Fingering Danny Pearl's Killer

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Danny Pearl

Who murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl? Since his kidnapping and execution by Islamic militants in Pakistan in 2002, various suspects have been identified. Pakistani authorities initially put the blame on Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheik, a British-born Islamist who was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime in Pakistan in 2003. Three fellow conspirators received jail terms of 25 years.

More recently, a new book by Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire, speculates that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was "the man who may have actually killed Pearl or at least participated in his butchery." According to Musharraf, "When we later arrested and interrogated him, he admitted his participation." A new HBO documentary, The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl, leaves the question unresolved; it focuses on the intersecting lives of Pearl and Sheik, the man convicted of the crime, but also cites unnamed U.S. and Pakistani officials who blame Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for the murder.

Now, several U.S. officials tell TIME that KSM's role in the Pearl murder appears more direct than previously acknowledged — and that the Bush Administration plans to try him for it. The officials tell TIME that KSM confessed under CIA interrogation that he personally committed the murder. Moreover, when he faces a military tribunal at Guantanamo, perhaps as soon as next year, the U.S. plans to charge him not only with the 9/11 plot, but also with direct responsibility for Pearl's death.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) was one of 14 "high value" prisoners recently moved to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from secret CIA prisons overseas. In announcing the transfer on Sept. 6, President Bush also promised to try some of the most important captives in military tribunals, a plan that Congress approved last month.

One former U.S. national security official tells TIME there is no doubt that KSM personally wielded the knife that killed the Wall Street Journal reporter. This official says that Ahmad Omar Saed Sheik insisted under interrogation that taking Pearl's life was not at first part of the kidnap plot — though Sheik also told his questioners that Pearl's kidnappers could never have released him because he was Jewish. But as the scheme unfolded, someone senior to him in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, known as "the fat man," took control of the operation and beheade Pearl.

Sheik never identified KSM as the actual killer, however. The FBI deduced KSM's role only after analyzing a video of the crime, in which only the perpetrator's hands are visible. That video was released by Islamic militants soon after Pearl's murder and then widely shown on Arab television and the Internet. Eventually, the FBI obtained its own version of the original video, as well as the camera used to photograph the murder.

Once KSM was taken into custody in March 2003, a comparison of the hands shown in the video and KSM's own hands, along with other evidence, confirmed the FBI's suspicions. Then, under interrogation, KSM confessed, national security officials told TIME, admitting without remorse that he personally severed Pearl's head and telling interrogators he had to switch knives after the first one "got dull."

KSM was interrogated in secret CIA prisons along with some three dozen other key captives, including alleged terrorists Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials say all were questioned as part of a special CIA program that was in effect before Congress began legislating on interrogation policy, first last December and again in anew bill that President Bush is expected to sign soon. But with their actionable intelligence value largely exhausted in recent months — and the White House under political and legal pressure to alter the CIA's once-secret detention and interrogation system — all the captives have been shipped to Guantanamo or to third countries.

Ahmad Omar Saed Sheik, who was questioned intensively after his capture and conviction in Pakistan, insisted to his interrogators that he was personally opposed to beheading victims, and felt bad about what happened to Pearl. But he also stated that it was sometimes the only way for terrorists to prove — in videos released to the outside world — that a person was, in fact, dead.

Today, Pearl's widow, Marriane Pearl, is raising the couple's son, Adam, who was born four and a half months after his father's death. A non-profit foundation set up by the Pearl family in Daniel Pearl's name promotes interfaith dialogue and attempts to combat the mind-set that led to his murder.