Pearl kidnap suspect has links with India -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Pearl kidnap suspect has links with India

KARACHI- Pakistan police and FBI are hunting for a British national, Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the Pearl kidnapping, whose links with at least one member of Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s cabinet had been tracked down, sources on Wednesday.

Omar, being suspected of operating with the fake identity of Bashir to trap the American journalist, made calls to New Delhi one day after his gang kidnapped Pearl. The cellphone record of the prime suspect available with the investigators reveals that he made calls to certain official telephone numbers in New Delhi.

The probe team has taken into custody family members, cousins and nephews of Omar to ensure the safety of kidnapped US journalist Daniel Pearl who went missing since January 23. The search is on in several Pakistani cities to find his wife and a son.

Pakistani officials suspect that Omar, who has been in Indian jail for several years, might have been working as an agent for the Indian intelligence agencies to mastermind terrorist acts that would malign Pakistan.

A former student at the prestigious London School of Economics, Omar, was one of the three persons released from Indian jail in December 1999 in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian airliner. The other two persons are the jailed chief of banned Jaish-e-Muhammad, Maulana Masood Azhar, and Mushtaq Zargar. Masood and Omar top the list of 20 persons whose extradition has been demanded by India.

The investigators have zeroed in their probe on Omar following evidence dug up by FBI’s cyber-crime experts who were flown to Karachi to track down the culprits who had sent first two emails with Pearl’s pictures.

The alleged kidnappers, in dispatching the emails, had adopted some ‘smart method’ to cover their footsteps explaining the reason why did it take this much time to reach the culprits through their email addresses. The investigators had traced and arrested fake emailers in just a couple of days as they were not expert in misusing the cyber technology.

Sporting beard Omar, 34, joined now-banned militant group Harkatul Mujahideen years ago and had been on Interpol’s list of most-wanted persons. The Indian authorities arrested Omar while he entered Indian-held Kashmir, apparently to conduct an operation to free Maulana Masood Azhar who was behind bars in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.

The Pakistani authorities are also interrogating why Masood, who entered India with the fake identity of a journalist, was not arrested by Indian authorities on his way from New Delhi to Srinagar. In Srinagar he managed to set a meeting with a known Mujahideen commander Sajjad Afghani. As they arrived for the meeting, both were arrested by the Indian authorities. Afghani was later executed but no criminal charges could be framed against Masood despite his four-year detention in Indian jail.

During his stay in Indian jail, Masood had access to satellite phone and money, sources claimed who also claim that Omar fell out with Masood on his dubious links. A few weeks after their release both Masood and Omar slipped into Pakistan where Masood formed Jaish. Both, however, fell apart and Omar continued to be member of Harkatul Mujahideen, which was banned late last year following terror attacks in New York and Washington. The key question, however, remains unanswered that why did the authorities not check their activities.

The investigators are struggling to find the exact reasons of their parting the ways, although both were members of Harkatul Ansar, which was put on the list of terrorist organisation following the abduction of four Western tourists in Indian-controlled Kashmir. These tourists, abducted in the mid-90s, were never found.

“Masood, Omar and their groups surface each time when a terrorist activity happens to malign Pakistan’s name and harm Kashmir’s freedom struggle,” the sources said. From the kidnapping of Western tourists, hijacking of Indian airliner, attacks on Kashmir assembly and Indian parliament to the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the names of Masood, Omar and their groups have emerged strengthening Pakistan’s suspicion that they have been working against the country’s interests.

The attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13 has sparked the tense military stand-off between the nuclear rivals — Pakistan and India.

Earlier, it was reported that Pir Mubarak Shah Gilani had made calls to India. The sources close to the probe team claim Gilani is not involved in the kidnapping of Pearl but the kidnappers used his name first to trap Daniel and then to divert the probe direction.

“They (investigation team) lost eight to 10 precious days while locating Gilani who was not involved in this drama,” the sources said.

The grilling of three arrested suspects on Wednesday morning by the joint FBI-CID team has led the investigators to believe that Omar was the mastermind behind the kidnapping. The investigators believed that three arrested suspects, who are “not very old,” are members of either Harkatul Mujahideen or Jaish-e-Muhammad. “They have been to Afghanistan for fighting and they have marks of bullet wounds on their bodies,” the sources said.

Pakistani officials believe that the groups had been involved in sectarian killings which shot up suddenly after Masood and Omar entered Pakistan in the late Â’99s. Several police teams are combing Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Bahawalpur to find Omar. “If he is not guilty, why doesn’ the surrender?” the sources said.

Omar’s extended family, mostly in the business of electronics, lives in Lahore and Karachi. The investigators have also picked up several other suspected people associated with the group following the clues from the arrested persons. The probe team believes Daniel Pearl was still in Karachi.

Syed Kamal Shah, Inspector General of Police, Sindh, told reporters after his return from Islamabad: “We are getting very close (to recover Daniel Pearl).” When asked if it was a matter of hours, he said: “It will take a little longer than hours but we are making significant progress.”

Shah, who had returned after having a meeting with President General Pervez Musharraf, said the investigators were working day and night to solve the case.

Sources involved in the police investigation said three men arrested here overnight had identified Omar as the source of e-mails containing photographs of Pearl in captivity.

‘They have told investigators that they sent the e-mails with photographs on the directives of Sheikh Omar,’ one investigator said, on condition of anonymity.

He said police later raided Omar’s in-laws’ house in Lahore and arrested some of his relatives.

The three arrests in Karachi, where the Wall Street Journal reporter was last seen 14 days ago, could lead to a ‘breakthrough’ in the search, police said.

The investigation has so far led to 13 arrests, including six in Karachi, five in Lahore and two in Islamabad, but Pearl’s fate remained unknown.

Karachi police chief Tariq Jamil said that information gleaned during ‘intense interrogation’ of the three detained Tuesday night indicated, for the first time, that the kidnapping was the work of ‘a group and not a few individuals’.

Police named the three as former police intelligence officer Adil Sheikh, and cousins Suleman Saqib and Fawad who were said to be members of Jaish-e-Mohammad.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani

Sovereignty claimed responsibility for the abduction in two e-mails last week.

They threatened to kill Pearl by last Thursday, later extending the deadline to Friday, unless Pakistanis captured in Afghanistan and former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef were released from US custody.

The group has not been heard from since, but police, who are being assisted by US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, believe Pearl is still alive and being held somewhere in Karachi.

Police on Tuesday also named three others – Mohammad Hashim Qadeer, Mohammad Bashir and Imtiaz Siddiqui – as ‘prime suspects’ but they have not been found.

They were involved in arranging an interview between Pearl, 38, and Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, leader of another little-known group, Tanzeem-ul-Fuqra. Gilani has also been detained and questioned.

Sheikh Omar, who was born in England and educated at the London School of Economics, was said by police to be a leading figure in the Jaish-e-Mohammad, although little is known about the 29-year-old from East London.

He has not been seen since he left his Lahore home with his wife and two-month-old child four days before Pearl was abducted.

Jaish-e-Mohammad Wednesday denied any link with Omar and said it was not involved in the kidnapping.

‘We target military personnel and installations’ in Kashmir, spokesman Rana Farooq Tahir said.

Omar had been arrested in New Delhi in 1993 after kidnapping three tourists he hoped to swap for jailed Muslim fighter Maulana Masood Azhar. Both were freed in 1999 in exchange for hostages on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane in Afghanistan.

Jaish-e-Mohammad grew out of the Harkatul Mujahideen in the months after the Indian Airlines hijacking. Both groups have been outlawed in Pakistan and feature on the US list of terrorist organisations.

They focused on the jehad against Indian rule in Kashmir, and also had close links to the Taliban and possibly Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan.

Jaish-e-Mohammad is one of two extremist groups blamed by India for the December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament. It has also been accused of the October suicide strike on the Kashmir legislature building which claimed 38 lives.

Source: The Nation