Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh
Born: 23 December 1973;
Place of Birth: London, England;
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (sometimes known as Umar Sheikh, Sheikh Omar, Sheik Syed or by the alias Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad) is a British-Pakistani terrorist, who was arrested and served time in prison for the 1994 kidnappings of Western tourists in India, an act which he acknowledges.
He was released from captivity in 1999 and provided safe passage into Afghanistan with the support of Taliban in exchange for passengers aboard hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814. He is most well known for his role in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Saeed was arrested by Pakistani police on 12 February 2002, in Lahore, in connection with the Pearl kidnapping, and was sentenced to death on 15 July 2002 by special judge of anti terrorism court Syed Ali Ashraf Shah for killing Pearl. Sheikh’s murder conviction was overturned by a Pakistani Court on 2 April 2020.
Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in his book In the Line of Fire, stated that Saeed was originally recruited by British intelligence agency MI6 while studying at the London School of Economics. He alleges Saeed was sent to the Balkans by MI6 to engage in jihadi operations. Musharraf later says, “At some point, he probably became a rogue or double agent”.
His complicity in the murder and the reasons behind it are in dispute. At his initial court appearance, he stated, “I don’t want to defend this case. I did this… Right or wrong, I had my reasons. I think that our country shouldn’t be catering to America’s needs”, but he subsequently appealed his conviction and is awaiting further progress while in prison.
Saeed’s lawyer has stated he will base his client’s appeal on the admission of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, made public in 2007, that he is the killer of Daniel Pearl.
Ahmed Omar Sheikh’s parents, Saeed and Qaissra Sheikh, emigrated from Pakistan to UK in 1968 and ran a prosperous clothing business. He was the eldest of three siblings and was born in London on 23 December 1973. In his youth he attended Forest School, Walthamstow, an independent school in North-East London, whose alumni include English cricket captain Nasser Hussain, filmmaker Peter Greenaway and singer Suzana Ansar.
Between the ages of 14 and 16 he attended Aitchison College, the most exclusive boys boarding school in Pakistan, where his family had temporarily relocated. He later returned to the United Kingdom to continue at Forest School.
Reuters journalist Daniel Flynn, who was a childhood friend, says that he was already an admirer of Pakistan‘s Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and returned from his home country as “a junior boxing champion and full of stories of contacts with organised crime, gun battles in the ghettos of Lahore, visits to brothels.”
Later, he attended the London School of Economics, to study applied mathematics, statistics, economics and social psychology, but dropped out during his first year. The Guardian reported that a fellow student of Sheikh’s at both the Forest School and the LSE, Syed Ali Hasan, had described him in 2002 as “bright but rather dysfunctional” and said that he had been suspended from school on several occasions because of his violence.
He was known for his violence since his childhood, having punched and thrown to the floor a teacher when he was eight years old, and growing up to be a bully. Becoming an adult, a “burly-chested six feet two inches” as per journalist Robert Sam Anson, he would eventually translate this violence into a love for martial arts and sports, participating in the 1992 World Armwrestling Championship in Geneva, while also being a chess champion during his days at the LSE.
Noted for his academic abilities, he was also a polyglot who could speak five languages. The Guardian reported that Sheikh came into contact with radical Islamists at the LSE, quoting Hasan as saying “(he) told us he was going to Bosnia driving aid convoys, and he never came back to university”.
Omar Sheikh married Saadia Rauf (who holds an MA degree in English) in Lahore in December 2000 and became a father in November 2001.
Kidnapping of American and British nationals:
He served five years in prison in Ghaziabad in the 1990s in connection with the 1994 abduction of three British travellers, Myles Croston, 28, Paul Rideout, 26 and Rhys Partridge, 27, and one American, Béla Nuss, 43.
Hijacking and release from prison:
In 1999, Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked from Nepal. The hijackers demanded the release of Saeed, Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who were leaders of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, to Pakistan. The plane landed in Kandahar and Taliban militia surrounded the plane, pre-empting any Indian commando operation.
After negotiations between the Indian government and the hijackers, the hostages were freed eight days after the hijacking occurred, although a passenger, Ripan Katyal, was stabbed to death by one of the hijackers. The three prisoners were released in exchange for the hostages.
Possible connection with 9/11 hijackers:
On 6 October 2001, a senior-level US government official, told CNN that US investigators had discovered Saeed (Sheik Syed), using the alias “Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad” had sent about $100,000 from the United Arab Emirates to Mohamed Atta.
“Investigators said Atta then distributed the funds to conspirators in Florida in the weeks before the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil that destroyed the World Trade Center, heavily damaged the Pentagon and left thousands dead.
In addition, sources have said Atta sent thousands of dollars – believed to be excess funds from the operation – back to Syed in the United Arab Emirates in the days before September 11.” CNN later confirmed this.
The 9/11 Commission’s Final Report states that the source of the funds “remains unknown.” More than a month after the money transfer was discovered, the head of ISI, General Mahmud Ahmed resigned from his position. It was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was investigating the possibility that Gen. Ahmed ordered Saeed to send the $100,000 to Atta.
The Wall Street Journal was one of the only Western news organisations to follow up on the story, citing the Times of India: “US authorities sought General Mahmud Ahmed’s removal after confirming that $100,000 was wired to WTC hijacker Mohamed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the insistence of General Mahmud.”
Another Indian newspaper, the Daily Excelsior, quoting FBI sources, reported that the “FBI’s examination of the hard disk of the cellphone company Saeed had subscribed to led to the discovery of the “link” between him and the deposed chief of the Pakistani ISI, Mahmud Ahmed.
And as the FBI investigators delved deep, reports surfaced with regard to the transfer of $100,000 to Mohamed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the 11 September attacks, who flew a hijacked Boeing commercial airliner into the World Trade Center. General Mahmud Ahmed, the FBI investigators found, fully knew about the transfer of money to Atta.”
US investigators later said that this was a confusion with Mustafa al-Hawsawi, also known as Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad, who is currently held in Guantanamo Bay. The Pittsburgh Tribune notes that there “are many in Musharraf’s government who believe that Saeed Sheikh’s power comes not from the ISI, but from his connections with our own CIA.”
Sheikh rose to prominence with the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who at the time was in Pakistan investigating connections between the ISI and Islamic militant groups. In Pakistan, Saeed was sentenced to death for killing Pearl, however his complicity in Pearl’s execution and the reasons behind it are in dispute.
Further adding to the confusion surrounding the issue is that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad personally claimed to have been Pearl’s killer.
Saeed was seemingly implicated by Benazir Bhutto just before her own death in a hypothetical murder of Osama Bin Laden (which must have occurred in late 2001 or 2002). Several commentators have noted that, as she had previously been speaking about one of the sons of bin Laden during the interview, in all likelihood, Bhutto simply misspoke and had intended to say, “Omar Sheikh, the man who murdered Daniel Pearl,” rather than “the man who murdered bin Laden” – such an important revelation about bin Laden’s fate would certainly not have been stated so casually. Additionally, in subsequent interviews, Bhutto spoke about bin Laden in the context of him being alive.
The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl:
Saeed was arrested by Pakistani police on 12 February 2002, in Lahore, in connection with the Daniel Pearl kidnapping. Pearl had been kidnapped, had his throat slit, and then been beheaded. Sheikh told the Pakistani court, however, that he had surrendered to the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency a week earlier.
Saeed’s lawyer Abdul Waheed Katpar claims Saeed was arrested on 5 February 2002 and not on 12 February, and that evidence against the four suspects was fabricated by Pakistani police while the suspects were held in secret for a week.
He also claims confessions were obtained under duress of torture and solitary confinement. However, Saeed also told Pakistani officials in court in February 2002 that “as far as I know” Pearl had been killed.
In January 2011, in summarising a report prepared by The Center for Public Integrity and The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Benjamin Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote that it appeared that Saeed was framed. Another man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a former CIA captive, who had been tortured in 2003 in the CIA’s archipelago of black sites, had confessed to the murder, and the report concluded his confession was credible.
According to Wittes’s summary Ahmed Omar Saeed had been responsible for the original kidnapping, but his plan was to hold Pearl for a ransom. According to Wittes’s summary this original ransom plan was abandoned when Saeed was pressured to hand Pearl over to al-Qaeda operatives. According to Wittes’s summary, the report concluded:
– In their haste to close the case, Pakistani authorities knowingly used perjured testimony to pin the actual act of murder on Omar Sheikh and his three coconspirators.
– While the four were involved in the kidnapping plan and certainly were culpable, they were not present when Pearl was murdered. Others, who were present and actually assisted in the brutal beheading, were not charged.
According to Wittes’s summary, FBI forensic experts had confirmed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confession through “vein matching”, identifying the pattern of the veins in the killer’s hands in the video. The lead author of the report was Pearl’s friend and colleague, journalist Asra Nomani.
In the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, tensions increased dramatically between India and Pakistan. On 28 November, a hoax caller pretending to be then Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee threatened Pakistan President Zardari with war, leading to the Pakistan military being put in high alert.
Military aircraft with live ammunition were scrambled to patrol above Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The same caller tried to get in touch with the real Pranab Mukherjee and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, claiming he was President Zardari but was unable to get through to either.
A year after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper revealed that the hoax caller had been Saeed. Using a mobile phone smuggled into his prison cell, Saeed made the calls using a British SIM card. After the source of the hoax calls became known, intelligence agents confiscated Saeed’s illegal phones and SIM cards and he was placed in solitary confinement.
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