whole enterprise has to be called off. Pearl was doing anything to get his scoop. When Omar saw him he immediately knew that he had found the perfect, gullible sacrificial lamb.
Gilani may not have been worth so much trouble. He was indeed the leader of al-Fuqrah – almost a subsect, with nothing to do with the big jihadi organizations. Even Moinuddin Haider, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, had never heard of al-Fuqrah before the Pearl affair – although some sources say that Gilani was Osama’s most committed follower in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda is a purely Arab organization. The International Islamic Front is an international organization – a de-territorialized federation of groups linked to emir bin Laden. Gilani was a member of neither. But according to some sources, he had spiritual ascendancy – maybe even ideological – over bin Laden: he is a pir, “venerated master” in urdu. Anyone familiar with Pakistan knows that a pir would never discuss such matters with an unknown, unchecked Western journalist.
BHL also advances the hypothesis that Daniel Pearl was investigating al-Qaeda’s American network – based on the fact that Gilani was linked to the ISI, but maybe also to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): “Could the key to the mystery of his death be found in the hard disks of agencies in Washington?” What then: a nosy Pearl eliminated by an ISI-CIA tandem?
BHL writes that he was against Bush’s war on Iraq – but at the same time he blamed the world’s masses who claimed that “it’s better to live as a slave under Saddam than to be free thanks to Bush”. This basic misunderstanding from his part will endear him to neo-conservatives, Americans or otherwise, as much as it will discredit him to anybody around the world whose principles opposed an illegal war.
BHL is certain that “Pakistan is the roguest of all of today’s rogue states”. He is certain that “between Islamabad and Karachi, a real black void is being formed, compared to which the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein was just a depot of out-of-date weapons”. BHL is dead sure that Pakistan is Apocalypse Now. This configures BHL as a Western darling of Indian intelligence. But one wonders how will this all be played out when the book is published in the US. Preemptive war against a nuclear Islamabad, anyone? Maybe Washington should wait to read an investigative novel by the flower of evil himself, the spiritual son of Osama bin Laden, the unfathomable Omar Sheikh.
Qui a tue Daniel Pearl? by Bernard-Henri Levy, Grasset et Fasquelle April, 2003. ISBN: 2246650518, Price: US$25, 538 pages.