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Daniel in the den of lions

Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Bernard-Henri Levy Translated from the French by James X. Mitchell Melville House Publishing: 458 pp., $25.95

September 28, 2003|Mahnaz Ispahani | Mahnaz Ispahani is a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Pakistan: Dimensions of Insecurity."

As French-American relations lie deep in the doldrums, Bernard-Henri Levy, France's omnipresent philosopher-celebrity, is once more at the center of the most fashionable French issue of the day: anti-Americanism. Levy cannot say it too often: He is passionately "anti-anti-Americanism," or, as he has said, he opposes those who are anti-America "for what it is rather than for what it does."

Anti-Americanism, he suggests, is an insidious disease spread across the globe by Islamist extremists, and he associates it closely with anti-Semitism. Levy says he opposes U.S. policy in Iraq but values America, and he tries to make both points by pouring his passion into the story of a terrible crime committed in Pakistan in early 2002 against Daniel Pearl, a journalist whom Levy considers a perfect American: generous, open, liberal, tolerant, justice-seeking and a democrat. "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" is at once a personal book about the psychology of an individual crime -- about "a dead man that I must bring to life" -- and about the larger meanings and implications of that crime. It is meant to be an activist's alarm call: Its atmospherics alone will leave readers fearing Pakistan.

The paraphernalia of Levy's wealth, looks, lifestyle and persona preoccupy most of his book's reviewers. He has written 30 books, many of them controversial; and he has taken up various causes, including those of Bangladesh (where, in 1971, he learned to despise the Pakistani military's policies, and rightly so), Bosnia-Herzegovina and other war-ravaged places. "Who Killed Daniel Pearl," filled with Levy's research, ruminations and interminable self references, is a bestseller in France. The English version makes difficult reading: so long is it, so loosely edited, replete with botched names of people and places. Still, this highly flawed book makes a useful point: If it is left unresolved, real danger could emanate from radical Islamists in Pakistan, a country of 145 million people and a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Levy says he became obsessed with Daniel Pearl after hearing the news and seeing the gruesome video of his execution. He spent a year tramping the world, including Los Angeles and Karachi, the city "I detested, where I was afraid," in search of "the truth." At one level, Levy's book reads like a thriller -- in which he eerily inhabits both Pearl and his killer -- at another like a religious passion play in which an innocent victim is destroyed by the forces of evil, bearing the greatest sacrifice of all in the search for truth. Levy describes Karachi's Village Garden restaurant as "the first station of Daniel Pearl's cross." Levy uses local fixers and intelligence agency contacts to build, on the edifice of this single and singular crime, a series of global theses. He pores over secret dossiers and visits unwelcoming places, including the vividly realized Hotel Akbar, where he says Pakistan's premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, housed Islamist militant contacts and where Pearl met his nemesis and kidnapper, British-born Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Pearl, says Levy, was killed because he was a journalist who was discovering too much in a place where such knowledge can kill; he was a Jew with family links to Israel in a place where, Levy correctly points out, an abhorrent anti-Semitism is popular; and he was an American in a place where few Americans feel secure.

Though the Pakistani government insists that Sheikh was responsible for the crime -- he has been sentenced to death in a secret trial -- Levy the sleuth attaches varying degrees of culpability and connection to a global jihadi conspiracy of Western-educated Islamists, Yemeni assassins, Pakistan's military intelligence agencies, a shady U.S.-based Muslim sect and Al Qaeda. Ultimately, Levy suggests that Al Qaeda, helped by some of Pakistan's nuclear scientists, might even capture the country's nuclear weapons.

Some of Levy's theses are known facts; some have been widely rumored (that Sheikh had ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, for example); others are simply bizarre. Despite Levy's tone of revelation, intrepid reporters like Pearl, and scholars too, have been piecing together the stories since Sept. 11, 2001. They have written about Pakistani intelligence agents and soldiers who, while hunting down Al Qaeda leaders, also collude with Taliban supporters, local sectarian militants and the religious parties gaining power in Pakistan. Levy's method is frustrating: Though he insists that most of the book is fact and little is fiction, the lines can be hard to discern. He calls his book a romanquete: part novel, part investigation: "When reality eludes you and circumstances are such that you are compelled to speculation," he explains, he uses imagination to break impasses in research.

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