The South Asia Channel

Saif al-Adel and the death of Daniel Pearl

The reported naming of the Egyptian Saif al-Adel as the “interim” leader of al Qaeda may mark the opening of a new chapter in al Qaeda’s history and the United States’ ongoing struggle against the group. But a closer look at al-Adel’s past reveals details about another problem that plagues us today, the dangerous nexus ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The reported naming of the Egyptian Saif al-Adel as the “interim” leader of al Qaeda may mark the opening of a new chapter in al Qaeda’s history and the United States’ ongoing struggle against the group. But a closer look at al-Adel’s past reveals details about another problem that plagues us today, the dangerous nexus between al Qaeda and the Pakistani militancy. It’s an intersection that plays out not only in remote tribal areas in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in the heart of Pakistan in urban centers such as Karachi, the Manhattan of Pakistan with Pizza Huts, McDonald’s, and a slippery network of back alleys teeming with militancy and radicalism.

Rather than being a recent development, the close working relationship of these different networks emerged dramatically nine years ago, after the Jan. 23, 2002, kidnapping of Wall Street Journal Islamabad bureau chief Daniel Pearl. In reporting released earlier this year by the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigative reporting project at Georgetown University that I co-direct, we reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, was sitting comfortably in Karachi on Pakistan’s western coast when he got a call from Saif al-Adel (whose real name is reportedly Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi) that sent him across town to take over the kidnapping of Pearl, setting off a chain of events that would culminate in the latter’s execution.

Al-Adel had significant clout at the time not only in al Qaeda, but also in other militant circles. He is said to be between 48 and 51 years old, and by most accounts once served as a Colonel in the Egyptian special forces. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, al-Adel reportedly provided military and intelligence training to al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad members in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. Pakistani militants trained alongside their former Arab comrades from the anti-Soviet struggle, taking in the same lessons and much of the same ideology. The FBI wants him in connection with the 1998 East Africa U.S. Embassy bombings, and KSM told FBI agents that al-Adel may have dispatched “shoe bomber” Richard Reid to Karachi to meet with KSM to discuss Reid’s plan to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet.

Pearl was chasing a story trying to identify Reid’s facilitator when he stumbled across the path of Omar Sheikh, a British-Pakistani militant who had been arrested in 1994 in New Delhi, India, for kidnapping foreign tourists, including an American. In 1999, Sheikh was released in exchange for passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane. He was flown to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where, according to his interrogation file, none other than Osama bin Laden, who was living at the time at the Kandahar airport, threw him and other released Pakistani militant leaders a party for “iftar,” the daily sunset meal when Muslims break their fasts during Ramadan. Omar Sheikh slipped quietly into Pakistan, stopping first in Karachi before settling down in his hometown of Lahore. In January 2002, the United States was pressing for Sheikh’s extradition, but he was wandering freely in Pakistan, newly-married and the proud father of a young son, when he learned of Pearl’s reporting.

Sheikh laid a trap in Karachi, where he had a trusted network of militant contacts, leading Pearl there on the promise of an interview with a Muslim cleric suspected of being Reid’s facilitator. Pearl left my home in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, and never returned. Within days, we received a “proof of life” — ransom photos of Pearl with a gun to his head.

The kidnapping did not, however, start as an al Qaeda operation. While Shaikh had extensive contacts with the al Qaeda leadership, he instead relied on his network, which would eventually include militants affiliated with an alphabet soup of Pakistani militant organizations that have emerged as the Punjabi Taliban: Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Harkat-ul-Islamiya (HUI), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group believed to be responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack.

KSM told FBI agents that he didn’t know who had contacted al-Adel about Pearl, but, according to our investigation, there were only two operational cells in Pakistan that had knowledge of Pearl’s location, and they included only Pakistani militants. There were seven non-al Qaeda Pakistan militants in the logistics cell that trapped Pearl. They were led mostly by local “emirs,” or leaders, of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Another 10 non-al Qaeda Pakistani militants were in the cell holding Pearl. They were affiliated with Harkat ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Harkat-ul-Islamiya, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, reflecting the fluid nature and overlap of Pakistan’s militant groups.

They also often worked with al Qaeda. In a Pakistani police interrogation report, one of the Pakistani militants said that one of his jobs was to help al Qaeda hide in Pakistan. He said he ferried Arab members of al Qaeda from Quetta to Karachi, disguising them as patients in ambulances. 

Our research has shown that KSM told FBI agents that his al Qaeda colleague told him about Pearl, seeing in Pearl’s kidnapping an opportunity for the group, as Pearl’s Pakistani jailers were at a loss for what to do with the journalist. The account of al-Adel’s involvement with the Pearl murder was confirmed in Guantanamo documents recently uploaded onto the Internet by WikiLeaks. In these documents, KSM claimed that al-Adel told him not to murder Pearl, however, telling his interrogators that al-Adel advised him that Pearl should be “returned back to one of the previous groups who held him, or freed.” At this point it was too late — Mohammed said he sought the advice of another al Qaeda leader, Sharif al-Masri, the group’s chief financial officer. The two men “disagreed” with al-Adel on what to do with Pearl, with KSM ultimately siding with al-Masri. But without al-Adel’s original intervention, it may not have come to this point at all.

After making his decision, KSM went across town to the compound where Pearl was being held with a bag filled with important tools for his bloody work: a butcher’s knife and a video camera. Within hours, Pearl was dead at KSM’s hands. Within weeks, one of the Pakistani foot soldiers who held Pearl down, Fazal Karim,a member of Harkat-ul Mujahideen, handed a propaganda video showing the gruesome murder to a Pakistani courier, who delivered it soon after to an FBI agent in the marble lobby of the Karachi Sheraton.

Nine years later, the intermingling of al Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups continues, and the United States still grapples with the consequences. One of the leaders of Pearl’s kidnapping, Mati-ur Rehman, is on Pakistan’s Most Wanted list, allegedly making suicide vests in Waziristan, for use against coalition forces in Afghanistan. And some experts believe that al-Adel also may be in Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal frontier, home both to groups fighting with, and against, the Pakistani state. And al Qaeda remains tied to both, on Pakistan’s edges and deep in its populated center.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She teaches journalism at Georgetown University and is a cultural trainer to the U.S. military and law enforcement.