Question of conspiracy
Roopinder Singh
Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
by Bernard-Henri LÚvy. Translated from French by James X. Mitchell. Rupa. Rs 295. Pages 454

MOHAMMAD Ali Jinnah, founder of an Islamic Pakistan is said to have been secular. Omar Sheikh, killer of Daniel Pearl, has been described as a "perfect Englishman". There is truth in both statements, in so far as these relate to a certain stage of development in the personalities of these two individuals. However, what they became belied the early promise.

Jinnah, as Lal Krishan Advani recently discovered, was secular, but the creator of Pakistan was also responsible for the large-scale genocide during the Partition of India. Sheikh, who was brought up in London and studied at the London School of Economics, one of the last bastions of the Left, became, in his own small way, a fountainhead of terrorism in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

The book under review was a bestseller in France, and its English translation also regularly figured in top-ten lists. First published in 2003 and just released in India, the paperback edition is reasonably-priced. Bernard-Henri L`E9vy is a formidable French intellectual, who has unusual style of writing, which he does with flair. He spent much time and effort researching the book, which has been written as a novel, with the author himself as chief investigator. Is it fact? Largely, yes with a fair dose of the non-factual thrown in-how Pearl would have felt, the sights and smells he endured and so on.

The basic facts of the case are well known. On January 23, 2002, Daniel Pearl, a reporter since 1990 with the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped. He had been working on a story on Richard Reid, who had put explosives in his shoes in a vain attempt to blow up an aircraft going from Paris to Miami. Pearl was also trying to interview Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the "Miami bomber's idol".

The kidnappers set up an account, and sent out a number of demands, including F-16 fighters and the release of Pakistani prisoners captured in Afghanistan. They were soon traced to Karachi, where after some time, they were arrested. However, Pearl had been beheaded much earlier. A video of the beheading was circulated on the Internet and caused revulsion all over the world.

The leader of the gang was Omar Sheikh, a name many Indians were familiar with. He had been arrested in 1994, while he was trying to kidnap a group of foreigners. He was, however, released six years later as a part of a deal following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane, which was taken to Kandahar. From Afghanistan, he went to Pakistan, where he was welcomed by the Harkat-ul-Mujahedin and the ISI.

Pearl had apparently been kidnapped to bargain for the release of some terrorists. He tried to escape, and was killed in a brutal manner. The death of this journalist has also been the subject of a book by his wife, Mariane Pearl, also a journalist, who was pregnant when Daniel was killed. She has written a personal account, which has won much acclaim.

L`E9vy is looking hard for a conspiracy, and he finds one. He feels that Pearl learnt that the ISI and the Al-Qaeda were operating in collusion and that Omar Sheikh was an ISI agent. This could be very damaging to Pakistan, since the ISI has a history of being in bed with the wrong fellow. But where is the evidence?

The author also makes a number of mistakes in his investigation. He says that Saharanpur (a town in Uttar Pradesh) is a remote part of Delhi. At times, his understanding of political realities of the subcontinent is also not brilliant. As an outsider, he has a fresh perspective, but lacks the depth of knowledge of local journalists.

The suspicion that Daniel Pearl was really on to something when he was kidnapped and killed is too strong. It could not just be a simple killing, we all tend to believe. Given this, a conspiracy has to be found, and the bigger, the better. The author has certainly produced a fascinating read and a page-turner. Only time will tell how prophetic is this work of a French philosopher, cinematographer, writer and diplomat.