Omar Saeed Sheikh — from rowdy student to terror convict

Published April 2, 2020
A schoolmate described Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh as "bright but rather dysfunctional" student. — AP/File
A schoolmate described Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh as "bright but rather dysfunctional" student. — AP/File

Nearly two decades after he was sentenced to death for his involvement in American journalist Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh hit the headlines again on Thursday when the Supreme Court ordered his release.

The apex court dismissed an appeal by the Sindh government against the Sindh High Court's decision that barred the government from detaining Sheikh after his acquittal on murder charges.

A son of a cloth merchant, Sheikh was born in England in 1974, where he attended a private school. His family moved to Lahore in 1987 and he enrolled at the renowned Aitchison College, from where he was expelled for rowdy behaviour.

He returned to the United Kingdom and joined the Forest School in Snaresbrook, according to a report by the BBC.

Sheikh was admitted to the London School of Economics in 1992 and, according to The Guardian, was also a member of the UK arm wrestling team. He only remained at LSE for a short time, however. According to reports, he went to Bosnia as an aid worker during the war in 1992 and never returned to university to complete his degree.

Also read: Understanding the new militants of Pakistan

"He told us he was going to Bosnia driving aid convoys, and he never came back to university," The Guardian quoted journalist Syed Ali Hasan, who was with Sheikh at Forest School and at LSE, as saying. Hasan described Sheikh as "bright but rather dysfunctional".

The Bosnian war, according to The Guardian, may have been a "turning point" for Sheikh. The perception is based on an interrogation held in 1994 against Sheikh, in which he said that an ethnic conflict had disturbed him.

Sheikh's first real brush with terrorism occurred when he joined the Harkatul Ansar — rechristened Harkatul Mujahideen after the US banned the group in the mid-1990s — and became one of the key infiltrators into occupied Kashmir where he was arrested by the Indian security forces in 1997 during a sting operation. He remained incarcerated until December 1999, when the hijackers of an Indian airliner in Kandahar demanded his release along with Jaish-e-Mohammed's Masood Azhar.

Sheikh was arrested by Pakistan's law enforcement agencies in 2002 for his involvement in Pearl's kidnapping and murder. 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 authorities, a video of Pearl's cold-blooded decapacitation was sent to the US embassy in Karachi.

Sheikh was awarded the death penalty by an anti-terrorism court but his lawyers filed an appeal against the verdict.

Despite being in jail, Sheikh was suspected to be in contact with militants. Military investigators believe Sheikh drew up the earliest plans for former president Pervez Musharraf’s assassination in 2002 and raised funds for the attacks. He is also suspected of involvement in the attack on the Indian parliament in early 2002, which started a year-long massive troops mobilisation by India on the border with Pakistan.

In April 2020, the SHC overturned the death penalty and handed Sheikh seven years in prison over kidnapping charges.

Since Sheikh had been incarcerated since 2002, that sentence had been counted as served and he was expected to be released soon.

However, the government kept him under detention due to national security threats. Meanwhile, Pearl's parents and the Sindh government filed appeals in the apex court over the high court's decision to acquit and release him.

While the apex court ordered his release, Sheikh, who is currently under confinement at the Karachi Central Jail, is expected to be freed by authorities soon. However, the Sindh government said that it has decided to seek a review of the apex court's decision.

Meanwhile, US State Secretary Antony Blinken has said the US is ready to prosecute Sheikh, adding that it was "deeply concerned by the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them".

This piece was originally published on April 2, 2020, and was updated on Jan 29, 2021, to reflect the development in legal proceedings.


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