I don’t believe that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, as the American government recently declared, first to Pearl’s widow, Marian Pearl, and then to the press.
On the surface, of course, the hypothesis is not absurd.
Nor is it a new theory, having been written about in numerous places, at least since it was mentioned in a Time magazine article of February 3, 2003, about the confession, several months earlier, of an eyewitness to the murder, Fazel Karim. Moreover, I myself analyzed the idea at the end of my book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, when I wrote about my last visit to Islamabad, which happened to exactly coincide with Mohammed’s arrest in nearby Rawalpindi.
However, after further investigation, I nevertheless discount the U.S. government’s claim, and for three reasons.
One of probability: The fate of Daniel Pearl was very important in the eyes of the Pakistani jihadists (I would be the last one to underestimate their need to render Pearl silent), and what we know about the functioning of their network prohibits us from thinking that Mohammed, Osama bin Laden’s number-three man and the chief of operations of al Qaeda, personally took the trouble and risk to go to Gulzar e-Hijiri to do with his own hands what any underling could have done just as well.
One of principle: The theory rests on the idea, developed some time ago by ex–CIA Agent Robert Baer, that Daniel Pearl was investigating not Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, or his guru, Sheikh Mubarik Gilani, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But, having closely reconstructed the Wall Street Journal correspondent’s actions during his final days, I did not find evidence of this, and neither the memorandum filed with investigators by Marian Pearl nor the testimony of Pearl’s local fixers indicates that he was on the trail of Mohammed.
And, finally, one of fact: I must be one of the few independent observers to have had access to the transcript of the police interrogation of Fazel Karim, in which it was recounted very precisely what the “three Yemenis” who came that last morning to carry out Pearl’s execution looked like. My notes remind me: Apart from the fact that I don’t remember Mohammed being cited at any time in the transcript, nothing even in Karim’s description of the men corresponds to the image of Mohammed that we know.
So then, the question becomes, as it always does in these cases, why? What interest or purpose is served by this bizarre revelation, fallen as if from the sky, and, making things stranger still, presented to us as coming from anonymous sources? I do not doubt the good faith of the investigators, who are doing their best, even when going astray, in their search for the truth. But I do not doubt either, alas, the possibility that this “Operation Mohammed” functions as a protective smoke screen.
For my Pakistani friends, for all who struggle for democracy in that country and consider discovering the truth about the Pearl affair as a test, the matter is very clear: To stress the responsibility of Mohammed inevitably means blurring the guilt of Omar Sheikh, the mastermind of Pearl’s abduction, who is now condemned to death in Pakistan. And casting a spotlight on al Qaeda and its former third in command also means, deliberately or not, turning the same light away from Pakistan’s ISI intelligence services, of which there is ample evidence to show that Omar is an agent.
It could well be that this sudden placement of blame on one of the chiefs of this cold, stateless monster that is bin Laden’s organization comes at this appointed moment to turn our attention away from the Pakistani scene, where many analysts have lingered with an insistence that has become embarrassing to both the U.S. and Pakistani governments.
My fear, in other words, is that the American administration has not taken full measure of the many ambiguities represented not so much by the regime of Pervez Musharraf, but by the U.S.’s unconditional alliance with it. My fear is that the “news” about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed represents the effort, once again, to protect Islamabad at any cost.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher and the author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?