Journalist's kidnapping a puzzling power play

Yesterday, the deadline for Pearl's execution was extended by 24 hours.

Journalism is sometimes a dangerous job. Reporters risk retaliation from the powerful. They can be caught in battle crossfire. Laden with costly equipment, they are tempting targets for common criminals.

But seldom do they serve as unwitting pieces in high-stakes geopolitical chess, as is apparently the case with kidnapped American journalist Daniel Pearl.

There's a reason for that: Journalists don't make good hostages. Western reporters in particular are not as connected to the government as terrorists and splinter groups in the rest of the world may think.

Thus one big mystery in the Pearl case is what those who seized him in Pakistan really hope to gain.

US reporters "have simply not been kidnapped on the whole for political purposes, and these [kidnappers] need to pay attention to that. It simply doesn't work," says Terry Anderson, an Associated Press bureau chief who was held by Islamic extremists in Lebanon for seven years before his 1991 release.

At time of writing, Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared after leaving for an appointment in a Karachi restaurant on Jan. 23, was still missing. He is presumed to be in the hands of highly organized kidnappers.

A previously-unknown group calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty has sent e-mails to Western and Pakistani media containing pictures of Pearl, some with a gun to his head.

A Wednesday e-mail threatened to kill the reporter in 24 hours if the group's demands, which include the return of Pakistani nationals held by the US at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not met.

A similar e-mail sent Thursday extended the deadline by one day.

Originally Pearl's purported kidnappers charged that he was a CIA agent. The latest missives claim that in fact he is an agent of Israeli intelligence, and charge that other US journalists are similarly spies under cover.

Any US journalist still in Pakistan following the expiration of the deadline "will be targeted," according to the e-mails. "Then this cycle will continue, and no American journalist could enter Pakistan," said the latest message.

Most US news organizations were taking a wait-and-see approach to the this broader threat.

Some were delaying the dispatch of reporters scheduled to replace colleagues already present in the region. Journalists still in Pakistan were mostly staying put, while taking extra safety precautions.

The campaign to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan has already proven dangerous for journalists. Eight were killed during the US-led fighting there. Three died after being caught in combat zones, according to an analysis for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Four were murdered by bandits in an ambush. One was killed in a robbery.

Worldwide, 37 journalists lost their lives in the course of their work in 2001, according to CPJ figures. Most were not the result of combat. The majority "were murdered in reprisal for their reporting on official corruption and crime in countries such as Bangladesh, China, Thailand, and Yugoslavia," concludes a CPJ analysis.

It is rare for journalists to be taken as political hostages.

Anderson's seizure by radical Islamic groups in Lebanon may not have altered US government policy in the region. But it likely limited coverage of Lebanon's bitter strife at times in the 1980s, says Anne Nelson, head of the international program at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

If that is the true aim of those who seized Pearl, they may yet achieve it. "If it [scares] off a dozen news organizations from sending people in to do stories - that's success," says Nelson.

But if the kidnappers' real goals involve changes in US government policy, or return of Pakistani Al Qaeda fighters, they are unlikely to get much.

"They've gained nothing by holding him," says Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The true identity of the kidnappers remains unknown, however. Thus their real motives remain unclear. That is only one mystery in a crime that is replete with them.

Clearly the kidnapping and ultimatum are a test for the government of Pakistan. Many Pakistanis feel the act has been carried out by enemies of President Pervez Musharraf, in order to derail the reforms he has instituted, and create image problems for the country.

Possible suspects range from Islamic extremists to rogue elements of Pakistani's intelligence service to Indian intelligence.

"This is a job done by anyone who hates Musharraf," says Hulam Hasnain, a Karachi-based journalist who was himself kidnapped and held for 36 hours last month.

At the same time, considering the antipathy of many young Pakistani men toward the West, it may be notable that there haven't been more problems.

"Now maybe we are seeing a regrouping of extremists, but I just don't know," says Hasnain.

• Staff writers Kim Campbell and Robert Marquand contributed to this report.

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