Even now, 18 years after his murder at the hands of terrorists in Pakistan, there is no better symbol of the ideological intersection between Islamism, anti-Semitism and hatred of the United States than Daniel Pearl.
Pearl, an American Jewish journalist who was running The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Islamabad at the time of his death, was kidnapped and murdered in January 2002. He was abducted in the city of Karachi, where he had traveled—just four months after the Sept. 11, 2001 atrocities carried out by Al-Qaeda in the United States—to research a story about Islamist activity in Pakistan.
At the time, there was no bigger story for a foreign correspondent to be working on, and the deeply talented Pearl certainly had no intention of becoming the story himself. This fate was imposed on him by his kidnappers, a motley crew of Pakistani Islamists whose ranks included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
About a month after Pearl disappeared in Karachi, a video was delivered to the U.S. Consulate there. The tape showed Pearl delivering a scripted speech in which he was forced to denounce the United States and Israel. His final words were, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” He was then beheaded.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who proudly confessed to carrying out this savage killing, remains in detention at Guantánamo Bay. Mohammed subsequently boasted of killing Pearl on a number of occasions, and in March 2007, he described his act to a U.S. military tribunal in the following way: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” he said. “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the internet holding his head.”
Mohammed was not alone. One of his accomplices was Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death by a court in Pakistan on three separate charges related to his orchestrating of Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. That death sentence, however, was never carried out. Last week, an appeal court in Karachi overturned Sheikh’s convictions for murder and terrorism. The third conviction, kidnapping for ransom, was downgraded to simple kidnapping, and Sheikh’s sentence was reduced to seven years.
The Karachi state prosecutor has said that he will appeal the court’s shocking decision at Pakistan’s Supreme Court and will also seek to keep Sheikh behind bars until that appeal is heard. The judicial process isn’t over, then, but there is no disputing the enormity of this blow to the fight against both Islamist violence and the ideologies that fuel it.
Almost two decades after 9/11, the jihadis remain a powerful force in Pakistan, as the decision in the Pearl case grimly demonstrates. At a time of anxious debate in foreign-policy circles about the future of Afghanistan in the wake of the Trump administration’s recent peace deal with the Taliban, we now face the distinct possibility that one of Daniel Pearl’s murderers, along with a cohort of the man who was described by the 9/11 commission as the “mastermind” of that slaughter, will walk to freedom.
Sheikh, in fact, is one of the earliest examples we have of a European-born Muslim engaging in terrorist activities in the Islamic world. A British national, he grew up in the London home of his prosperous immigrant parents. Rather eerily, like Pearl, Sheikh attended the London School of Economics—though his deepening association with Islamist groups meant that he dropped out without graduating, eventually surfacing in India in 1994, where he served a five-year prison sentence for the abduction of Western tourists.
His example has since been followed by hundreds of other angry young European Muslims, who similarly traveled to the Middle East and South Asia to join terrorist groups like ISIS. Should his release go forward, Sheikh will become that rare thing—a jihadi who achieved legendary status not through “martyrdom,” but through hunkering down and defeating the system that imprisoned him. That is not an outcome that any Western government should desire.
In the coming months, there will be lots of talk about how “pandemics” have replaced “terrorism” as the No. 1 threat to global security—somewhat ironically, given that ISIS has embraced the COVID-19 virus as a “Soldier of Allah.” The decision to free Pearl’s killer reminds us why it’s a dangerous mistake to view the passage of history as a series of self-contained episodes. For threats never really disappear; rather, they adapt and often regain lost strength as they do so. The cost of handing Sheikh a moral victory may not be apparent today, but will that be the case five years from now?
The vigilance that terrorism demands applies equally to the other aspect of Daniel Pearl’s ordeal: anti-Semitism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there were many voices, especially on the European left, who argued that Al-Qaeda’s actions were a response to the “occupation” of Palestinian territories by Israel. A closely related argument held that the Islamists were not opposed to Jews as a religion, but to Zionism as a colonial movement and the State of Israel as a colonial entity.
Pearl’s gruesome murder—and the agonizing pride in his heritage that marked his final words—drove a stake through that argument. Yes, his killers saw him as a representative of a degenerate Western culture, and as a citizen of the Great Satan, and as a journalist for an imperialist organ. But above all, they saw him as a Jew.
That is no accident: Islamist ideologues depict the alleged power of Jews in much the same way as the European far-right, with the same near-mystical enmity as an accompaniment. The war which the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden fought against America and its allies was hailed by him as a struggle against “the Jews and Crusaders.” The commuting of Sheikh’s death sentence sounds a warning that this struggle is not quite over.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.