The abductors of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl are may be linked to Pakistan's own Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, U.S. intelligence officials have told United Press International exclusively.
"We are looking at several extremist organizations who have known ties to ISI as possible suspects," said one intelligence analyst.
Former State Department and CIA counterterrorism expert Larry Johnson, who has close knowledge of the situation, said of the perpetrator: "It's either ISI or someone who is trying very hard to make it look as if it's ISI."
Johnson and other informed sources would not comment on the specific evidence of ISI involvement, but they did say hard evidence as well as the groups' track records point the finger.
Pearl, who was doing research on Richard Reid, the shoe-bomb suspect who was allegedly trained by al Qaida in Afghanistan, has been missing since last Wednesday.
According to UPI sources, Pearl had gone to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad asking for guidance about plans to interview Mubarak ali Shah Gilani, a supposed contact of Reid's and a leader of Tanzaimul Fuqra, a group of extremist Islamic African-Americans that intelligence experts say has links with al Qaida.
Al Fuqra is a splinter group of the extremist Army of Muhammad, a jihadi organization recently banned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf but which has had long-standing connections with senior ISI officials, State Department analysts said.
Another possible suspect in Pearl's kidnapping is Pakistani extremist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, intelligence officials said -- a group that, significantly, was left off Musharraf's Jan. 12 list of banned organizations, they added.
HUM likely has little love for the United States. The 1998 U.S. cruise missile attack ordered by President Clinton hit four HUM camps in Afghanistan: at Salman Fasi in Jawah, the Khalid bin Waleed in the Zhavar area near the Pakistan border, the Liza camp at Tanai in the Khost area, and another camp close to the Darwanta hydroelectic power station near Jalalabad.
HUM also has links with Pakistan's military and ISI, intelligence sources have informed UPI. For example, HUM representatives met with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee, Gen. Mohammed Aziz Khan, as late as Oct. 10, 2001, they said. The committee oversees ISI.
Other groups reportedly present at the meeting were Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e-Toiba, both banned by Musharraf in his speech to the nation Jan. 12.
Pearl was to be taken to the Tanzaimul Fuqra interview by two Pakistani guides. Embassy officials strongly advised against his going alone, without an interpreter or local assistant, State Department officials said.
Pearl disappeared from Karachi last Wednesday night. The State Department confirmed a taxi driver told police that he took Pearl to the Metropole Hotel where he was last seen.
Later, e-mail messages arriving at the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and news organizations in Pakistan, announced that Pearl had been kidnapped and detailed conditions for his release.
A group calling itself "The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty" demanded repatriation of the Pakistani prisoners taken from Afghanistan to Cuba and the release of F-16 fighter aircraft purchased in the 1980s by the Pakistani government. The delivery of the planes was canceled by Congress in 1990 in response to Pakistan's continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
"The kidnappers' conditions are all over the lot," Johnson pointed out. "What terrorist is going to ask for release of F-16s? They aren't a terrorist's weapon of choice."
Such demands smack more of ISI involvement, he told UPI.
The kidnappers have accused Pearl of working for the CIA. Both The Wall Street Journal and the agency promptly denied the agency having any relation with the reporter.
But U.S. intelligence officials noted that Pearl has been the head of the Wall Street Journal's bureau in Bombay for the last two years, and one said: "That could have meant trouble for (Pearl). Everyone out there thinks a journalist is a spy and his being in India wouldn't help."
Tensions between India and Pakistan have remained at a high level since Dec. 13 attacks on the Indian Parliament by Pakistani-based jihadi groups that killed a dozen people, including the five terrorist suspects.
In his internationally covered speech, Pakistan's president Musharraf banned five jihadi organizations and began mass arrests of hundreds of Islamic extremists in an effort to avoid an all-out war with Pakistan's large neighbor.
But U.S. officials also made note of what Musharraf didn't do. He didn't ban HUM, which is known to have a large following with the Pakistani army and ISI and which has been active in terrorism within Kashmir, they said.
Nor did Musharraf ban the extremist organization Al Badr, another Pakistani organization also active in the Kashmir conflict. He also made no mention of the Hizbul Mujahideen, another jihadi outfit based in Pakistan.
U.S. officials said they are looking at all these groups.
"It's a very emotionally charged environment out there," Johnson said. "If it proves to be ISI, they would be likely to think Pearl a CIA or Indian spy. They would be very likely to think the worse."