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Pakistan: 'Wall Street Journal' Reporter Believed Trapped In Intricate Plot

  • Alexandra Poolos

There is still no word on the whereabouts of Daniel Pearl, the "Wall Street Journal" correspondent believed to have been kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, last week. Police are investigating the case and now think an elaborate trap may have been laid for Pearl, who was reporting on Al-Qaeda links in Pakistan. So far, only a mysterious e-mail has surfaced that includes a photograph of Pearl with a gun to his head.

Prague, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The mysterious disappearance of "Wall Street Journal" correspondent Daniel Pearl highlights the continued influence of militant groups in Pakistan. It also serves as a reminder of the increasing dangers facing reporters covering issues tied to international terrorism.

Pearl, a South Asia correspondent based in Bombay, went missing on 23 January after arriving at a Karachi restaurant where he was scheduled to have a clandestine meeting with the leader of a fundamentalist Islamic organization in Pakistan. Police officials cite witnesses as saying Pearl was met by at least two bearded men at the restaurant. After calling his wife on a cell phone to say he would be late for dinner, Pearl vanished and has not been seen since.

This weekend, several major news organizations received an e-mail with photographs showing the 38-year-old American journalist with his wrists chained together alternately holding a recent newspaper and sitting with a gun to his head.

The e-mail said Pearl was being held in "very inhuman" conditions similar to the way Pakistanis and others are "being kept in Cuba by the American Army." The e-mail demanded the return of Pakistanis being held at Guantanamo Bay, the provision of lawyers for Pakistanis detained in the U.S., and the delivery to Pakistan of embargoed F-16 fighter jets. The e-mail accused Pearl of being a CIA agent, a claim that has been denied by both the intelligence agency and the "Wall Street Journal."

A group calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Pakistani police believe the previously unknown organization is a front name for the kidnappers, who may be connected with another extremist group.

So far, officials have established that Pearl had been communicating with a man named Bashir, an alleged representative of Harkat ul-Mujahedin, a radical Pakistani Islamic group that is included on the U.S. list of groups and individuals suspected of terrorism.

Bashir reportedly told Pearl that he could arrange an interview with a Sheik Mubarik Ali Gilani, who heads Jammat ul-Fuqra, an obscure Pakistani-based militant organization included on earlier U.S. terrorist watchlists but dropped in 1997. Pearl was investigating links between Gilani and Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," who has been charged with trying to blow up an American airplane en route from Paris to the U.S. last month.

For two weeks, Bashir and Pearl communicated by phone and e-mail and had at least one face-to-face meeting. Bashir then recommended Pearl meet with a leader of the Harkat organization, who would in turn take him to meet Gilani. Gilani disappeared the same day as Pearl. He has not been heard from since.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is the deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He tells RFE/RL he believes Pearl's disappearance is, in fact, tied to the detention of Pakistani nationals at Guantanamo Bay. Ranstorp says Jammat ul-Fuqra has long-standing ties with Osama bin Laden and has a history of kidnapping bystanders to secure the release of members of their organization.

"As the pens are being filled up [in Guantanamo Bay], then, I wouldn't be surprised if there would be [even] more kidnappings in order to pressure the release of Pakistanis. It is my belief that the U.S. military will release most of the Pakistanis given that they, themselves, will be a destabilizing influence within Pakistan. And the second issue is that it was already identified as a tactical mission to free imprisoned brothers in jail according to Al-Qaeda. They lay out specified generic targets."

Ranstorp says that while the U.S. is likely to turn over Pakistani nationals, it will not be in capitulation to the kidnappers' demands. He says the U.S. might have an agreement already in place with Pakistani authorities and that Pearl's kidnapping will add only a small amount of additional pressure.

But Ranstorp says the release of Pakistanis from Guantanamo will not happen anytime soon. In the meantime, he says, it will prove extremely difficult for Pakistani police to find Pearl.

"It's very difficult, because [there] is a sea of militants in Pakistan. They're sympathetic. Even before this military action against Afghanistan, one-third of the Pakistani military and the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service) were sympathetic to the Taliban. And then you have all the militant groups. [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf is balancing himself. He has a handle on the situation. He's replaced many of the commanders. But it won't be easy to find [Pearl] because many of these groups have been heavily pressurized subsequent to the military action."

U.S. officials and intelligence agencies are reportedly working with Pakistani police to track down Pearl. France has also weighed in on the issue in representation of Pearl's wife, Mariane, a French citizen who traveled to Karachi with her husband and is currently six months pregnant with their first child.

Veronica Forwood, a spokeswoman for the Paris-based group Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders), says Pearl's kidnapping reflects the increasing risks journalists face in covering international terrorism in the wake of 11 September.

"There's no question that since September 11th and the conflict in Afghanistan and the deaths of journalists -- eight journalists -- in Afghanistan since this conflict began, I think makes us realize how very much more risky things have become especially in that part of the world. There are parts of the world where journalists routinely run risks -- in Latin America and so on. But this has been a huge increase in the risk and in the killings of journalists, [which] has gone up enormously."

Forwood says, however, that the trend of targeting journalists began long before the war on terrorism began.

"Even before September 11, we've noticed a trend whereby journalists who've been killed or been attacked have increasingly been targeted by a number of different groups. [They're] not simply people who've been caught in the crossfire, which was more common several years ago. I think there is a recognizable trend, whereby journalists are seen more as a legitimate target or bargaining chip in a way that they weren't, in which their independence was respected previously. The whole trend is very worrying."

Pearl is the first foreign journalist to be kidnapped in Pakistan in the past four months, but his disappearance occurred just one day after a Pakistani reporter for "Time" magazine was detained in Karachi and held for more than 30 hours. The people who held reporter Ghulam Hasnain have not been identified, although it has been rumored that he was held by Pakistani officials. So far, "Time" magazine has not reveled the details of Hasnain's detention and it remains unclear whether the two events are related.

Forwood says the risks are only likely to increase as journalists continue to investigate stories related to Al-Qaeda and international terrorist groups. She says that while investigative journalists must take risks in pursuing a story, they are on unfamiliar ground in dealing with unknown and untrustworthy sources. She says that while journalists like Pearl do their best to minimize the risks of reporting, the only way to be completely safe is not to report at all.