U.S. government officials confirmed on February 21, 2002, that Pearl, kidnapped South Asia correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, had been killed by his captors.
The exact date of his murder was uncertain, but authorities announced his death after receiving a graphic, three-and-a-half minute digital videotape containing scenes in which one of the killers slits Pearl’s throat, and then someone holds his severed head. The faces of the assailants are not visible on the video. This, and other details below, are documented in an extensive report on Pearl’s murder, entitled The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl, published in 2011 by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Center for Public Integrity.
Pearl, 38, went missing on January 23, 2002, in the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, and was last seen on his way to an interview at the Village Restaurant, downtown near the Metropole Hotel. According to The Wall Street Journal, Pearl had been reporting on Richard Reid, a suspected terrorist who allegedly tried to blow up an airplane during a transatlantic flight with a bomb in his shoe.
Four days after his disappearance, a group calling itself "The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty" sent an e-mail to several U.S.- and Pakistan-based news organizations claiming responsibility for kidnapping Pearl and accusing him of being an American spy. The e-mail also contained four photographs of the journalist, including one in which he is held at gunpoint and another in which he is holding a copy of the January 24 issue of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
The e-mail contained a series of demands, including the repatriation of Pakistani detainees held by the U.S. Army in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The sender or senders, who used a Hotmail e-mail account under the name "Kidnapperguy," said Pearl was "at present being kept in very inhuman circumstances quite similar infact [sic] to the way that Pakistanis and nationals of other sovereign countries are being kept in Cuba by the American Army."
Another e-mail was sent on January 30, also including photographs of Pearl held captive. This e-mail accused him of being an agent of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, and said he would be killed within 24 hours unless the group’s demands were met.
After scrutinizing the videotape that officials received weeks later, authorities believe that Pearl may have been murdered before the second e-mail was sent. During that footage, Pearl is forced to identify himself as Jewish and to deliver scripted lines reiterating some of the demands made in the e-mails, according to an FBI analysis of the tape that was provided to the Journal.
On February 12, 2002, before Pearl’s murder was discovered, Pakistani police announced the arrest of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, whom they identified as the prime suspect behind the journalist’s kidnapping.
On March 14, a U.S. grand jury indicted Saeed, charging him with hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking resulting in Pearl’s murder. U.S. prosecutors also unsealed a secret indictment filed against Saeed in November 2001 accusing him of participating in the 1994 kidnapping of U.S. tourist Bela Nuss in India. Pakistan refused to extradite Saeed, possibly to avoid damaging disclosures of links between the country’s intelligence agencies and militant Islamist groups that the United States wants to see eliminated.
In April, Saeed and three accomplices–Salman Saqib, Fahad Naseem, and Shaikh Adil–were charged with Pearl’s kidnapping and murder before Pakistan’s special anti-terrorism court. The trial, initially convened at Karachi’s Central Jail and later moved to a heavily guarded prison in Hyderabad due to security concerns, was closed to journalists and the public.
In mid-May, as the trial was under way, police found a dismembered body believed to be Pearl’s buried in the outskirts of Karachi on property owned by the Al-Rashid Trust, an Islamic charity that the United States has accused of funneling money to al-Qaeda. Police were reportedly led to the shallow grave by Fazal Karim, a member of the banned militant Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. At year’s end, Karim had not been charged, and though it has been widely reported that he was detained, authorities have never officially acknowledged his arrest.
On July 15, 2002, the anti-terrorism court announced that Saeed and his accomplices were guilty of Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. Saeed, who was accused of masterminding the crime, was sentenced to death by hanging; Saqib, Naseem, and Adil each received 25-year prison sentences. They appealed the ruling.
Shortly after the ruling, U.S. officials announced DNA test results confirming that the body found in May was indeed Pearl’s.
In mid-August, 2002, The Associated Press (AP) published a detailed account of Pearl’s kidnapping, citing two investigators who spoke on condition of anonymity. The officials said that, according to Karim (who had led police to the journalist’s body in May) and two others held in unofficial custody, Pearl was shot and wounded on the sixth day of his capture when he tried to escape and was murdered on the ninth day. The AP identified the two other detainees as Zubair Chishti and Naeem Bukhari, who is also known as Attaur Rehman and is a leader of the sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The men also said that three Arabs, possibly from Yemen, were brought to the hideout on the ninth day, and that they were involved in filming and carrying out the execution.
Karim later identified one of the Yemenis among those arrested in a September 11, 2002, raid in Karachi, during which U.S. and Pakistani authorities detained several suspected al-Qaeda members, including Ramzi Binalshibh, allegedly a senior al-Qaeda leader who has claimed a central role in coordinating the September 11 attacks.
In 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected of masterminding the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., was reported to have confessed to a U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to personally having slit Pearl’s throat, according to news reports. A trial date for Mohammed’s role in the 9/11 attack has been set for January 11, 2021, although it’s not certain if the trial will proceed, according to news reports.
A former U.S. intelligence officer, Robert Baer, told the United Press International (UPI) news agency in 2002 that he had given Pearl information about Mohammed, and that he believes it was the journalist’s investigations of Mohammed that may have cost him his life. Baer, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 20 years in Asia and the Middle East and wrote the book See No Evil, which criticizes the CIA, told UPI, "I have heard from [intelligence] people who follow this closely that it was people close to Mohammed that killed him, if it wasn’t Mohammed himself."
UPI quoted a Wall Street Journal spokesperson as saying that, "Everything we know from before and after Danny’s murder indicates his reporting effort focused on [alleged shoe bomber] Richard Reid."
On April 2, 2020, the Sindh High Court overturned the murder convictions of the four men accused in Pearl’s killing, according to news reports. The decision found Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had previously been sentenced to death, guilty only of kidnapping Pearl and reduced his sentence to seven years, which he has already served. The Pearl family and the Sindh provincial government appealed, and the four men remained imprisoned as of October 2020, awaiting further action by the Supreme Court, according to news reports.
On January 28, 2021, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the release of Sheikh, and acquitted him and three others of the murder charges.