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Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

Barack Obama won't say.

12:00 AM, May 18, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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At Commentary’s Contentions blog, Jen Rubin points out that President Barack Obama did not identify who killed Daniel Pearl at a signing ceremony for a bill that bears Pearl’s name – the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. Obama, like other members of his administration, failed to identify the forces of radical Islam, Islamic extremism, Islamist terrorism, jihad, or the like as the culprits behind Pearl’s ruthless murder.

That is a noticeable omission in the president’s remarks. There is another noteworthy omission as well.

Consider the president’s words in these paragraphs (emphasis added): 

All around the world there are enormously courageous journalists and bloggers who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the critical issues that the people of their country face; who are the frontlines against tyranny and oppression.  And obviously the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is, and it reminded us that there are those who would go to any length in order to silence journalists around the world

What this act does is it sends a strong message from the United States government and from the State Department that we are paying attention to how other governments are operating when it comes to the press.  It has the State Department each year chronicling how press freedom is operating as one component of our human rights assessment, but it also looks at countries that are -- governments that are specifically condoning or facilitating this kind of press repression, singles them out and subjects them to the gaze of world opinion in ways that I think are extraordinarily important.

Often times without this kind of attention, countries and governments feel that they can operate against the press with impunity.  And we want to send a message that they can’t.

President Obama is right to call out those “countries and governments” that feel “they can operate against the press with impunity.” In a discussion of an act named after Daniel Pearl there is one such government that springs to mind: Pakistan.

Pearl’s murderers worked for a consortium of jihadist groups operating in Pakistan. All of them were either created or sponsored by Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency. In his book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Bernard-Henri Lévy first noticed how seamlessly members of these various groups (Lashkar e Taiba, Jaish e Mohammed, Lashkar i Janghvi, Harkat ul Mujahideen, and, yes, al Qaeda) came together in a single act of treachery. Levy writes:

Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and then murdered by Islamist groups who were manipulated by a single fringe group of the secret service [note: ISI] – the most radical, the most violent, the most anti-American of the factions fighting for control of the services; but how can it be denied that this faction behaved, from the beginning to the end of the affair, as if it were perfectly at home in [former President] Musharraf’s Pakistan?

The answer to Levy’s question is, of course, that the ISI puppet masters behind this alphabet soup of Pakistani terrorist groups are not as “fringe” as we might hope. For instance, Omar Saeed Sheikh, the terrorist who lured Pearl to his death, has ties to Pakistani intelligence officers who were in the upper echelons of the ISI. Omar Saeed Sheikh was likely assisted by the ISI in various ways throughout his career, including during the negotiations that led to his freedom from an Indian prison in 1999. Sheikh was put in that prison for kidnapping westerners.

Thus, when President Obama speaks of “governments that are specifically condoning or facilitating this kind of press repression,” he is most certainly speaking (even if he doesn’t know it) of that part of the Pakistani government that has sponsored Pearl’s murderers for years.

While it is not helpful for the president to eschew any mention of “radical Islam” or similar terms altogether, it is somewhat more understandable that he would not call out the Pakistani government here. The Pakistani government is both divided and duplicitous. The Pakistani civilian leadership was not in power at the time of Pearl’s murder, and would not condone such an act. However, the ISI – the state within the state – maintains substantial power to this day. Some parts of the ISI are on our side; some parts are not. It is a messy situation.

But on a day when America is remembering Daniel Pearl and the American president is standing up to those who would kill more journalists, it is also worth remembering that Pearl’s murderers have powerful friends in Pakistan.

Just ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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