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Friend Finds Humanity In The Death Of Journalist Daniel Pearl


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. It’s President’s Day, the day this country celebrates its leaders. In a few minutes, we will learn some very important information about President Lincoln you might not have known – what he liked to cook and eat.But first, we hear about a leader in our field of journalism. He lost his life in pursuit of a story – we’re talking about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan while he was pursuing a story he hoped would eventually lead to information about the identity and motives of the people who planned the 9/11 attacks.

But although there were several criminal convictions in the murder of Danny Pearl, his colleague and friend, journalist Asra Nomani, never believed that the men who were convicted, were actually the people who committed the crime. So she set out to prove conclusively who was responsible and, as well, to finish the story that Danny started.Asra Nomani wrote this story at long last for the Washingtonian magazine last month. I sat down with her recently, and she began by recalling how her friendship with Danny Pearl began.

ASRA NOMANI: We had so much fun. I was the geeky immigrant kid from India who just didn't know quite how to, you know, fit in, in America. And Danny introduced me to all those awesome clubs on 18th Street and U Street before they were really hot.

MARTIN: And yeah, he'd kind of - he was kind of your American friend, right?

NOMANI: He was.

MARTIN: He would, you know, translate for you, like, how to have fun, how to give you kind of the childhood you hadn't had in a way, right?

NOMANI: Yeah, I had never bought a CD in my life, and so Danny sent me out on a mission. So I went to that music store on Connecticut Avenue, and I came back with "I'll Do Anything for Love But That" as the title song. And he's like, Meat Loaf? That's not music - and sent me back for another assignment.

MARTIN: So he was not only a great reporter, he was a great friend.

NOMANI: Yeah, he was.

MARTIN: When he was kidnapped in Karachi, he and his wife, Marianne, were staying with you. You were also reporting on a book at that time. What was the story that he was investigating?

NOMANI: Well, Richard Reid had just tried to light his shoe on fire - right? - and blow up this airplane across the Atlantic. And so there was a report about this man who was supposedly the man who sent Richard Reid out into the world. And so Danny was trying to identify who that individual was.

MARTIN: Now, the name Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a name that Americans have been hearing off and on now for the better part of a decade. So exactly who is he, and what role did he play both in the Richard Reid story, the Sept. 11th attacks, and then in Danny Pearl's death?

NOMANI: What is just so ironic and tragic is that on Jan. 23rd, 2002, Richard Reid was the name that everybody was talking about. Nobody even spoke Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's name. Nobody knew him outside just a small circle of intelligence folks. And so Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a man who is of Pakistani ancestry. He grew up in the Islamist ideology. He was raised in the time of the war - of the Mujahideen against the Soviets. And so he was a man who joined forces with al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, and he was sitting in Karachi the day Danny went off for this interview from which he didn't return.

MARTIN: He never returned. I think people - have followed the story off and on, realize - you know, there was even a major motion picture made of this terrible occurrence. And Marianne was there when you found out, in fact, that Danny had been killed, right? You were all together at the time.

NOMANI: Yeah. I had rented this home in Karachi. And I had, you know, welcomed Danny and Marianne to the home while - they were going to spend a few days while Danny did the interview. And it turned into this chapter that we could never have predicted - five weeks of trying to find Danny.

MARTIN: How did it become known that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had a connection to Danny Pearl's death? And I do want to mention again, as I mentioned at the beginning, that there have - there was a trial; and there were convictions of four, you know, other men. He was not among them. How did it become clear what his link was?

NOMANI: Well, on Oct. 16th, 2003 - I remember the day 'cause it was my son's first birthday. I was at a toy store in Morgantown, W.Va., called Pinocchio's, with balloons in my hand. And Marianne called me, and she said Condoleezza Rice - then the national security director to the president - said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has confessed to killing Daniel Pearl. And that was the moment that we got a linkage.

MARTIN: Why, then, did you feel the need to set up the Pearl Project, which is something that has consumed, really, the better part of your life for the last decade? I mean, you had the trial. There was a trial in Pakistan, and these were co-conspirators - not the actual killer, as you understand it. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did confess. In fact, he bragged about it.

NOMANI: Right.

MARTIN: So why, then, did you feel the need to take this additional step of setting up the Pearl Project to kind of essentially, retrace his steps and find out exactly what happened and who, exactly, did what?

NOMANI: You know, the answer from within my head is that I just needed to know every detail of the identities of the individuals who were actually involved. We have this pesky characteristic, as journalists, where if we don't see the evidence ourselves, we're not convinced.And so the U.S. government had not provided us any evidence beyond that confession. So I needed to know. And then I think there was, now I can understand this deeper need within my heart to just be there with Danny on this - lonely last days that he had; and to know what it is that he experienced, witnessed, though we weren't present with him, 'cause he was such an incredible companion and friend to all of us that knew him. And it just broke my heart that he was there alone.

MARTIN: Well, one of the truly awful aspects of this story is not just that he died, but how he died.


MARTIN: And do you want to give that information?

NOMANI: Well, this is the - you know, we know the details. He was beheaded. The brutality of it is something that I can hardly even express. I wrote it because ultimately, it's in those details that the haunting happens - you know, the haunting details of these three men arriving on the last day. They have a bag, and in the bag is a video camera. So they know what they're going to do. They have a knife. And Danny doesn't even know. He doesn't even know what's about to happen.

And he is then thrown to the ground. They hold him down. And that knife goes to his throat. And even now, as I relayed it, you know, I don't want to traumatize listeners, too. I'm so sensitive to that. But yet in those details is where we can find our own humanity, I think, because in the absence of kindness, you know, we have to really figure out how we can absorb, handle, the horror of what man can do to another man.

MARTIN: And in fact, you had the opportunity to actually see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed up close. You've traveled to Guantanamo Bay, where he is still being held, and see him for yourself with your own eyes. Did that change anything for you, seeing him with your own eyes?

NOMANI: I can't even describe it. It just has transformed my life. I mean, it really has shifted something very deep within me. I didn't even know why I needed to go to Guantanamo, and then my friends and really wise people said, you know, you're going as a witness for Danny. I thought I needed to see Khalid Sheik Mohammed, look him straight in the eyes. I thought I was going to like, burn a hole in his head through my eyes, just staring at him so hard.

And then I realized that I needed to see his hand because he had bragged that he had killed Danny with his blessed right hand. And I had studied and studied and studied the murder video because there's distinguishable vein features on the hand of the man that's holding the knife. And in this day, from gavel to gavel, morning 'til the last bit of night, I went through every emotion that I had avoided over the last decade - anger, grief, even humor. And in that, I found something powerful within myself.

MARTIN: What happens now? I mean, you have satisfied for yourself that Khalid Sheik Mohammed is, in fact, the person who personally murdered your friend. It is also now known that he was repeatedly tortured while in the custody of the government. So it does seem unlikely - I mean, is it? - that he will actually be tried in a court for the murder, right? Correct? I mean, so - under the, you know, laws of evidence and of the United States. So what's going to happen to him, and what does it mean to you now, to have satisfied yourself about what happened?

NOMANI: Well, what the final evidence was - is that his hand seems to match the hand of the man in the video holding the knife. The government has concluded that they're going to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed for the 9/11 attacks, but not for Danny's murder. It's sort of like the Al Capone strategy. They can't prosecute him for everything. So they're going to perhaps include Danny's case in sentencing.

I realized, coming back from Guantanamo in the year since, that there's this magnificent thing that has to happen, where you also live the spirit of the life of the person that you loved, the person who you miss. And I lived for so long in the moment of Danny's death that now, I'm returning to great things - like the volleyball that we used to play together. I hadn't picked up a ball since I last played with Danny in Karachi. I'm actually going to go out and try to find music again. And I think, in that way, do that amazing thing that people say you can do when you mourn in grief, and that is live in the spirit of the person that you cherished.

MARTIN: So are you content now?

NOMANI: I have relief. I do have a peace. And I also, through this article, have tried to testify to the truth of what happens with tragedy. And in connecting to others around the world - from Northern Ireland to Kosovo to India - it's profound to have this universal connection on pain, and then on recovery.

MARTIN: That was Asra Nomani. Her piece in the Washingtonian is titled "This is Danny Pearl's Final Story." And she was with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.