This Week in History: Daniel Pearl is kidnapped

'Wall Street Journal' journalist thinks he has the opportunity to interview Pakistani shoe bomber terrorists; instead he is taken hostage, killed.

January 22, 2012 10:51
4 minute read.
KidnappedWall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl

Kidnapped Daniel Pearl 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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On January 23, 2002, American journalist Daniel Pearl thought he was going to finally get an interview with Pakistani terrorists involved in putting would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid on a trans-Atlantic flight. Instead, the lead Pearl thought he had, turned out to be a ruse designed to kidnap and kill the Jewish Wall Street Journal bureau chief.

Interested in a story published in the Boston Globe alleging links between Reid and Pakistani militant cleric Sheihk Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, in early 2002 Pearl began tapping his contacts in hopes of getting an interview. One contact, Omar Sheikh, told Pearl the interview would be possible and set a date – January 23. Sheikh, however, never intended to connect the two men and had different plans.

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In Mumbai, Pearl had just learned his pregnant wife would be having a boy. Having sent off the good news to friends and family back home, he and his wife together departed for Karachi for the promising but admittedly dangerous investigation.

Pearl spent the afternoon of January 23 running around Karachi interviewing Pakistani police officials, looking for information on men he believed had been in contact with Reid. He even met with a US embassy security official to discuss the wisdom of conducting the interview he had scheduled for that evening. The US official advised him to hold the meeting in a public place. Having called to let his wife know he would be back in time for dinner, Pearl’s taxi driver finally dropped him off at the restaurant where he was to meet his contact for the Gilani interview.

After waiting for a few minutes, a small red hatchback pulled up to the Village Restaurant in Karachi. Pearl got in.

Unbeknown to Pearl at the time, the men who picked him up had no intention of setting up any interview - let alone with Gilani, whom they did not know. The promise of meeting the Pakistani militant had been a hastily thrown together ruse to lure him into a fairly simple trap. The Islamist kidnappers wanted to use him in order to seek the release of captured militants and terrorists being held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The kidnapping plot was amateur, despite being ultimately fatal. The kidnappers did not even know how to operate the cameras and computers needed to make their demands.

The red Suzuki Swift, with Pearl in the front seat, made its way out of Karachi toward an isolated safe house an hour away. When they arrived, Pearl was ushered out at gunpoint and told to hand over his belongings and disrobe. Still unaware of his hosts’ true intentions, he warily believed the increasingly hostile actions of his kidnappers were simply security measures for the high profile terrorist cleric he was supposed to meet. An hour or two later, after telling him they were bringing food, one of the kidnappers chained Pearl to an old car engine.

If Pearl was not already wary of his "hosts'" actions, it soon became clear something was wrong. It was not until the next morning, however, that he finally understood the situation.

After Pearl became aware of their intentions, the kidnappers began photographing him with that day’s newspaper to send out as a proof-of-life for their ransom demands. Miles away, accomplices fumbled trying to attach the pictures to an e-mail to send out along with the ransom note. The men finally sent off a message to news organizations titled: “American CIA officer in our custody.”

The demands included Pakistanis being held in the United States visits from their families and lawyers, and the return of all Pakistani prisoners from the US’s newly established prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Days later, a second e-mail was distributed, this time recanting the accusation Pearl was a CIA agent, and instead asserting he worked for the Mossad. Perhaps due to the media attention focused on him, the kidnappers had discovered his Jewish background.

“We will execute him within 24 hours,” the new note read.

Pearl was in fact the son of two Israelis and the grandson of one of the founders of Bnei Brak, something he would later recall in his last words.

Throughout his ordeal in the isolated and rural Pakistani backhouse, Pearl never stopped pleading with his kidnappers. At one point he attempted to escape, but never made it beyond the walls of the compound in which he was being held. The escape attempt brought him nothing other than brutal beatings.

Nine days after picking him up outside a restaurant in Karachi, Pearl's kidnappers decided to end the ordeal. It is not clear if they had suddenly realized the futility of their demands, if his Jewish identity had changed their minds or if the plan had been to kill the Wall Street Journal bureau chief all along. However, it happened. On February 1, the kidnapping operation became a murder plot.

That day, three men connected with al-Qaida, one of them 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, arrived at the compound where Pearl was being held with video equipment, knives and cleavers. They had one goal: to decapitate the American journalist.

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