July 15, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Shyam Bhatia

The British-Pakistani former public schoolboy, who was sentenced to death on July 15 for the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, had been the object of interest for months for Western intelligence experts who suspected that he was a key tactician in Osama bin Laden's terrorist organisation.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, 29, who was captured in Lahore on February 12, 2002, had admitted to his involvement in Pearl's abduction on January 23, 2002. In the trial court in Hyderabad, Sind, he declared that Pearl was dead, but refused to give details about the murder or where the body had been hidden.

The death sentence, which can be appealed against, is only the latest in the journey of Sheikh, who was once praised as a brilliant and courteous student, was the apple of his parents' eyes, and attended the same private school as England cricket captain Nasser Hussain.

Although it was the Pearl case that turned up the heat on Sheikh and led to his subsequent capture by the Pakistani police, security experts across three continents believe that he is no common criminal, but someone who was deeply involved with Al Qaeda.

Former tutors and classmates of Sheikh at Forest School, England, recall a brilliant boy. One tutor, remembering Sheikh's excellence at chess, described him as a "jolly good brain, willing and capable". Contemporaries such as Nasser Hussain recall a polite, charming, and bright young man, fond of arm-wrestling, who once competed in the professional world championships.

It was Sheikh's competence in mathematics and computers that would take him to the higher echelons of Osama bin Laden's organisation. But none of this could have been foreseen when his parents arrived from Pakistan and set up a successful clothing business in London's East End.

Neighbours still remember Sheikh and his younger brother Owais playing on the streets outside their home. Some neighbours, incidentally, claim that Sheikh visited his home in London secretly last year. But Owais, who refuses to be drawn into his brother's whereabouts, only repeats a prepared statement: "The family's position is that we haven't made a comment about him. We will not be drawn on it."

At the age of 18 in 1992, Sheikh had graduated from his private school with four 'A' levels, with grades of A and B in two each. And with the London School of Economics accepting him, his future looked bright and he seemed set for a successful career.

All that changed within a year.

The LSE, which had once produced an entire generation of Indian freedom fighters and political scientists like Harold Laski, had become a hunting ground for Islamic extremists determined to pull in fresh recruits for their cause of an international jihad. Two organisations in particular were active on the campus and a headhunter from one of them is thought to have been responsible for Sheikh's recruitment.

Sheikh joined an Islamic aid expedition to Bosnia where local Muslims were pitted in battle against Christian Serbs. Many Muslims from around the world were drawn into this conflict, hoping to help their Islamic brethren. From those scenes of horror and mass murder of entire communities, Sheikh returned to London a changed man.

He had grown a beard and on his return in December 1993 showed little interest in his studies. Within weeks, he dropped out of LSE and flew to Pakistan where he joined militants of the Harkatul Mujahideen.

He was dispatched for training to Khost in Afghanistan, an important Al Qaeda centre, where he learnt the use of explosives and was put in charge of groups operating in Jammu & Kashmir. One of his first operations, at age 20, in which he was personally involved, was the kidnapping of an American and three British tourists who were holidaying in India.

One British tourist, Trevor Mathews, who accidentally avoided Sheikh's trap, recalled meeting one 'Rohit Sharma', an alias used by Sheikh, in Old Delhi. 'Sharma' spoke of his east London background and his passion for chess.

The four other Western tourists had no idea that the sophisticated young man with a pucca English accent whom they had met in New Delhi was not an Indian citizen, but a militant holding British and Pakistani passports and trying to lure them into a trap, a wolf in disguise.

He abducted the American and three Britons by inviting them to stay at his house in Delhi, where he handcuffed them and chained them to stakes driven into the ground.

One of the British captives, Paul Ridout, would later describe how "we were kept like animals". Ridout testified how Sheikh and the rest of the militant gang threatened to behead them if New Delhi refused to meet their demands, which included the release of terrorists incarcerated in Indian jails, including Harkat leader Masoud Azhar.

But for the local police, who managed to locate the hideout and carried out a rescue mission, all four tourists would probably have been killed. Sheikh was shot and wounded in the shoulder and spent the next five years in jail.

By all accounts, he would have still been cooling his heels in jail, but for the efforts of Al Qaeda.

In December 1999, terrorists hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, which was flying from Kathmandu to New Delhi, in what is believed to have been a dress rehearsal for the September 11 hijackings in the United States. During a refuelling stop in the United Arab Emirates, Rupin Katyal, an Indian passenger on board, was slashed with knives and slowly bled to death in front of the other horrified passengers and crew.

The hijackers demanded the release of Sheikh, Harkatul Mujahideen leader Masoud Azhar and another imprisoned militant, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. All three were released from custody and flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan, where they were exchanged for the hijack victims in a deal brokered by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

While Masoud Azhar disappeared into Pakistan, Sheikh stayed behind at one of Laden's bases in Afghanistan, where intelligence experts believe he was entrusted with setting up an international communications network for Al Qaeda.

The subsequent cracking of parts of this communications network has led intelligence agencies in Washington and London to believe that Sheikh was one of Laden's most trusted confidants and played a key role in the September 11 attacks.

Senior intelligence officials in India have also told their Western counterparts that they believe Sheikh took charge of the US $100,000 that was paid as ransom for kidnapped Indian millionaire Partha Roy Burman in July 2001. It is believed that Sheikh later sent the money to Mohammed Atta, leader of the teams that carried out the September 11 attacks.

Western intelligence experts say Sheikh tried to raise ransom money from Pearl's abduction to help Al Qaeda stage another spectacular attack against the US or Britain. Emails sent out by the kidnappers had demanded US $2 million in ransom and the release of Al Qaeda suspects held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

No one is under any illusion about what Sheikh was capable of doing. In the words of senior officers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who visited South Asia, it was always a question of whether Sheikh was caught before or after he committed another atrocity.


The Daniel Pearl Murder Case: The complete coverage

America's War on Terror: The complete coverage

The Attack on US Cities: The complete coverage

Nightmare on Flight 814: The complete coverage

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