Journalism, like any other investigative profession, has its share of thrill seekers. Daniel Pearl is not one of them. Colleagues and friends describe the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief as a seasoned correspondent who never fails to put safety first when reporting in dangerous places. So when Pearl--who had traveled between Pakistan and India over the past four months on the trail of a variety of terror-related stories--didn't check in as expected on the evening of Jan. 23, his editors had reason to be alarmed.
His disappearance assumed a further urgency three days later when reporters and news agencies in Pakistan and the U.S. booted up their computers to find a message from a Hotmail subscriber named "kidnapperguy" who claimed to represent a group called the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. The quixotic ransom note accused Pearl of working for the CIA--a charge vehemently denied by the Journal and the CIA--and demanded that the U.S. release the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef and the Pakistanis it is holding at its base in Cuba's Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of terrorist links. The note also insisted that the U.S. deliver the F-16 fighter aircraft it had sold Pakistan before imposing sanctions on the country in 1990 because of its nuclear-weapons program. Kidnapperguy, it seems, hadn't done his homework: the conflict had been resolved by a refund almost three years ago.
The demands may have been preposterous, but the photos attached to the e-mail were bone chilling. In one, two hands held a black 9-mm pistol to Pearl's head. A later barrage of e-mails accused Pearl of working for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and claimed Pearl would be executed if the group's demands were not met at once. The group also warned other U.S. journalists to leave Pakistan or "be targeted." The affair underscores the dangers journalists have faced in the region since the U.S. launched its war in Afghanistan; eight have been killed on the job.
The confusion deepened Friday when an e-mail sent to news organizations, including CNN and Fox, claimed that Pearl had been executed and that his body could be found in an unspecified graveyard in Karachi. Someone else called the U.S. embassy in Islamabad demanding $2 million for Pearl's return. Attempts to trace the e-mails have so far proved inconclusive; the Wall Street Journal, for its part, said on Saturday that it believes Pearl may still be alive.