20 years ago this week: The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl

Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Al Qaeda terrorists 20 years ago this week on 23 January 2002.

Daniel Pearl was a Jewish-American journalist, born in New Jersey and raised in Los Angeles. His father came from a Polish Jewish family, his mother from an Iraqi Jewish family from Baghdad. In 2002, he was 38 years old and worked for the Wall Street Journal as its South Asia Bureau Chief, based in Mumbai, India. He had already covered the 1990s inter-ethnic wars in the Balkans and also investigated the 1998 US missile attack on the Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, suspected by the Clinton administration (wrongly, as it turned out) to be a production plant for nerve gas.

At the time of his kidnapping, he was in Pakistan to report on the US ‘war on terror’ that followed the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda in 2001. Specifically, he was investigating the links between Richard Reid, a British citizen known as the ‘shoe bomber’, and Al Qaeda.

On 23 January, he was heading to an arranged meeting with a Pakistani Sufi religious figure in downtown Karachi when he was abducted by an Al Qaeda sub-group. They accused him of being a spy and issued a set of demands, including the freeing of all Pakistani terror detainees by the US government. They did not respond to public pleas from his family and his editor for his release, but issued photographs of him handcuffed with a gun at his head and holding up a newspaper. Nine days later, on 1 February, they beheaded him and mutilated his body, burying it in a shallow grave near Karachi. (1)

In February 2002, a video was released titled ‘The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl’ and showing the captive before and after his ‘execution’. The video shows that, despite his knowing his probable fate as a Jew (one of those ‘strongest among men in enmity to the Believers’ – Qur’an 5:82), he behaved bravely and made no attempt to hide or apologise for his Jewish identity. In fact, if his words conveyed anything, it was pride:   

My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California, USA. I come from… on my father’s side the family is Zionist. My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I’m Jewish. My family follows Judaism. We’ve made numerous family visits to Israel.” He added that a street in Bnei Brak [a small city east of Tel Aviv] was named after his great-grandfather, a founder of the town.” 

He went on to condemn US foreign policy, although his family were certain that he did so under duress and made signs to indicate this. (2) 

Within a few months, the arrest of three suspects had led to the capture of the man believed chiefly responsible for the abduction and murder, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a terrorist with previous experience of kidnappings in India. In March 2002, the four were charged in a Pakistani court with the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. All were convicted and Sheikh was sentenced to death.

However, in a tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in 2007, the No. 3 Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed claimed to have personally murdered Pearl: “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan.” This confession, for which there is credible evidence, allowed Ahmed Sheikh’s lawyers to appeal his death sentence (while admitting his involvement in the operation).

Daniel Pearl in the hostage video made by his Al Qaeda captors (IndiaTimes.com/AFP)
Daniel Pearl in the hostage video made by his Al Qaeda captors (IndiaTimes.com/AFP)

On 2 April 2020, Sheikh’s murder conviction was overturned by the Sindh provincial high court and his kidnapping sentence was reduced to seven years, counted as time already served. Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth, have since filed an appeal to the Pakistani Supreme Court to reverse this decision. A long-drawn-out appeals process continued into 2021 and has not yet concluded.

Meanwhile Judea (aged 86 and well known in his own right for his path-breaking work on artificial intelligence) continues to seek justice for their son (Ruth died during 2021). The history of the family and its connections to Israel are documented by Judea Pearl in his Los Angeles Times article ‘Roots in the Holy Land’. (3) 

By Dermot Meleady




  1. The Guardian, 18 May 2002.

  2. ‘Right of Reply: Daniel Pearl’s last words,’ Jerusalem Post, 22 Oct 2012. 

  3. Judea Pearl, ‘Roots in the Holy Land,’ Los Angeles Times, 16 May 2008. 

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