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UPI Exclusive: Pearl tracked al Qaida

By BY RICHARD SALE and ANWAR IQBAL   |   Sept. 30, 2002 at 6:14 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was investigating the man who allegedly planned the Sept. 11 airplane hijackings and attacks on New York and Washington when he was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, according to two former Central Intelligence Agency officials.

Bob Baer, a former case officer in the agency's Directorate of Operations, said he provided Pearl with unpublished information about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has since been accused by American officials of being one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a top aide to Osama bin Laden. Mohammed is currently the operational chief of al Qaida, other U.S. intelligence officials said.

Next to bin Laden, Mohammed is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.

"I was working with Pearl," said Baer, who has written a book about his time as a CIA official and has acted as a consultant and source for numerous media outlets. "We had a joint project. Mohammed was the story he was working on, not Richard Reid."

But a spokesman for The Wall Street Journal disagreed with Baer's account. "Everything we know from before and after Danny's murder indicates his reporting effort was focused on Richard Reid. Also, we don't believe he was engaged in a 'joint project' with anyone outside The Journal."

Shortly after Pearl's kidnapping and subsequent murder in Karachi, Pakistan last winter, it was reported he was tracing the background of Reid, who was seized on a Boston-bound American Airlines jet from Paris allegedly trying to ignite explosive in his shoes. According to that account, Reid had gone to Karachi to contact a man called Sheik Mubarek Gilani to get information on Reid.

Baer said that instead Pearl was onto bigger and more dangerous game. "I urged him to go to Pakistan to look into Shaikh Mohammed."

Another former 30-year veteran of CIA confirmed Baer's account. He asked that his name not be used, but he endorsed Baer: "I'm surprised Baer is on the record, but he really knows his stuff on this."

Baer said that he believes it was Mohammed who had Pearl killed.

"I have heard from (intelligence) people who follow this closely that it was people close to Mohammad that killed him, if it wasn't Mohammed himself," he said.

Shortly after Pearl was kidnapped, Pakistani officials too said they doubted the story that the young reporter was looking into Richard Reid. A spokesman for Pakistan's military government, Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, told United Press International that Pakistani officials could not understand why Pearl was visiting Karachi to meet a religious leader who lived in Lahore.

Gilani, the person Pearl was reportedly trying to meet, heads Jamaat-ul-Fuqra or the Party of the Poor, and has thousands of followers around the world, including the United States.

Gilani and his followers are long believed to have been involved in terrorist acts and appear on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.

Gilani, however, lives in Lahore, which is closer to the Pakistani capital Islamabad where Pearl was before he flew to the southern port city of Karachi -- hundreds of miles south of Lahore.

Pakistani intelligence sources told UPI that Mohammed, the man Pearl was actually trying to track down, also had links to Gilani and his party.

On July 15, an anti-terrorism court in the southern Pakistani city of Hyderabad convicted four men for kidnapping and murdering Pearl. The suspected ringleader, British-born Pakistani Ahmad Omar Saeed Shaikh, better known as Shaikh Omar, was sentenced to death while three others were sent to jail for life.

Throughout the trial, Omar maintained that -- although he knew how and by who Pearl had been killed -- he was not himself responsible.

Subsequently, there were reports that four other men had also been arrested by Pakistani police in connection with the murder. But Pakistani security officials told UPI that in order for the new suspects to be put on trial, the four convicted men would also have to be tried again, because evidence against the new suspects undermined the case against Omar and his accomplices.

Mohammed was seen in Islamabad's posh F-7 sector when Pakistani and U.S. officials arrested Ramzi Yusuf, the man who tried to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.

The director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Josef Bodansky, told UPI emphatically, "Mohammed was Pearl's killer."

"An Algerian actually did the job, but Mohammed gave the order for the killing. There's no question about it," he said. Bodansky said Mohammed also has ties to Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which he said had acted to shield him in the past.

"Mohammed was running operations right in Karachi," said Bodansky. Bodansky would not reveal his sources of information.

According to Baer, he was first informed of Mohammed's role as a key aide to terrorist mastermind bin Laden as early as December 1997 when he met a former police chief from Doha, Qatar, at a dinner in Damascus.

In 1997, Baer had left the agency to become a consultant in Beirut. Terrorism was Baer's field and Baer began to meet the ex-Doha police chief from time to time. The ex-Doha police chief, who Baer declined to identify by name, told Baer that during the course of his work he found that there was a bin Laden cell in Qatar, being sheltered by the Qatari government.

The two main members of the cell were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Shawqui Islambuli, the brother of the Egyptian who had killed Anwar Sadat. They also were linked to terrorist Ramzi Yousef, but what worried the former police chief was the fact that Mohammed and Islambuli were experts in hijacking commercial planes. The ex-police chief told Baer that Mohammed "is going to hijack some planes." The ex-police chief said his basis for this was evidence developed by police and Qatari intelligence.

The ex-police chief told Baer that Mohammed was being shielded by the Qatar government and told how, in 1996, the FBI sent in a team to arrest Mohammed and Islambuli. While pretending to help, elements in the Qatari government stalled U.S. agents and supplied the two suspects, Mohammed and Islambuli with passports in fake names and spirited them out of the country.

Mohammed went to the Czech Republic where he began to live under the alias "Mustaf Nasir."

Mohammed also traveled to Germany to meet bin Laden associates, Baer said.

Baer sent this information to a friend in the CIA Counter-terrorist Center who forwarded the information to his superiors. Baer heard nothing. "There was no interest," he said.

Baer said he was frustrated and called Pearl. Baer said he told Pearl he had a hot story on terrorism and the fact that a U.S. ally like Qatar was actually working against the United States when it came to bin Laden.

Baer said to his annoyance, Pearl did not begin to work on the story. Nothing was done until the day of the Sept. 11 attacks when Pearl called to talk to Baer. Baer said he gave Pearl all the old information he had and new information he had since obtained -- for example, that there are files on Mohammed in the Qatari Embassy in London.

Baer said he and Pearl then "began to work together" -- in other words, Pearl would get info and check it out with Baer and Baer would feed Pearl what he was getting. It was "a joint project," said Baer. Baer was giving direction, but Pearl's contacts were not confined to Baer.

After Pearl's murder, Baer said, he took his information about Mohammed to the Justice Department, but again, as with the agency, he never received a call nor did the department express any interest.

The case is currently being handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, Justice Department officials said.

Asked to comment on Baer's information, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, told UPI, "I will pass this on to my agents, but this is nothing that I've heard of."

A joint congressional probe into Sept.11-related intelligence failures made a veiled reference to "a key al Qaida leader" whose "growing importance to al Qaida" the U.S. intelligence community had failed to recognize. U.S. intelligence, said the committee also did not "anticipate his involvement in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11." The leader in question is widely believed to be Mohammed.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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