Did US gratitude for Afghanistan and the ISI’s dire need for fresh terrorist faces in J&K precipitate the release of Omar Sheikh?
The grisly murder of Daniel Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, in Karachi, Pakistan, in January 2002, is more deeply etched in public memory than most other terrorist acts primarily due the barbarity with which Pearl’s beheading was video-graphed by his killers and released for the world to see. Pearl’s killing had provoked widespread international condemnation, and went on to inspire emotion-laden books and feature films. In July 2002, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, was sentenced with uncharacteristic alacrity by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan to death by hanging for Pearl’s abduction and murder. Others indicted in the case with Omar Sheikh received life imprisonment.
Reports over the last two days indicate that the Sindh High Court on 2 April, 18 long years after his appeal was initially filed, converted the death sentence of the mastermind of Pearl’s killing, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, to a seven-year imprisonment. Since Sheikh has been in prison for the past 18 years, his seven-year sentence will be deemed as served and he can be released. The court has also acquitted three other co-accused in the case.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is no run-of-the-mill terrorist. Born into a wealthy family in London, he attended public schools there that catered to the progeny of the affluent and later went on to enroll at the London School of Economics. While studying there, he went off to Bosnia in 1992, at the peak of the Bosnian war, ostensibly to coordinate relief efforts for Muslims. The Guardian quoted journalist Syed Ali Hasan, who studied with Omar Sheikh at Forest School and at the London School of Economics, as saying that Sheikh, who was “bright but rather dysfunctional”, had “told us he was going to Bosnia driving aid convoys, and he never came back to university”. In Bosnia, Sheikh reportedly met up with mujahideen fighters supporting the Bosnian forces against the Serbs and Croats. He fell ill at Split, near the Croatian border, and Abdur Raif, a Pakistani who had fought in Afghanistan, helped him recuperate. Raif encouraged Sheikh to join the jihadis in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sheikh arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1994. He joined the Harkat-ul Ansar (HuA), which was subsequently renamed Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM) after the US banned the HuA in the mid-1990s. Sheikh later returned to Britain to drop his dual Pakistani and British nationality for a British one in order to get an Indian visa. He was infiltrated by HuM into Indian-Administered Jammu & Kashmir with the instructions to kidnap Western tourists for ransom. During one such attempt involving the kidnapping of an American and three British backpackers, Sheikh was apprehended and incarcerated by Indian security forces. However, such was his value for his actual handlers, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that it not only paid for Sheikh's legal fees when he was under arrest in India, but also played a key role in securing his release. Sheikh was among only 3 Pakistan-backed terrorists, along with Masood Azhar, who went on to set up the J&K-focused terrorist group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and HuM leader Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who were eventually narrowed down upon in the list of terrorists that the hijackers and their handlers demanded in exchange for the passengers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 which had been hijacked by a group of Pakistani terrorists and taken to Kandahar in December 1999.
The ISI’s hand in the hijacking of IC-814 is well documented. Vanity Fair revealed in August 2002 that after his release, Sheikh stayed at a Kandahar guesthouse for several days. An ISI Colonel then escorted him to a safe house in Pakistan. The London Times on 2 February 2002 reported that the then United States (US) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had “acknowledged reports that Omar Sheikh may have been an asset” of the ISI.
More recently, Myra Macdonald, the former India bureau chief of Reuters, in her book released in July 2018 titled ‘Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan lost the Great South Asian War', quoted India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval as saying that the hijackers were actively being supported by the ISI. He added that “The ISI had removed all the pressure we were trying to put on the hijackers”, and that even their safe exit was guaranteed, so they had no need to negotiate an escape route. Doval was among the Indian officials tasked with negotiating with the hijackers in Kandahar.
Newsweek, in March 2002, reported that after his return to Pakistan, Sheikh joined Azhar’s JeM and “lived openly - and opulently - in a wealthy Lahore neighborhood. US sources say he did little to hide his connections to terrorist organizations, and even attended swanky parties attended by senior Pakistani government officials”. Newsweek added that “The US government inferred that he was a ‘protected asset’ of the ISI”. Reports also outlined Sheikh’s involvement with the 9/11 attacks in the US. The Telegraph claimed on 30 September 2001 that Sheikh had helped train the 9/11 hijackers in Afghanistan. He also reportedly helped devise a secure, encrypted web-based communications system for Al Qaeda. Significantly, it also emerged that Sheikh may have been the person who had wired money to some of the 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, between June 2000 and the day before 9/11. On 6 October 2001, CNN revealed that “US investigators now believe Sheik Syed, using the alias Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad, sent more than $100,000 from Pakistan to Mohamed Atta”. CNN confirmed that this was the same Saeed Sheikh who had been released from an Indian prison in 1999.
On October 7, 2001, Pakistani dictator turned President Pervez Musharraf fired Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the ISI. The Pakistani daily Dawn reported on 9 October 2001 that “Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed has been replaced after the FBI investigators established credible links between him and Umar Sheikh, one of the three militants released in exchange for passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane in 1999… Informed sources said there were enough indications with the US intelligence agencies that it was at Gen. Mahmood’s instruction that Sheikh had transferred 100,000 US dollars into the account of Mohammed Atta…”. The Wall Street Journal also reported the following day that “The US authorities… confirm the fact that $100,000 was wired to WTC hijacker Mohammed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the insistence of General Mahmood”.
In January 2002 Daniel Pearl came into contact with Sheikh, whom he viewed as a potential source while researching a radical Pakistani Islamic leader, Sheikh Mubarik Ali Gilani, who had been linked to the so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid who had tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. As Abi Wright of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote in 2006, “Instead of helping Pearl land a scoop, the meeting with Saeed set events in motion that led to his entrapment, kidnapping, and murder, US officials say, at the hands of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States”. The Guardian reported that a photograph of Pearl, bound in chains, was traced to Sheikh and while the latter was in the custody of the Pakistani authorities, a video of Pearl's cold-blooded decapitation was sent to the US Consulate in Karachi. As per Wright, Saeed had turned himself in to police on February 12, 2002, but he told a court in Karachi that he had first surrendered to the ISI one week earlier in Lahore. What took place during his time with the ISI is not known, but Pearl's family believed that Saeed's association with the ISI appeared to be protecting him. Mariane Pearl, Daniel’s wife, told CPJ that “He is kind of untouchable”. She had no doubt that it was the ISI that was behind the delay in implementing the death verdict against Sheikh. She added, “Pakistan itself cannot carry out the sentence. That tells you about the power of the ISI”.
The CPJ added that “Saeed, the mastermind of the kidnapping, is on death row but is delaying his appeals amid allegations that he is protected by Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). He has also violated Pakistani prison rules for death row inmates by making contact with the outside world from his prison cell. It seems uncertain he will ever be executed, according to the Pearl family, who are frustrated by the slowness of the investigation and want Saeed's sentence carried out”. It quoted Daniel Pearl's father, Judea Pearl, as saying, “Obviously the court allows them to play the game of delay for some reason. It is obviously also conducted from the top in the sense that the regime is not interested in executing the sentence”.
How important Sheikh was in the ISI’s scheme of things is clear from the foregoing. Two consequent fundamental issues, however, are not as obvious. The first relates to why, despite enjoying the full blessings and support of the ISI, did Sheikh have to undergo 18 long years of incarceration, even if it had been revealed along the way that he enjoyed considerable freedoms including to direct operations in the outside world from his prison cell. The second is why the ISI choose this particular moment to nudge the court to deliver a verdict favourable to Sheikh.
The public outrage in the period following Pearl’s killing and the consequent relentless US pressure on Pakistan to act against the culprits had left the ISI with very little leeway. It recognized that it could not get away with something that would purely and obviously be an eyewash. A cable from the US Embassy in Islamabad in 2009, several years after Sheikh’s sentencing, asserted that “Post will follow up on this matter in political channels to ensure that Sheikh's conviction and sentence stay in force”. This reflected the importance the US accorded to the matter. The ground situation, with an angry US just having barged in loaded, with weapons cocked, into Afghanistan, and having bulldozed Pakistan to coalesce, was heavily tilted in favour of the US. Pakistan was also under severe pressure from the US to act against terror networks operating on its soil.
The short memory and myopic policies of President Donald Trump’s reign have diluted the US resolve of yesteryears. As M. Ilyas Khan of the BBC wrote, “the present ruling has come at a time when the mood in the US and the rest of the world has changed and nobody seems to be worried about the terrorists of the past”. The fact that Pakistan delivered the Taliban to the negotiating table at a time when President Trump desperately wanted it to do so would, in no small measure, have emboldened the Pakistani military establishment to take some liberties. Pakistan’s assessment would be that it can, at least for the moment, test, even stretch, the US’ red lines as it believes that the US is beholden to it for delivering on the Taliban, on which a quick exit for US troops from Afghanistan depended. Such an exit was high on Trump’s wish list as it was a promise he had made before being elected four years ago, and will be a factor at the next elections which are just a few short months away.
As for the second question, the Pakistani military establishment has never in the last several decades been as much at a loss on how to further its J&K agenda as it has been since August 2019. India has, since 5 August last year, altered the playing field in J&K beyond recognition, cut off Pakistan from its separatist and terrorist proxies in the Kashmir valley, robustly bolstered its own security presence in the valley, and dominated the diplomatic space by rendering Pakistan’s outcry and protestations peripheral and ineffective. India has simultaneously successfully branded Pakistan as the international epicenter of terrorism. All the existing ISI terrorist proxies for Kashmir, including the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), stand hopeless exposed and are hence under unprecedented scrutiny and strain. Things have reached such a pass that the ISI has been constrained to even ‘imprison’ the LeT chief, Hafiz Saeed, and send Masood Azhar deep into hiding while claiming that he has ‘disappeared’. The musical chairs that the ISI played in Kashmir with the LeT, the JeM, and the likes of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) appears to be a thing of the past now. It is these desperate circumstances that may have prompted the ISI to view Sheikh, its old and trusted Kashmir hand with a cruel streak to boot, as the one person who could help reignite terrorism in the Kashmir valley.
Whether the ISI is clutching at straws by burdening the 46-year old Sheikh, just out after spending 18 years in prison, with its rather unrealistic expectations, or whether Sheikh will actually live up to the ISI’s expectations and emulate the likes of Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and Syed Salahuddin, to name a few, only time will tell.