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The Pearl Project: Students Investigate the Murder of Daniel Pearl

Murali Krishnan 25/09/08September 25, 2008

A dogged group of college students in Washington is trying to solve the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist radicals in Pakistan in early 2002, a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Though four men have been convicted of the murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent, the students do not believe the whole truth has been told.

The Wall Street Journal journalist was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan in Feb. 2002
The Wall Street Journal journalist was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan in Feb. 2002Image: AP

She heads what is often referred to in the university as the bravest class in town. For over a year now, Asra Nomani, a journalist and activist who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington DC, has been trying to track down the killers of Daniel Pearl.

Called the Pearl Project, which has already drawn over 20 students, mostly female, from as far away as Qatar and Lebanon, the investigation is trying to figure out the real identities of 15 of the estimated 19 suspects still at large. Many of them were previously known only by aliases.

The next task of the project members is to determine their whereabouts. Asra Nomani explains: “The world thinks, for the most part, that the case is closed. But it’s not. There are still many men on the streets of Karachi who are involved in the kidnapping and murder who are running free.”

Searching for suspects

Though four men have been convicted of the murder in Pakistan, including Omar Sheikh, Nomani is not convinced that the whole story has been told.

Another man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is in US custody for masterminding the 9/11 attacks, has claimed he personally killed Pearl. Nomani's class is looking into whether he's telling the truth or trying to thwart investigators.

Massoud Ansari, an Islamabad based journalist is helping out on the project. He says, “the four people who they’ve tried and convicted, they were involved but their involvement was meant for other acts of that event – not the physical part of kidnapping and killing him. I would say officially the investigation has not begun.”

For Nomani, who was born in India but later migrated to America with her family, there is a bigger story as to why she has taken on this investigation and monitors it so closely. She was a close friend of Pearl and the two worked together for nearly a decade at the Wall Street Journal. Besides, she was one of the last people to see him alive.

She also figures prominently in Michael Winterbottom's acclaimed film, "A Mighty Heart", starring Angelina Jolie as Pearl's wife Mariane. The film captures the dark days surrounding Pearl's abduction and murder.

Some successes

Nomani's team has had some successes. For instance, they managed to get their hands on the full-length version of the video of Pearl's murder - not the edited version that the terrorists released. In the longer video format, the hands and feet of the killers are visible, along with other details that could prove useful in identifying the culprits.

“I know the truth will come out. We have a team of journalists and aspiring journalists dedicated to finding the truth. And most often the truth is only gotten when you put a lot of work into it and that’s what we are doing,” adds Nomani.

The Pearl Project is an innovative attempt to boost investigative journalism at a time when it is on the wane in an age of media consolidation in many parts of the world.