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U.S. Thinks 9/11 Planner Killed Pearl

Authorities once questioned such claims, but they now believe the Al Qaeda operative is the man who slit the journalist's throat.

October 22, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials now believe that a top Al Qaeda operative who has admitted orchestrating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan by slitting his throat as a video camera taped the assault, authorities said Tuesday.

Previously, some U.S. officials had questioned the veracity of claims made by two Pakistani men that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed played a direct role in Pearl's death, noting that the senior aide to Osama bin Laden was more of a terrorist mastermind than an actual foot soldier before his capture in March.

Recently, however, U.S. authorities have come to believe that Mohammed played both roles, a U.S. official said Tuesday. The shift in their analysis was first reported Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal.

"The reports that we have come to the conclusion that [Mohammed] was responsible for the killing of Daniel Pearl are correct," the U.S. official said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I cannot tell you how we came to that conclusion, or why."

"It is not insignificant," the U.S. official said of Mohammed's alleged personal involvement in the slaying of Pearl, who was abducted in Karachi in January 2002. "He's certainly behind the killing of 3,000 Americans. He didn't fly one of the planes into the towers, but he was centrally involved. Now we believe he was directly involved in the death of another American. They are all tragedies."

In its report Tuesday, the Journal said Bush administration officials had developed "credible, corroborated information" that Mohammed was "directly involved" in Pearl's killing, along with four men convicted in Pakistan on charges related to the crime.

Mohammed is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location overseas. Officials say he is providing his CIA interrogators with an array of valuable information on Al Qaeda plots and operatives and about how the global terrorist network operates. But the U.S. official and other authorities refused to comment on whether Mohammed had confirmed or denied playing a role in Pearl's slaying.

A second U.S. official noted, however, that the voice of Pearl's killer can be heard clearly on the videotape and that the CIA typically would seek to match that "voiceprint" with other recordings of Mohammed made either before or since he was captured.

Both U.S. officials declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

During their trial last year in Pakistan, two defendants accused of involvement in Pearl's death identified Mohammed as the man who cut the journalist's throat, according to the first U.S. official. He said some U.S. and Pakistani officials were initially skeptical, concerned that the men might be attempting to shift the blame to avoid being convicted.

Four men were found guilty last year of helping organize Pearl's abduction or of sending photos of him and ransom demands to news agencies. One, Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, has been sentenced to death for meeting with Pearl and then luring him to his death by posing as a follower of a militant Islamic cleric Pearl hoped to interview.

The U.S. official said the new belief about Mohammed's role should not affect those convictions, some of which are being appealed, or the trials of at least four other alleged co-conspirators who remain at large.

Many questions about the case remain, particularly whether Mohammed and other Al Qaeda operatives initiated Pearl's kidnapping or merely took advantage of his abduction by local extremists who had ties to Al Qaeda, the official said.

Pearl, the Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was pursuing a terrorism story in Pakistan when he was taken and held by men claiming to be Islamic militants. A month later, authorities acquired the videotape, which showed Pearl answering questions about his Jewish heritage before being killed. The tape shows only the hands of Pearl's killer and two other men who were restraining him.

In recent years, authorities have tied Mohammed to a Philippines-based plot to blow up 12 commercial airliners in the mid-1990s; the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; and other terrorist strikes, including the April 2002 attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

The U.S. officials said there were no plans to bring Mohammed to the United States to stand trial for his alleged role in any terrorist attacks. They also said there was no effort underway to turn him over to Pakistani authorities to participate in the trials related to Pearl's slaying.

At least five men charged in the case remain fugitives, including the owner of the property where Pearl is believed to have been detained and killed.

Last week, the Bush administration linked that man, Saud Memon, to a Pakistan-based charity called Al Akhtar Trust, which it has designated a terrorist organization with ties to Al Qaeda. In a statement, Al Akhtar confirmed that it had briefly employed Memon but said it had no ties to terrorism.

A Wall Street Journal spokeswoman told Associated Press on Tuesday that officials at the newspaper "continue to hope that all those responsible for Danny's kidnap and murder are brought to justice."

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