Sheikh has been implicated in the brutal murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. The beheading of Pearl shook the world and has been one of the most public assassinations of a journalist in the world.
In early April, a court in Sindh overturned Sheikh’s conviction for the 2002 murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, whilst sentencing him to seven years for his kidnapping. Whilst never a welcoming location for the ideal of a free press, visiting journalists have tended to proceed with extreme caution, or to shy away from pursuing investigative leads in Pakistan ever since the Pearl case. Now cleared of that murder and having more than served the seven-year sentence for kidnapping, Sheikh and his three colleagues would have been free, but for a 90-day moratorium called on their release under a state public safety law. With the clock ticking, the authorities have two months to decide what to do. Last week, the government in Sindh approached Pakistan’s Supreme Court, trying to overturn the appeal.THE BACKGROUND
Born to Pakistani parents in London in 1973, Omar Saeed Sheikh enjoyed the privileges of having a father successful in business—a private school education, a comfortable upbringing in the east London suburb of Wansted, a spell at Aitchson College in Lahore, followed by a place at the London School of Economics. Along the way, he became involved in the expanding Islamist scene of the early 1990s, travelling to Bosnia and from there to Kashmir.
Whilst British jihadis have tended to be mere foot soldiers or functionaries in the Sunni terrorist organisations they have joined, Sheikh is a rare example of someone from the UK who appears to have moved in loftier circles.
A member of Harkat ul Mujahideen, in 1994 Sheikh was captured by the Indian authorities after befriending British and American tourists in the country, in order to facilitate their kidnapping. Three Britons and an American were rescued in an operation which cost several lives. New Delhi considered Sheikh’s actions part of the Pakistani state’s wider strategy to “internationalise” the Kashmir conflict, using jihadist groups under its control.
During the 1999/2000 New Year celebrations, Sheikh was to depart Indian custody in the most dramatic fashion possible—one of the jihadists, along with Masood Azhar, exchanged for hostages on the hijacked Indian Airlines flight 814. Flying to New Delhi from Nepal, it was seized by members of Harkat ul Mujahideen, and taken to Taliban controlled Kandahar. In Afghanistan, with the ISI and Taliban co-operating on the ground, any rescue mission was nigh impossible, and Indian authorities reluctantly cut a deal.
Head of the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau following 9/11, Pearl was investigating the links between Pakistan’s ISI and jihadist groups.
He was abducted in 2002 following email exchanges with a man calling himself “Bashir”, who offered to introduce him to a senior cleric, Sheikh Gilani. “Bashir” was in fact Omar Saeed Sheikh, who handed Pearl over to Al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohamed. Although his body has not been recovered, a grisly video was circulated of Pearl’s execution. Omar Saeed Sheikh handed himself in to a retired ISI Brigadier, Ijaz Shah, then the Home Secretary for the Punjab. During interrogations with Pakistani and American investigators, Sheikh himself admitted to working for the ISI.
Despite these connections Sheikh was tried and convicted, and his prospects looked dim. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf even declared he would rather hang Sheikh himself, than return him to the Americans. That the US could discover ever more awkward details about who Omar Saeed Sheikh was working for and when, information they may share with the Indians, is likely to have dominated Pakistani thinking. Perhaps to deflect tricky questions, in his autobiography Pervez Musharraf contends, without evidence, that Sheikh was an asset, not of the ISI, but of the British security services.
Yet Sheikh was not executed. And his successful appeal presents a diplomatic and legal headache for the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan. What is to be done?
Sheikh’s 2017 Interpol notice describes him as wanted by the United States for hostage taking and hostage taking resulting in death. Whilst there appears no prospect of Pakistan handing Sheikh back to India, there is every reason to assume the Americans still want their man. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the US National Security Council both reacted furiously to his potential release. India, rightly aggrieved by the 1999 flight 814 hijacking, would also make diplomatic capital out of Pakistan, again, being on the wrong side in the international fight against terrorism. Could Sheikh return to London? Whilst the United Kingdom has pursued a policy of stripping dual national British-Pakistanis involved in terrorism of their citizenship, and even extended this to some convicted paedophiles, it has not been confirmed this has happened in Sheikh’s case. That the British authorities would have plenty to ask Sheikh is clear, but given the UK has struggled to prosecute jihadis who have fought in Syria and Iraq, there is surely little prospect of filing substantive charges against someone who has been resident in the Indian subcontinent, nearly all of it in custody, for over two decades.
This is a script stranger than fiction, and one where predictions would appear to be deeply unwise. If there is one consistent element in the Omar Saeed Sheikh story, however, it is the overbearing presence of the Pakistani state, and its intelligence interests. And here, Sheikh may again be looking for the help of the man he surrendered to way back in 2002, Ijaz Shah. Today, the former chief of the ISI’s Lahore department, and former Punjab Home Secretary, is Pakistan’s Interior Minister.
Dr Paul Stott is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. He writes and tweets @MrPaulStott