The Reluctant Terrorist?

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It was an odd moment in a kidnapping, as one of the captors felt a pang of discomfort. The American backpacker had climbed willingly into the conspirators' van, lured by the false promise of dinner with a local Delhi family. Now it was time to tell him he was a hostage. The crisis of conscience was short-lived, but it was significant enough for the kidnapper to recall later in a confession he penned in jail. "All of a sudden, I felt terribly embarrassed," he wrote. So embarrassed that, hoping to evade responsibility, he begged his co-conspirator in Hindi, "Kidnap me also." His cohort growled, "Don't kick up a fuss." And they carried out the crime.

The year was 1994; the ambivalent kidnapper was British citizen Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, polyglot, chess whiz and Muslim extremist fresh from the terrorist-training camps of Afghanistan. This hostage taker, now 27 years old, has resurfaced as the prime suspect in the Jan. 23 abduction in Karachi, Pakistan, of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. For those seeking Pearl's release, the fingering of Saeed was both bad news and good. On the one hand, Saeed keeps scary company. In recent years, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials, he has become a key player in al-Qaeda. U.S. intelligence suspects that he helped funnel $100,000 to Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks. On the other hand, as Saeed's account of the 1994 abduction suggests, he is a complex character, neither entirely brutal nor cold. And his track record as a kidnapper is relatively benign; the American and three other Western tourists he took hostage at that time emerged unharmed after police raided Saeed's hideout and arrested him.

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The identification of Saeed was a sorely needed break for Pakistani investigators, coming as it did a week before President Pervez Musharraf was due to visit Washington. Many days had passed with no credible word from the kidnappers, and a series of miscues and hoax e-mails had thrown investigators off. It had become clear to the police that their first suspect, the militant Pir Mubarak Shah Gilani, whom Pearl was expecting to meet when he was abducted, was innocent. Progress came with the arrest last week in Karachi of three men who allegedly e-mailed demands for Pearl's release with snapshots of the captive journalist attached. One of the men, Fawad Naseem, told police Saeed had provided the photos to another accomplice, who had handed them to him. One of the conspirators even supplied Saeed's cell-phone number, which police dialed. After a brief chat, however, Saeed hung up, presumably realizing the call could be traced.

Soon after, investigators arrested two Pakistani brothers, Abdul Hannan and Abdul Mannan, in Rawalpindi. One of them allegedly contacted Saeed more than two dozen times on his mobile phone after Pearl was kidnapped. Both are activists with the banned terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad. Saeed has long maintained close ties with Jaish and its precursors: his 1994 kidnappings were aimed at freeing Masood Azhar, who was then imprisoned in India and went on to found the group two years ago.

The son of a well-to-do Pakistani immigrant couple, Saeed grew up and went to school mostly in London. He excelled in his final exams (the only subject he found taxing was religion) and landed a place at the London School of Economics, where he studied statistics. But the middle-class trajectory of Saeed's life went off course after he volunteered for a Muslim charity in Bosnia and fell too ill to complete the trip. Within a year, Saeed dropped out of school and, after training at a camp in Afghanistan, joined the militant group Harkat ul-Ansar.

Saeed put his training to use in the 1994 kidnappings, after which he languished in an Indian prison for five years until militants hijacked an Indian Airlines plane and took it to Afghanistan. In exchange for 155 passengers, they won the release of Saeed, Azhar and one other terrorist jailed in India. Saeed slipped into Pakistan and kept a low profile but remained active in the militant underground.

For Pearl, the best hope seemed to lie in the fact that Saeed — if indeed he is the kidnapper — once took pity on the innocents he had duped into captivity. Echoing words uttered by a radical in a van seven years ago, Marianne Pearl in a televised interview offered herself to her husband's kidnappers. The question is, Did she trigger a memory?