Courtesy of the Daniel Pearl Foundation
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, 38, was abducted and murdered in Pakistan in 2002.
Friends, colleagues discuss slain WSJ reporter and the dangers journalists face in the Middle East
by BRENDAN MCGARRY
Daniel Pearl met a gruesome end.
The Wall Street Journal reporter and expectant father was investigating the links between Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s secret intelligence service when he was kidnapped in Karachi in 2002. After several days in captivity, he was beheaded, dismembered and buried in pieces in a nondescript courtyard.
Last week at American University’s Greenberg Theater, friends and colleagues remembered him as a passionate journalist who dedicated himself to better understanding the culture of the Middle East.
“Danny definitely did not want to die,” said Asra Nomani, a colleague of his at the Journal. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, thousands of Western journalists were lining up to enter Afghanistan, but not Danny, she said. “He would say, ‘I’m dying to go into Afghanistan, but I’m not dying to die.'”
Nomani stars in “The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl.” The documentary kicked off the School of Communication’s 4th annual “Reel Journalism: Screenings and Symposia,” which seeks to highlight how journalism can bring about positive change in the world.
After the screening, Nomani spoke on a panel that included Ahmed Jamal, the director of the film; Gerald Seib, the Journal’s Washington bureau chief; and moderator and longtime foreign correspondent Kevin McKiernan.
The film explores the tragic collision of the lives of Pearl and Omar Sheik, a British-born Muslim who studied at an elite private school in London before embracing militant Islam. Sheik is portrayed as a mild-mannered chess champion obsessed with independence and strength. Footage shows him competing in arm wrestling contests in dingy clubs.
Jamal said he originally wanted the film to take a more critical look at Sheik, and how young Islamic men with good backgrounds can “turn into monsters” — “why British-born Asians who are well-assimilated are blowing things up?” But Sheik’s family wouldn’t talk, he said.
Sheik, whose death sentence has been appealed 33 times, attended the prestigious London School of Economics before dropping out to pursue jihad, or religious war. He traveled to Bosnia, where he met fighters who invited him to train in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He became an expert at kidnapping.
Pearl, meanwhile, grew up in a Jewish household in Encino, Calif. A young man of many interests, he played soccer, studied classical violin and enjoyed cooking. At Stanford, he started the newspaper, The Commentator. He started his journalism career at the Berkshire Eagle, a small newspaper in western Massachusetts, before advancing to the Journal.
Nomani described Pearl as “a hit” at the Journal, a brilliant writer who wore a pony tail and wild ties. He eventually became the paper’s Southeast Asia bureau chief based in Bombay.
Trained to “follow the money,” Nomani said Pearl was trying to find the links between terrorists, specifically shoe-bomber Richard Reid, and Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, the Inter-service Intelligence, or ISI. Through a middleman, he made contact with Sheik, who tricked Pearl into thinking he was a connected man called Bashir.
Instead, Pearl was kidnapped and sold while in captivity to Al-Qaeda militants, who filmed his beheading as a propaganda tool. Video of the murder surfaced on the Internet. Earlier this month, Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed admitted in a closed military hearing in Guantanamo Bay to murdering Pearl.
Despite the violent nature of Pearl’s death, the film opens with a line from the Koran emphasizing peace: “If you kill one innocent man, it is as if you kill all of humanity.” The speakers said his death has helped unite East and West. Pearl’s wife and family received letters of love and support from around the world, including Pakistan.
“It’s a terrible event that happened,” Jamal said. “But I feel their intent was to divide the world, to set us apart. It had the opposite effect.”
Nomani said she would drive around Karachi, haunted by the numerous empty buildings. “I looked into every building and wondered whether Danny was in one of these awful-looking, dry buildings,” she said. “Is he in that one? Is he in that one? Is he behind that door?” When Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was freed in Iraq last year, Nomani said she projected Pearl on images of her being released.
The speakers acknowledged that the Middle East is becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists. Seib said news organizations are doing more to train and equip correspondents with protective gear, but that conditions aren’t getting better. “Journalists are now targets of random violence and targeted violence — and that’s a bad combination,” he said.
Nomani said the mandate for journalism is vital in today’s geopolitical climate. “As journalism becomes a casualty, then truth becomes a casualty,” she said. “There is a larger truth. We have to know what the hell is going on.”
One student from the audience asked the panel whether the story was worth losing such an influential journalist.
“It’s an important question, and it’s a question you ask yourself all the time,” Seib said. “I don’t think any story is worth giving your life for. You have to ask yourself, ‘Are the risks reasonable?’ I don’t think Danny took any unnecessary risks.”
Nomani agreed. “What Danny did was nothing I haven’t done 1,000 times,” she said.
Pearl’s family has established The Daniel Pearl Foundation to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and innovative communications. For more information, visit http://www.danielpearl.org/.