Omar Saeed Sheikh — from rowdy student to terror convict

Updated April 02, 2020

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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 Sindh High Court overturned his murder conviction and found him guilty of the lesser charge of kidnapping.

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.

Earlier today, the SHC overturned the death penalty and handed Sheikh seven years in prison over kidnapping charges. Since Sheikh has been in prison for the past 18 years, his seven-year sentence will be counted from the time served and so he is expected to be released.