WASHINGTON, June 24: The US security officer who investigated the Daniel Pearl murder case absolves al-Fuqra leader Sheikh Gilani of involvement in the murder of the American journalist.
In a highly unusual move, the US State Department posted an interview with the officer, Randall Bennett, on the front page of its website this weekend. Mr Bennett was the US Regional Security Officer in Karachi during the time Mr Pearl was kidnapped and later murdered in 2002.
The interview coincided with the release of a film “A Mighty Heart,” which depicts the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter.
“Sheikh Omar, who has quite a history involved in the kidnapping – the hijacking of airplanes out of India and affiliations with various hardcore jihadi organisations – had very carefully plotted and planned this kidnapping of Danny,” said Mr Bennett.
“He had set it up where he had given Danny information and promised this interview with Sheikh Gilani. Sheikh Gilani, as it turned out, had no idea his name was even being used.”
Mr Bennett said that Sheikh Omar used the interview to bait Daniel Pearl. “He would throw the bait out and he would reel it back in. So over a period of two weeks, Danny was enticed and then lost the opportunity for the interview.”
The US officer said Mr Pearl had been looking forward to this interview because it was a very “hot item.”
The so-called shoe-bomber, Richard Reed, who tried to bomb a Chicago-bound plane in 2002 with explosives hidden in his shoes, dominated the US media in those days and Mr Pearl hoped to get some exclusive information about the bomber from this interview.“So when it came time, after two weeks of baiting and switching, Danny was at the Metropol Hotel standing outside the Village restaurant. His meeting was at 1900 hours, 7:00 pm. At 1911, he received a phone call. The phone call lasted till 1916.
“So in those five minutes, the investigation later revealed that Sheikh Omar, who was using the name of Bashir at this time, told Danny that ‘I’m sorry, he cannot come to see you again.’ This was maybe the sixth or seventh time they had baited and switched Danny on a meeting.
“They said, ‘He just cannot get away and we’ve tried and tried and it just hasn’t worked out. If you want the interview, he’s at the madrasah. We’ll pick you up and bring you here and then we’ll take you back, but he’s not going to be able to come and see you there,’” said Mr Bennett.
He said Mr Pearl had asked him earlier if he could go to a madressah to interview Sheikh Gilani, as his fixer had suggested and “I told him that that was definitely a no-go.”
He said he explained to Mr Pearl that all madressahs were essentially in dangerous locations. They typically had affiliations to the more radical elements. And for Mr Pearl to go to one of those meant he would be completely cut off from his communication and any safe haven or recourse.
“And I guess at that moment, Danny had a tough decision to make and he made the decision that he was going to go and do the interview.”
Mr Bennett said that during the same period three other American citizens were also kidnapped in Karachi and his team and the Karachi Citizen-Police Liaison Committee were able to recover each of them within 24 hours.
But they could not recover Mr Pearl because they learned about it 12 hours after the kidnapping, which gave the kidnappers the time to take Mr Pearl out of the city.
In the interview, Mr Bennett also explains how they detained Sheikh Omar’s relatives in Karachi and Rawalpindi to force him to surrender.
Ultimately, Sheikh Omar surrendered to a relative, a retired intelligence officer, in Lahore who gave him to police after 15 days “and of course, we let (Sheikh Omar’s) family go back to their house immediately.”