On March 12, 2002 a court in Karachi extended the police remand of Omar Shaikh, the British terrorist Of Pakistani origin, who is believed to have masterminded the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist. Pearl was subsequently reported to have been brutally murdered and beheaded, most probably by the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) headed by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, which has always been close to the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and Gen.Pervez Musharraf.
As already repeatedly pointed out by this writer, the Pakistani authorities have been trying hard to steer the investigation away from the HUJI and to project it as the work of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), one of the five terrorist organisations banned by Musharraf on January 15, 2002. They are afraid that if the HUJI's involvement became public knowledge there could be US demands for banning it.
An interesting thing happened in the court on March 12. When the Karachi Police moved the application for the extension of his Police remand on the ground that his interrogation was incomplete, Omar Shaikh reportedly remarked:" What do they mean by saying the interrogation is incomplete? They stopped interrogating me more than a fortnight ago. I am prepared to talk to them, but they are afraid of my talking."
In fact, reports from independent and usually reliable sources in the Karachi Police say that in the beginning of March, Musharraf ordered the stopping of all interrogation of Omar Shaikh in connection with his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Pearl and other terrorist incidents.
When the Karachi Police took custody of Omar from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on February 12, he started talking to them freely and voluntarily about his activities since he was released by India in the last week of December, 1999 to terminate the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM). He said that:
* He had since then been functioning from Lahore with the knowledge and permission of the ISI. At Lahore, he was in regular touch with Gen.Mohammad Aziz Khan, who was a Corps Commander there, till his appointment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee on October 8, 2001.
* He was frequently travelling to Kandahar to meet Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden and to Dubai.
* He had personally met Mohammad Atta, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre in New York, during one of his visits to Kandahar and knew of the plans for the September 11 strikes. He had told Lt.Gen. Ehsanul-Haq, the present DG of the ISI, who was then a Corps Commander at Peshawar, and Gen. Aziz Khan about it.
* He had personally accompanied Musharraf and Aziz to the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), at Muridke, near Lahore, when they had gone there before Musharraf's India visit in July last to appeal to the LET not to oppose his visit to New Delhi.
* He had orchestrated the attacks on the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly on October 1, 2001 and on the Indian Parliament at New Delhi on December 13, 2001 and the firing incident outside the American Centre in Kolkata on January 22, 2002. He knew Aftab Ansari, the mafia leader, who is presently under interrogation in India in connection with the Kolkata incident. All these attacks were organised with the knowledge and approval of the ISI.
* Pearl was kidnapped and murdered because he was making enquiries about the links of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment with bin Laden and wanted to meet people who would have knowledge of the present whereabouts of bin Laden. They suspected that Pearl was being used by the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to recruit people who might be prepared to betray bin Laden and help in his capture.
* More spectacular terrorist acts against the US were in the offing.
Sindhi Officers of the Karachi Police, who had been extremely resentful of the manner in which Musharraf, a Mohajir, had made them work under the supervision of Army monitors much junior to them in rank, leaked to the media what Omar Shaikh told them about his involvement in the terrorist attacks in India. Kamran Khan of the "News" of Islamabad reported about this in his periodic column. This set off a wave of panic in the GHQ at Rawalpindi and in the ISI headquarters, who tried to discredit Kamran Khan's story by saying that Omar Shaikh had been tutored to say all this about his involvement in the terrorist attacks in India. Though they did not specify who had turored him, the insinuation was that India had tutored him to discredit Pakistan and Musharraf.
They then pressured the owner of "News" to sack the Editor of the paper and three of his journalists, including Kamran Khan, who had been publishing a lot of reports on the Pearl case which cast doubts on Musharraf's sincerity.
Musharraf spoke to the father of Omar Shaikh and requested him to persuade his son not to make such statements which harmed Pakistan's supreme national interest. The father was allowed to talk to his son over phone and, on his appeal, Omar Shaikh agreed to retract his earlier statements and deny ever having said these things.
In fact, in keeping with his promise to his father, he did retract, but subsequently, he again started saying that he stood by whatever he had stated earlier.
Musharraf then ordered the Karachi Police not to interrogate him any longer and to treat him well. The military-intelligence establishment is in a dilemma. It is determined not to extradite him to the USA lest he repeat before the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) what he had told the Karachi Police. At the same time, they don't want to try him in Pakistan either.
Amongst the various options reportedly being considered are to have him declared as insane and unfit for trial and extradition or, if need be, to eliminate him and show him as having been killed when an attempt was made to free him by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the banned Sunni extremist organisation, which has recently stepped up its anti-Shia activities in Karachi.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: email@example.com )