KARACHI, Pakistan, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- The winter afternoon in Karachi was coming to an end. I looked across the road where Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl got in a cab nearly two years ago and was later discovered beheaded on Feb. 21.
"Did you see Pearl?" I asked the waiter who brought me a cup of tea and some cookies at the Village restaurant where the American reporter had arranged to meet a group of terrorists.
"No, but I knew the cab driver," said the waiter who only gave his last name, Khan.
Pearl, was the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief. He was born in Princeton, N.J., and graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in communications. He joined the Journal in November 1990 and worked for the newspaper for 12 years. At the time of his death he was 38.
The members of a radical Islamic group in Pakistan who claimed to have kidnapped him said Pearl was an Israeli spy. His family, his wife and his newspaper denied that he was an agent of any government.
Pearl and his wife, Mariane, had been living in Karachi while Pearl tried to arrange an interview with a Muslim cleric, Mobarak Ali Shah Gilani, head of the small militant Islamic group, Jamiat-ul-Fuqrah.
After chatting with the waiter, I rushed to the nearby Karachi Press Club where I had invited some workers of a religious party to discuss Pearl's abduction and his subsequent killing. Another round of tea followed and before we could discuss Pearl, we heard a loud explosion. We ran out and joined a little crowd running toward the nearby Avari Hotel. We were yards from the hotel when another explosion, even bigger than the first, occurred. We saw cars being lifted from the ground and thrown across the road. Broken glasses and metal parts rained on a police party ahead of us. Some officers were injured. Twelve cars destroyed. No one was killed.
Later a police officer explained that this explosion was not meant to kill anyone.
"It's a warning for the new chief of the rangers to stay away from the terror groups," the officer said.
The officer said every time a major law enforcement agency has a new boss, the terrorists send him a message by detonating bombs and kidnapping officers. Usually no one is killed, but the message is clear: maintain a distance from the terrorists.
This is how Pakistan works after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States when President Pervez Musharraf switched over to the U.S. camp, dumping Islamabad's fundamentalist allies.
At the higher level, there's a sincere commitment to fight terrorists but at the lower level most law enforcement officers are confused and scared. There's also a now a small group within the military and the law enforcement agencies that sympathizes with the jihadis.
"But the majority has learned, through years of experience, not to take Islamabad's orders too seriously," said a senior officer at the Karachi police.
"In Karachi, officers are often killed and injured fighting religious, ethnic and political terrorists. What happens to their family after they die? They have to live on a meager pension. So who wants to risk his life," the officer asked.
"Besides, the terrorists are better-trained and equipped. Look at the explosion at the Avari Hotel. Whoever did the second explosion was watching the police party approaching the site of the first explosion and pushed the remote control yards before the police could reach there. It's obvious it was intended to send a message. Why expose yourself to unnecessary dangers when you are dealing with such dedicated killers?"
Officers of the Karachi police have this luxury of not wanting to expose themselves to unnecessary dangers. Pearl did not. Like all journalists, he was under pressure to match stories appearing in other newspapers.
"We were working on a story on the smuggling of electronic goods from Afghanistan to Pakistan when Danny suddenly went to Peshawar," says Asif Farooqi, a local journalist who worked for Pearl in Islamabad.
"This was January 2002. When he returned from Peshawar, he told me there's a story in the Boston Globe which linked a Lahore-based cleric Mobarak Ali Shah Gilani and his Jamiat-ul-Fuqrah party to the alleged shoe-bomber, Richard Reid," said Farooqi.
"Gilani disappeared. So we got in touch with Arif (only first name given), an activist of another fundamentalist group Harkatul Ansar. Arif took us to a house in Chaklala, a military cantonment near Islamabad but Gilani had evacuated that house. Pearl asked Arif to get in touch with someone else," said Farooqi.
"Arif called back later and said he has arranged a meeting with someone who knows Gilani at the Akbar Hotel in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad."
"It was a three-hour long meeting. The man introduced himself as Bashir though he was Omar Saeed Shaikh. Pearl gave him his business card and the next day Pearl left for Peshawar again," added Farooqi.
Shaikh is the young Pakistani London School of Economics dropout who was sentenced to death in July 2002 for organizing Pearl's kidnapping. He was also the ringleader of a carefully assembled alliance of Muslim extremists working in at least four different terrorist cells. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal journalist with whom Pearl and his wife stayed with in Karachi before he was kidnapped, says the terrorists involved had several cells.
"The first cell was that of plotters and included Omar and his co-defendants. The second was that of handlers, the people who took Danny to the hut where he was beheaded," she said. "These were the people who held him, guarded him, dispatched his photos to newspaper and got food for him. Some of them are still on the loose and some have been arrested. Then there were the murderers, the so-called Arabs who actually killed Danny. This included Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the three murderers."
Although Mohammed was arrested as one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government informed Mariane Pearl in October 2003 they believe Mohammed was the man who slit her husband's throat.
"When Pearl returned from Peshawar, he told me his assignment in Pakistan was over and he was leaving the country," says Farooqi. "I asked him why was he going to Karachi when he could go straight to Dubai and he told me that Bashir (Omar Saeed Shaikh) has fixed a meeting with Gilani."
"On the day he was supposed to meet Gilani, he called me and asked if it was OK to see the cleric. I said yes. Gilani was a public figure and he would not harm him but I advised him not to take his wife along because she was pregnant and also because she wore clothes that Gilani would not have approved of," said Farooqi.
"I think he made two mistakes; he bypassed me and the fixer in Karachi. You should never do that when arranging such meetings," explained Farooqi.
Farooqi says he believes Pearl had obtained the e-mail address the shoe-bomber had used to communicate with his contacts in Pakistan.
"It was a planned murder. Al-Qaida wanted to send a message to other journalists not to come too close to them," Farooqi said.
Farooqi avoided commenting on Western media reports the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency or some people inside the organization might have arranged the killing because Pearl had discovered some evidence that linked the agency to al-Qaida.
"Where is that evidence? Why has it not appeared so far?" asked a senior ISI official when asked for comments. "Journalists often expose themselves to such threats. Most of the time they survive, sometimes they do not. Unfortunately, Pearl did not."
But the official did not explain what got the journalist killed. If the argument that he did not have anything to link ISI to al-Qaida is accepted, the agency still needs to explain some calculated leaks to journalists who are seen in Pakistan as wired to ISI.
In her book, "A Mighty Heart," Mariane Pearl singles out Kamran Khan, a journalist for the English-language News in Karachi and a Washington Post stringer, who wrote the first story that identified Pearl as Jewish. Such information, she says, is like passing the "death sentence" in Pakistan.
Khan later told the Post he was simply pursuing the story aggressively and didn't mean any harm. But Khan also published a story, identifying the woman -- Nomani -- the Pearls were staying with as an Indian spy. He also raised questions about why Pearl "an American newspaper reporter based in Bombay would also establish a full-time residence in Karachi."
Both Mariane Pearl and Nomani believe such speculative reporting encouraged al-Qaida operatives to kill Pearl and also helped mute public outrage in Pakistan over the killing.
In his much-publicized book "Who killed Daniel Pearl?" French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy raises several questions about ISI's possible role in the killing. He advances the hypothesis that Pearl was investigating al-Qaida's American network -- based on the fact Gilani was linked to the ISI, but maybe also to the CIA: "Could the key to the mystery of his death be found in the hard disks of agencies in Washington?" he asks.
While it is obvious Levy pays too much importance to Gilani, a small time pir or sufi saint, who may or may not have had links to al-Qaida, it is also true Gilani had met al-Qaida chief Osama bin-Laden more than once.
While returning to Pakistan after a reporting trip to Sudan in 1995, this correspondent was introduced to Gilani on the plane. He was returning after attending an Islamic conference in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Bin Laden also had attended the same conference. Nobody knows whether the two met and if they did, what they discussed.
Apparently, there's not much in common between bin-Laden and Gilani. Both bin-Laden and his Taliban patrons consider Sufism a corruption of Islam.
"I still do not understand why Pearl wanted to see Gilani. Anyone familiar with Pakistan knows that a pir would never discuss such matters with an unknown Western journalist," says Syed Saleem Shahzad, a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times' in Karachi who is familiar with the Pearl case.
My attempt to meet Gilani in Lahore was as unsuccessful as that of Pearl but I did meet one of his assistants. The meeting was arranged by a local leader of a religious organization. The man first called us to a restaurant then told us on the cell phone he could see us but did not want to meet us at the restaurant. We were advised to go to a second location and then to a third where the man quietly appeared from a dark alley and boarded our car.
We were instructed to drive to the residence of a Lahore journalist known for his sympathies for religious groups. Finally, when we were able to talk, I asked the man: "Why all this secrecy?"
"Because of the Pearl case. Now we are constantly watched by intelligence agencies who believe we also are jihadis. We are not."
"Why did Pearl want to see your leader and why Gilani refused to see him?"
"I don't know why Pearl wanted to see him but Mr. Gilani never refused to see the journalist. Omar Shaikh, who was acting as the go-between, never contacted Mr. Gilani. He used Pearl's request for the meeting as an excuse to take Pearl to Karachi where he got him kidnapped. We have nothing to do with it."
The claim could not be confirmed independently.
Later, I got in touch with a representative of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a banned jihadi outfit whose leader Maulana Masud Azhar is considered the mentor of Pearl's kidnapper Shaikh. Meeting him was even more difficult. After changing three locations, and following him for two days, we finally met at night in a garden in Lahore. I recognized him as one of the Jaish leaders who used to take journalists to jihadi camps when the group was conducting hit-and-run operations in Indian Kashmir.
"We did not have anything to do with it but we know why Pearl was killed," said the man.
"Because he was a spy. If you remember, Pearl's newspaper also reported that he handed over an al-Qaida computer he found in Kabul to U.S. officials. Who but a spy does that?"
When I tried to argue with him that his speculation was wrong, he dismissed me as "one of those Muslims who would take their pants off to please Americans."
"But what did this murder achieve for you?" I asked.
"Nothing because we were not involved but those who were, they wanted journalists to back off and they succeeded," replied the man.
"Be careful. Don't push too hard. That's what your master Pearl was doing," said the man. When I protested that Pearl was not my master, he simply laughed and called off the meeting.
Back in Karachi's Binori Madrassa, where Levy says some of those involved in the killing, were trained, the cleric and his students were busy learning the Koran by heart. The sprawling madrassa complex is also accused of training several senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the former Taliban government in Afghanistan.
I asked the cleric, who like others before him refused to give his name, if he remembered Pearl.
"Why would we remember him? Pakistan is full of Western reporters wanting to do stories about us. We do not go around remembering them."
"But he was killed," I said.
"Sad. He should not have been killed. But do you also observe the anniversaries of those Muslims who are killed every day in Afghanistan and Iraq? We have our martyrs to mourn. We have many deaths to mourn. We do not need others," said the cleric.
"Have you heard that Daniel Pearl wanted to promote peaceful dialogue between the Western and Islamic worlds and his death should help achieve this objective, shouldn't it?" I asked.
"You think, we are fools, don't you? Peaceful dialogue? Rubbish. All they want is to kill us, subdue us, destroy us," said the cleric.
"Not true. There are many peaceful people in the West who do not approve of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Pearl did not," I said.
"OK, then send those people. Why do you send soldiers," said the cleric.
In another corner of Karachi, near the Shrine of the Crocodiles where believers feed chickens to crocodiles, lies a plot of land where Pearl's body was found. "Police from all over Karachi came to seize the body," said Jan Mohammed, a laborer.
Mohammed, who says he saw the beheaded body when police were taking it away, says Pearl's murder, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and "all that happens in the big city houses" does not concern him.
"It is the game the big people play. What have I got to do with it?" he asked.