Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The very form of this book explains how its author, Bernard-Henri Lévy, could dare to visit the sites associated with the last days of Daniel Pearl and the lives of the men who murdered him. Lévy claimed to be writing a novel of the affair in order to explain his need to see the places and talk with the individuals associated with it.

The search began with the victim, Danny Pearl. Who was this Jewish reporter who was in Pakistan investigating the al-Qaeda leaders who had taken refuge in the country, some of them living quite openly and preaching hatred of “the crusaders”? Pearl’s family was Israeli, and his politics were left of center. He spoke Hebrew and Arabic but had resisted being stranded in the pigeonhole of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After covering news around the world, he had become expert on the complexities of politics, religion, and social change in India and Pakistan; he was living in India with his pregnant wife, Mariane. He was a likeable person, knowledgeable and courageous. On January 23, 2002, he went to meet a potentially important source, Gilani, the teacher of Richard Reid, who had been arrested aboard a plane in December while trying to ignite a bomb in his shoe. Pearl was kidnapped.

The kidnappers first asked for a ransom which included the delivery of F-16 warplanes to Pakistan. Then they changed their minds and called in Yemeni killers who slit Pearl’s throat and distributed a video of the grisly act. For unexplained reasons they cut the body into numerous pieces, then reassembled them for burial in the garden of the house where Pearl was slain.

As American investigators flooded the country, with implied threats of retaliation for noncooperation, Pakistani police arrested Omar Sheikh and three accomplices. He freely admitted his guilt. This was not his first kidnapping—in 1994 he had attempted to force India to release a terrorist captured in Kashmir. Sentenced to a long term in prison, he had been released five years later in return for freeing a skyjacked Indian airliner. Omar was very familiar with the West. He was born in England to immigrant Pakistani parents. Their successful export-import business subsidized an elite education that gave him the accent and manners of the upper class; his acquaintances considered him a perfect Englishman. He was a strong chess player and even more formidable in arm wrestling. His most notable oddity was a paralyzing shyness around girls—a true Muslim should not look upon the face of a woman. Another was his fixation on Muslim suffering in Bosnia.

It was Omar who promised to take Pearl to Gilani, who knew everyone in the terrorist movements. It was Omar, proud of his intelligence and knowledge of computers and other Western technologies, who left a trail of e-mail and phone messages that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) easily followed. Once arrested, he remained confident that either highly placed officials or his terrorist friends would soon procure his release. He admitted his guilt, gave details of the plot, described his military training in Afghanistan, and even wrote a prison diary describing not only this kidnapping but also the earlier one. He had begun to reshape his past, to make it more heroic, more Islamic. Lévy’s research demolished the most important myths, but he discovered that behind Omar’s many aliases and identities there was a consummate actor who knew how to please the men who held power.

Lévy was able to penetrate the labyrinthine world of Islamic terrorism, a feat that American and Pakistani police had not been able to achieve. Indian, Israeli, French, and occasionally Pakistani experts shared information that led him from one of Omar’s past associates to another. With each interview, the terrorists’ supporters became more suspicious. The closer he came to the story that Pearl had been following, the more dangerous the game became.

Lévy learned several things. First, few of the terrorists were deeply religious. They believed in the jihad, the obligation to make holy war, and, therefore, the pretexts (Israel, Kashmir, imperialism) were little more than opportunities to act. Second, the Pakistani secret service (ISI) was heavily infiltrated by sympathizers of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who put their loyalty to international Islam above Pakistan....

(The entire section is 1759 words.)