An antiterrorism courtroom in the port city of Karachi may hold the key to a struggle unfolding deep within the heart of Pakistan. Here, a British-born radical and two suspected accomplices accused of kidnapping US journalist Daniel Pearl had their detention extended yesterday for another 14 days, while authorities search for evidence in the case.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a dropout from the prestigious London School of Economics, is at the nexus of a diplomatic and legal storm brewing around Mr. Pearl's kidnapping and murder. And as investigators explore the nature of the organization behind Pearl's death, they may peel back the lid on Pakistan's underworld, exposing longstanding links between Pakistan's intelligence services, Islamic militants - and possibly Al Qaeda. A Reuters report yesterday said that one of the most wanted suspects in the case, Amjad Hussain Farooqi, may have made a call to Canada a few days before Pearl's disappearance, saying "I will complete the mission."
Regardless of whether links to Al Qaeda surface, the Pearl investigation may just be an opening salvo in an all-out fight between Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Islamic extremists, including hard-line elements in his own government.
While US officials reportedly seek to convene a federal grand jury to issue indictments in Pearl's slaying, Pakistani officials say they are only just getting started in breaking the influence of Islamic radicals in Pakistan.
"Because of this act of barbarism, we can see that stronger actions are required against these criminal elements," said Moinuddin Haider, Pakistan's interior minister at a recent press conference. "Unfortunately, all the hard work of all the law-enforcement agencies could not save the life of Mr. Daniel Pearl. But we surely are after them and when we recover them, we will break their network."
But the very fact of Pearl's murder and a spate of other recent incidents - including a foiled rocket attack on American aircraft at Karachi airport - show that Islamic radicals still have the capacity to fight back.
Initially sponsored by Pakistani intelligence agencies - and the CIA - to provide fervent recruits for Afghanistan's war against Soviet invaders in the 1980s, Pakistani militant groups have shifted their goals to include ridding the region of American influence as well.
But now Pakistan is under increasing pressure to finish off these radical groups for good. It's a change in public policy that many Pakistanis welcome, but it also could inflict long-term damage to Pakistan's fragile democracy. "Whenever a government talks of taking harder measures, it always means it will increase its own power," says Shahidur Rahman, a longtime Pakistani political observer and author of "Who Owns Pakistan?" "I am nervous of what the government can do under the pretext of national security and cracking down on terrorism. There is a conflict between what America is expecting us to do and what the people expect of a government."
While the Musharraf government has not explicitly stated how it will rein in radical groups, observers say that there is almost certain to be a new series of arrests. Surveillance by Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies is also likely to increase even as these groups face a massive purge of Islamists in their ranks.
"Harder measures can mean greater vigilance of people and their movements, tapping of wires, just as you and I are talking now," says Mr. Rahman. "They can make it a police state."
There has been little outward protest against General Musharraf's crackdown thus far. Beginning soon after Sept. 11, the Pakistani government began a U-turn in its policies, banning groups it once supported and arresting their leaders. Protests against these policy shifts - and Pakistan's growing relationship with America - gathered thousands of Muslim students in the early part of the Afghan war, fizzling after the Taliban fell in November.
Since then, the Musharraf government has arrested hundreds of leading Islamic radicals, including the leaders of Pakistan's top religious parties and the commanders of a half-dozen armed militant groups based in Pakistan. In the Pearl case, Pakistani police have arrested the alleged kidnapping ringleader, Mr. Sheikh, a top leader of the radical group Jaish-e-Muhammad, along with several other accomplices who admitted sending e-mails listing the kidnappers' demands.