Who is Omar Saeed Sheikh – the person re-arrested after being released by a Pakistani court? From his involvement in the murder of Daniel Peral to his terror links with Al-Qaeda, Omar Saeed Sheikh has undoubtedly remained a poster boy of terror ever since his release by Indian authorities after the hijacking of an Indian airliner.
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Pakistan authorities on Friday ordered Omar Saeed Sheikh, Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib and Sheikh Muhammad Adil convicted of 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl to be detained for a period three months despite Sindh High Court’s ruling to overturn their convictions a day before.
Omar was given the death sentence by Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court in 2002 while others were given a jail term of 25 years. The reason cited behind their was that the men may indulge in anti-national activities. Two other involved in the kidnapping, Amjad Hussain Farooqi was shot dead by Pakistan police in 2004 and Mohammad Hasheem Qadir was acquited in 2014.
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Who is Omar Saeed Sheikh?
A two-member bench headed by Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha had earlier found Omar Saeed Sheikh guilty of kidnapping but not of murder and overturned his death sentence to a seven-year jail term saying that he had already spent 18 years in prison.
Omar had also made headlines in 2008 after he called none other than Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari from Hyderabad jail in Pakistan pretending to be Indian foreign minister. Disguised Omar had threatened retaliation in response to an attack by Pakistan based terrorists on India’s financial capital – Mumbai.
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The US denounced the decision of overturning the death sentence of British-born top al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh terming the verdict an “affront” to the victims of terrorism everywhere. However, the re-arrest is questionable given that Pakistan is under close scrutiny by anti-terror financial watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its inability to prosecute terrorists.
Daniel Pearl was kidnapped from Karachi and was killed in captivity after terrorists brutally decapitated his head and shared the video worldwide prompting outrage from all corners.
However, this is where the plot gets murkier. A report by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found Omar Saeed Sheikh guilty of kidnapping only. Daniel Pearl was investigating the role of the main suspect Richard C Reid in the failed attack on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001, who was also called as shoe bomber because the accused had placed explosives in his sneakers.
Pearl was lured by Omar who introduced himself as Chaudhary Basheer and promised Pearl of providing access to an Islamic cleric who had ties to Reid. Omar was at the time was associated with Jaish-e-Mohammad a terror outfit.
Pearl is also believed to have discovered a charity link connecting Osama Bin Laden to Pakistan’s intelligence agency which had left the ISI red-faced. Omar is believed to have surrendered on February 5 to an old ISI contact Ijaz Ahmed who is currently the Federal Interior Minister and was later handed to police in February 12 2002.
However, that has not stopped his lawyer from claiming that the alleged delay was because the authorities held Omar in secret and forced his confession after torturing him.
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Also, a former CIA captive confessed to the murder of Daniel Pearl which was confirmed by the FBI’s forensic team according to the report by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. However, another CIA officer doubted the finding saying that the captive appeared to be boastful and mentally unstable raising doubts about his confession.
At his initial trial, Omar had said that he did not want to defend his actions and that whatever he did he had his reasons and that he did want his country to be a pawn in America’s hands. Omar after being handed the death penalty had said to reporters, “We will see who dies first, me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me.”
Omar Saeed Sheikh’s Indian Connection
Omar Sheikh was arrested following a shootout in India in 1994 for the kidnapping of one American and four Britons. Omar had introduced himself as Rohit Sharma and invited them to visit his uncle’s property in Kashmir.
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Instead of taking them to Kashmir, the American captive was taken to Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh while the British captives were held at Saharanpur in the same state. The captives were rescued and Omar was arrested after Uttar Pradesh police accidentally stumbled across the house which held the American captive while pursuing a case of robbery.
He was placed under arrest in Tihar jail until 1999 when an Indian commercial flight IC-814 en route to New Delhi from Kathmandu was hijacked and taken instead to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI bore the legal cost of Omar’s trial. The hijack forced Indian authorities to release Omar, Masood Azhar the chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad and two others in a swap deal for 154 passengers of the hijacked commercial airliner.
Omar’s name had also popped up on American radar after FBI discovered a financial link between Omar and Al-Qaeda’s terrorist Mohamad Atta who was the key conspirator of 9/11 terror attacks. FBI found that Omar had wired $1,00,000 to Atta on the instruction of then ISI chief Mahmud Ahmed who had to later resign.
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However, unlike many Pakistani militants, Omar was born to a middle-class business family in east England and spoke impeccable English. He went to Forest School in Snaresbrook and was a member of the British arm-wrestling squad and on his way to Geneva the next year.
According to one of Omar’s classmates, Omar was always near the top of his year but far from a model pupil. The classmate recalls Omar Saeed Sheikh as someone who always wanted to show his strength so much so that he once punched the daylight out of his teacher when he was just eight years old. He also had knocked a guy out who was four years older than him and split open his lips.
Later in 1987, Omar and his parents moved to Pakistan and studied at Aitchison College in Lahore but was expelled for fighting. On his return, his classmate said that Omar had become much more political and religious in his views. His friend recalls a particular instance when the two were playing chess. Omar is believed to have told his friend that playing chess was equivalent to a battle.
However, the turning point came after Omar Saeed Sheikh went to study at prestigious London School of Economics where he came in contact with radical Islamists and dropped out only in his first year. In 1989 Omar discussed the worsening situations in the Balkan region and felt that he needed to do something for Muslims who were being persecuted.
He soon packed his bag and headed for Bosnia where he came in contact with Islamists from Pakistan who later sent him for training in Afghanistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He began working after his release with Masood Azhar and his terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad backed by ISI and resumed fighting in Kashmir.
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After his arrest in Pakistan, he told police interrogators about his deep connections to ISI and tried to convince the interrogators to join the militancy in Kashmir. He also claimed to know the militants who bombed Srinagar Assembly in Kashmir which killed 38 people and also those terrorists who were responsible for the attack on the Indian Parliament.
One of the details that leaked from the interrogation talked about Omar calling the kidnapping as a warning shot against Pakistan Government. The story proved accurate as within weeks terrorists carried out three suicide attacks killing 30 people.
However former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had doubted this claim in his book ‘In the line of fire’ wherein he stated that Omar was recruited by British Intelligence Agency MI6 to operate in Bosnia but at some point, Omar had become a rogue agent.