From a London public school to the shadow of the noose — Nick Fielding
unravels a story of terrorism, betrayal and political intrigue that is approaching its denouement in a foreign courtroom
Just inside London's North Circular Road at Snaresbrook, where the outer reaches of the East End give way at last to the genteel villages of Epping Forest, is a fee-paying school of 1,100 pupils that counts among its former students the England cricket
captain Nasser Hussain and the Manchester United midfielder Quinton Fortune.
The Forest school, founded in 1834, is proud of its sporting traditions. It also does well in exam league tables and exudes a quiet respectability. Many of its pupils come from the families of successful Asian entrepreneurs in the area.
One boy who was expected to do particularly well when he left to study at the London School of Economics 10 years ago was Omar Saeed Sheikh. He was not too good at orthodox sports — he preferred arm wrestling in pubs — but he was bright enough to have earned
A-grade passes at A-level in maths and economics.
All who have met him speak of his charm, his humour, his good looks. His former tutor in economics, George Paynter, remembers: "He was pleasant and communicative, had a jolly good brain and was a willing and capable student.”
A decade later, 28-year-old Sheikh is on trial for his life with three other men in a cage in a Karachi prison, accused of involvement in the kidnapping and particularly cruel murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The high, spacious courtroom is divided in two: one part for the four prisoners in their metal cage, the other for court officials. Defending lawyers have their thumbprints checked by a computer. No journalists or members of the public are allowed in. Outside,
up to 200 armed police stand guard.
Sheikh comes to court each day wearing a white shalwar kameez, his glasses and trimmed beard giving him a studious look. He is trying both to charm and to intimidate those around him. In the last hearing two weeks ago he objected to the court proceedings, saying
they were based on English law and that he wanted to be tried under Islamic sharia law. "I don't accept this English court. I should be tried under shariat law,” he shouted at the judge, Arshad Noor Khan.
At the same time he has been exhibiting the charm which saw him effortlessly entrap at least half a dozen westerners into kidnap and, in Pearl's case, murder. "He is a nice man. He makes no complaints. He is very well behaved,” said Amanullah Niazi, a senior
official at Karachi Central Prison.
Sheikh has pleaded not guilty to the Pearl charges; but by his own account, shouted out to reporters during one of his court appearances, he was behind other crimes, including blowing up the Kashmir parliament in October last year, the attack on the Indian
parliament last December — which almost resulted in war between India and Pakistan — the kidnapping of Indian businessmen for ransom and the attack on the American Cultural Centre in Calcutta in January.
Both the Americans and the British would like to interrogate Sheikh, who is wanted in the United States for his kidnapping in 1994 of an American citizen, as well as for conspiracy to commit hostage taking in relation to Pearl.
The charges against him in Karachi carry the death penalty. Whatever the verdict announced in the next day or two, however, so many powerful men in Pakistan are afraid of the knowledge that Sheikh holds that he is unlikely to leave the country alive.
Nor is the real story likely to be told in court. For Sheikh is no ordinary terrorist but a man who has connections that reach high into Pakistan's military and intelligence elite and into the innermost circles of Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda organisation.
His use of charm, intelligence and brutality to achieve his ideological ends draws an obvious comparison with Carlos the Jackal — the glamorous Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who played cat-and-mouse with western governments in the 1970s when
Sheikh was a small boy at an east London primary school.
For months I have been piecing together the hidden story of this charismatic yet repugnant figure, on whose account so many people have suffered. As the trial approaches its conclusion and Sheikh awaits his fate, I can reveal what took him there and who has
exploited his commitment to terror.
Like most people in Britain I had never heard of him until last September, just after the attack on the World Trade Center, when I received a call from a journalist in India. Did I know, the caller asked, that the British were asking India for legal assistance
to try to find a man called Omar Sheikh for questioning? My contact said Sheikh was an Islamic terrorist and kidnapper who had been freed from an Indian jail in 1999 in exchange for 154 passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane.
Intriguingly, the British inquiry about him had been made in August, before the attacks on America. I was told by police sources that, although almost unknown to the western public, this Londoner was considered to be a potential leader of the Islamic fundamentalist
Gradually, after that first tip-off, the story of the making of this top terrorist emerged, much of it in his own words. Perhaps as chilling is the underlying story I eventually uncovered: his involvement with Pakistani intelligence, the step too far that may
prove to be his death warrant.
IN 1968, a young Pakistani businessman called Saeed Ahmed Sheikh and his wife Qaissia left the village of Dhoka Mandi near Lahore and travelled to Britain, where they settled in Wanstead, one of east London's more leafy suburbs. Five years later, on December
23, 1973, their son Omar was born at nearby Whipps Cross hospital. Later they had another son, Awais, and a daughter, Hajira.
After attending Nightingale primary school in Wanstead, Omar transferred to the £8,000-a-year Forest school, a 10-minute bus ride away, where he studied until he was 13. In 1987, his father sold up his business in London and decided to move the family back
to Pakistan. Some say it was because he thought his children would have a more moral upbringing.
The family semi in Wanstead was rented out and Omar Sheikh went to live with his grandparents on Ravi Road in Lahore. He was sent to Aitchison College, a prestigious school favoured by Pakistan's elite, but he left after only two years. "He was a violent person,
into boxing,” says Syed Ali Dayan Hasan, who studied with him. Hasan says Sheikh was expelled for beating up fellow pupils, but Sheikh has claimed it was because he failed his higher secondary exam.
Sheikh's father had invested about £250,000 in a business, Crystal Chemical Factory Ltd, with three relatives. But the company failed and Sheikh's father decided to return to Britain in December 1989. Here he started Perfect Fashion, an import-export business
that still exists today in a grimy Commercial Road shopfront in the East End garment district.
By December 1990 Sheikh had been called back from Pakistan and was once again at Forest school, studying for his A-levels and obtaining admission to the LSE, where he read applied mathematics, statistical theory, economics and social psychology.
Having matured into a powerfully built young man, he relaxed through arm wrestling, a sport that thrives in a network of pubs. He even attended the "world championships” in Geneva in 1992 as part of the 17-strong British team.
"He was a very nice guy, well mannered and educated,” recalls David Shead, head referee of the European Arm Wrestling Federation. "He liked a joke and always had a bit of nerve. Sheikh never won any titles, but competed for a year or two.”
Shead remembers Sheikh turning up for an arm wrestling match with a fierce former convict known simply as Mr X. "Mr X always wore dark glasses and on the day Omar showed up for the match, he too was wearing the same kind of glasses. He was trying to psych him
out, to get an edge and to have a laugh at the other guy's expense,” says Shead.
What was it that drove this congenial figure towards terrorism? The first clue came in October last year when I found that Sheikh's diary had been discovered among forgotten legal papers in a courthouse near Delhi.
The 35-page diary, written in neat longhand after he was shot in an attempted kidnapping in India in 1994, explains in a matter-of-fact manner how he had turned his back on his comfortable middle-class existence in Britain at the age of 20 to join a Pakistan-based
organisation that supported Bin Laden and had dedicated himself to a jihad against the "corrupt” West.
The diary shows a complete lack of conscience. In it, Sheikh reveals how he kidnapped gullible western backpackers in India by pretending to take them to a feudal village that he had inherited from an uncle: "It seems amazing the story was greeted with such
credible enthusiasm, but the newly arrived traveller in India yearns to hear extraordinary stories.”
My next breakthrough came in a confession written by Sheikh or possibly dictated to him by Indian interrogators after his 1994 arrest. Drier than his diary, it nonetheless filled in many of the gaps.
"During my initial period in the LSE I became a member of the Islamic Society,” Sheikh said. "In November 1992, ‘Bosnia Week' was observed and various documentary films on Bosnia were shown. One such film, The Destruction of a Nation, shook my heart. The reason
being Bosnian Muslims were shown being butchered by the Serbs.”
It was the start of Sheikh's political involvement. He helped to organise a student conference on Bosnia and began fundraising.
At the end of February 1993, despite his studies, Sheikh accompanied his father on a business trip to Pakistan, taking with him propaganda videos on the war in Bosnia, and made contact with Islamic militants. On his return he decided to join a "convoy of mercy”
to Bosnia in the Easter holidays.
This expedition, said Sheikh, was run by a Pakistani businessman living in Finchley, north London. The six-vehicle convoy took relief material to Bosnia, although Sheikh said it was also organising clandestine support for the Muslim fighters. When he got to
Split, near the border between Croatia and Bosnia, he was unable to go on "due to indisposition and fatigue”. While recuperating he met Abdur Rauf, a Pakistani veteran of the fighting in Afghanistan who had arrived to join the Muslim militia.
Rauf belonged to the Harakut-ul- Mujaheddin (HUM), an Islamic guerrilla group. Sensing a potential recruit, Rauf advised Sheikh not to waste his time as an aid worker in Bosnia but to train as a fighter in Pakistan. According to the interrogation document,
Rauf suggested that Maulvi Ismail, imam of the Clifton mosque in north London, whom he described as a sympathiser of HUM, could help Sheikh to get his father's permission to take up jihad.
Five months later, Sheikh arrived in Lahore "with zeal and intention to undergo arms training and joining the mujaheddin”. He was directed to Miranshah on the Afghan border.
"I saw approximately 20 youths waiting to undergo arms training in Afghanistan. Miranshah is a place where arms/ammunition are easily available and smuggling of arms is also open,” Sheikh told his Indian interrogators.
From here he crossed into Afghanistan to the Khalid bin Waleed training camp where he joined the "Istakbalia” 40-day training course. "The training schedule included morning namaz (prayers) in the mosque followed by physical exercise till 0800 hours. After
breakfast we were imparted classes in handling of small and medium firearms, Kalashnikov and Seminov, till lunch, followed by a rest of two hours and then namaz . . . Other exercises included night security duties and firing practice. For the latter we used
to get six cartridges each.”
After two weeks, ill-health forced Sheikh back to the Lahore home of his uncle, Tariq Shaikh, who "tried to persuade me to quit arms training and go back to the UK. But I remained adamant and resumed training after a hiatus of 10 days”.
He soon joined a special course from September to December 1993. The instructors, Sheikh says in the interrogation document, were from the Pakistan army's Special Services Group and taught surveillance techniques, disguise, interrogation, secret writing and
codes, first aid, making attacks and night ambushes. "This special training was sort of a city warfare training. Apart from the above-mentioned, weapons training in assault rifle, rocket launcher etc was also imparted by the same instructors.”
At the end of the course, the training camp was visited by senior HUM leaders. One of them, Maulana (Mullah) Masood Azhar — who would later visit Sheikh's father during a trip to Britain — asked Sheikh to come to India with him for an important mission. But
his dual nationality was a problem. It would be difficult to get an Indian visa.
So he returned to Britain in January 1994, starting martial arts classes in Crawley, West Sussex, for a group of Muslims and trying to interest his old friends and classmates in joining the jihad in Afghanistan.
He renewed his British passport and dropped his dual nationality. Finally in March 1994 he got an Indian visa and the following month left for Afghanistan where he attended a refresher course and became an instructor on another course for new recruits.
Two months later, in June 1994, he once again received a visit from senior leaders of HUM — now renamed Harrikat-ul-Ansar (HUA) — who asked him to help a group of activists captured in India and Maulana Masood Azhar, who had by then been arrested in Kashmir.
He was told that several British backpackers had been captured in Kashmir with a view to being exchanged for the activists, "but due to weak planning they had to be released unconditionally”. This was not true. Five westerners — including two Britons — kidnapped
in Kashmir had been brutally murdered. Their bodies have never been recovered.
One far-fetched idea suggested to Sheikh was that he should join a cruise ship in America and make friends with passengers whom he could later kidnap: "I smiled at this suggestion because it appeared to be a very funny idea to me.”
Instead they decided to organise a kidnapping in India, of either foreigners or leading members of the BJP, the ruling Hindu nationalist party. Its supporters had been behind the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque, which had inflamed Muslim
opinion across the world.
Sheikh booked himself a flight in July. After arriving in Delhi, he checked in to the Holiday Inn with some of the £600 and 20,000 Indian rupees he had been allocated for his mission.
There, with several accomplices, he kidnapped three Britons and an American, holding them in safe houses well away from Delhi. It was an amateurish operation with Sheikh himself at one point walking into the BBC offices in New Delhi to deliver a ransom note.
Letters containing photographs of the captives were sent to the Indian prime minister and to local news agencies. But the operation went wrong at the end of October when a police patrol stumbled across the kidnappers close to one of the safe houses. A scuffle
broke out followed by a gunfight in which a senior Indian policeman was killed and Sheikh was shot in the shoulder. All the hostages were freed unharmed and Sheikh was sent to prison, where interrogation took place and he wrote his diary.
The diary is a disturbing document. It reveals a pleasant, educated academic achiever who could put all that aside and immerse himself in the dirty business of playing with other people's lives. Despite his injuries and incarceration, it is almost jaunty in
Writing about his arrival in India in the autumn of 1994, prior to the first batch of kidnaps, he states: "Over the next month, every place I visited I analysed from various points of view as a ‘future conqueror' as I fondly imagined myself to be, as a social
scientist, a traveller, noting down the intricacies of a new country. I went to mosques and madrassahs and talked about ideas pertaining to jihad.”
Nowhere in his diary is there even a hint of remorse. The only sign of that came from an interview carried out by an Indian television journalist, Zubair Ahmed, shortly after Sheikh was first arrested. He was seen in a private hospital under heavy armed guard.
"The authorities clearly had no idea who he was,” recalls Ahmed.
"With police permission we filmed an interview at his hospital bed. Sheikh looked extremely worried and he told me he would give anything to return to life in Britain. Over and over, he repeated he had made a mistake . . . I asked him if he was released, would
he go back and tell people in Britain that we Indian Muslims were free to build mosques, say our prayers and work in government offices? He said he would. He appeared repentant, but clearly not enough.”
After five years held without trial at Tihar prison near Delhi, Sheikh was released in December 1999 with Maulana Masood Azhar in exchange for 154 passengers on board an Indian Airlines plane hijacked by fellow members of HUA. He was flown to Kandahar airport
in Afghanistan. Officially he then disappeared; but it is now clear that he began living within the Sheikh family circle in Lahore.
He appears to have kept little back from his family about his activities. He married and had a child; it is inconceivable that the Pakistani authorities did not know where he was.
BY the beginning of this year, the story of Sheikh's background was reasonably clear in my mind. He was a seasoned terrorist with both operational and prison experience behind him. But who was running him and what would he do next? The answers came more quickly
than I anticipated. At the end of January, Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal was kidnapped in Karachi and murdered after his captors had taunted his wife, his newspaper and the police with false leads and photographs of the journalist being held at gunpoint.
The incident looked similar to the kidnappings in India. I felt sure Sheikh was involved. Within days I was in Pakistan, staying in the same guesthouse used by Pearl and, like every other journalist in the region, trying to report this terrible story while
looking over my shoulder to avoid a similar fate.
Confirmation came within a few days when three people arrested over the case, including a cousin of Sheikh, confessed he had provided them with photographs of Pearl to e-mail to news organisations. It would later emerge that Sheikh had already had a meeting
with Pearl in Rawalpindi and that the meeting in Karachi had been planned down to the smallest detail.
Sheikh had left his home in Lahore with his wife and newborn baby four days before the Pearl kidnapping and was now on the run. It would be only a matter of time before he was caught.
Now the next question: who was Sheikh working for? There was one bizarre clue in the demands made by Pearl's kidnappers, who wanted America to honour an agreement to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. This hardly squared with the outlook of a militant
Muslim organisation fighting a jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
It did, however — no matter how counterproductively — express the interests of Pakistan's military government, which wanted the fighters so they could be fitted out to carry nuclear warheads. What was going on?
The next clue came with the revelation that Sheikh was in custody. On a visit to America on February 12, Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, announced that he had been captured by police in Lahore. But Sheikh shouted out in court that he had turned
himself in to the home secretary of the Punjab, retired Brigadier Ejaz Shah, on February 5, a full week earlier.
Shah, who had served in the Pakistan military's powerful and pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence service (ISI), used to direct the activities of two Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Kashmir. He reportedly passed on the news of Sheikh's surrender to General
Mohammad Aziz Khan, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee and former head of the ISI section dealing with India and Afghanistan. Khan knew Sheikh personally.
It would appear that the ISI had its own reasons for holding Sheikh for a week before announcing to the world that he was in custody. One thing it would have wanted to do was to make sure that its protégé did not give more away than absolutely necessary about
his relationship with Pakistan's intelligence services.
This "missing week” shed new light on unsubstantiated Indian reports last October that Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed, director-general of the ISI, had been forced into retirement after FBI investigators uncovered credible links between him and Sheikh in the
wake of September 11.
According to these reports, the FBI team established that in early September, Ahmed had instructed Sheikh to transfer $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, leader of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center.
There is a further angle that implicates the ISI. It had strong reasons for tailing Pearl: he was normally based in India, which to the ISI was prima facie evidence that he was reporting back to Indian intelligence. When the ISI discovered Pearl was trying
to find out who was financing the HUA, it was the final straw, according to a source in Karachi. "He was beginning to get too close to understanding the links between the ISI and the jihadis,” alleged the source.
"Sheikh was their (the ISI's) man and he was brought in to deal with Pearl. The ISI knew everything.” The Karachi police, who deeply distrust the ISI, leaked details of their interrogation of Sheikh in which he talked about his ISI connections. As a result,
ISI operatives broke into the newsroom of The News, Pakistan's largest English language newspaper, in February in an apparent attempt to prevent publication of a leak in which Sheikh was reported to have said that the ISI helped him to finance, plan and execute
last December's attack on the Indian parliament.
The News is edited by Shaheen Sehbai, the first local journalist Pearl contacted when he arrived in Pakistan. Failing to prevent publication of Sheikh's confession, the ISI demanded an apology from Sehbai, who has fled to America fearing for his life.
M J Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a security and terrorism policy assessment group that has been researching Pearl's murder, said: "Sheikh is a vital key that can open all the doors to the Al-Qaeda network, to the links between the Pakistani military
intelligence establishment and the terror groups, and can destroy General Musharraf's credibility with Washington.
He is a vital piece in the jigsaw and for that reason it is highly unlikely the US will ever be allowed to interrogate him.” The full story of the kidnapping of Pearl will probably never come to light. What is clear is that Sheikh has for long been very close
to the ISI and that it regarded him as an asset. The whole affair has been a setback and embarrassment to Musharraf and has destabilised the country.
Small wonder that Musharraf is said to have told Wendy Chamberlain, the American ambassador, that he would rather "hang Sheikh myself than have him extradited”.