The English Islamic terrorist
When Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was ten years old and a pupil at the Forest School in East London, he emerged from a church service to declare: "Well, that was crap." When a fellow pupil retaliated and said: "Your religion is crap," the little Pakistani boy embarked on his first violent defence of Islam and chased his foe around the cricket field.
Omar Sheikh, as he would come to be known and feared, was a curiously English fundamentalist terrorist. His love of language, cricket and chess were all a product of the nation in which he was born, raised and eventually recruited. When - pending a possible appeal - he is hanged for the kidnap and murder of Daniel Pearl, the journalist with the Wall Street Journal, he will go to the gallows as an Englishman.
The death sentence passed yesterday by a Pakistani court on Sheikh, along with three other conspirators, is the latest connection between Britain and the Islamic terrorists who have turned the world upside down since the morning of 11 September. The FBI believe Sheikh sent 70,000, a percentage of his earnings as a kidnapper, to Mohammed Atta, leader of the plane hijackers, to fund the attack on the World Trade Centre.
Yet how did the son of a successful Pakistani immigrant turn his back on a life of education and opportunity and embrace instead a career in kidnapping, terrorism and murder?
Born on 23 December 1973, Omar Sheikh was the son of Omar Saeed Sheikh, an entrepreneur who arrived in Britain during the 1960s and launched a successful clothing company. As a child Omar was enrolled in the Forest School, a small but prestigious private school where he quickly excelled, demonstrating a strong intelligence - but it was paired with an aggressive streak. He was sufficiently inspired by the release of Over The Top, a dismal Sylvester Stallone film about a professional arm-wrestler, to take up the sport, but despite his bulk and superior strength, he still liked to cheat. He would lie about his age and then challenge younger pupils. At one point he won a local competition and insisted the headmaster present his award during assembly to a catcall of boos.
It was not his lack of popularity with his fellow pupils, but his interest in older girls and his drinking and smoking that concerned his father, and it led to the family relocating in Pakistan, where for three years between the ages of 14 and 16 Sheikh attended Aitchison College in Lahore. While his contemporaries concentrated on achieving a career in the Pakistani civil service, Sheikh began to develop an unhealthy interest in the idea of a jihad, a holy war in defence of Islam. By the time he returned to England to complete his sixth-year at Forest, his twin obsessions were Islam and body-building. As one contemporary told reporters: "He was obsessed about his physique. He boasted about how in Pakistan he had hijacked a bus, and was a kickboxing champion - which we took to be just fantasy."
Arm-wrestling once again took his interest, and through an unusual training regime of challenging the residents of East-End pubs, he was chosen to represent Britain, an honour in which, according to his coach Stephen Brown, he took great delight. He emerged from Forest with four ‘A’ levels - two As and two Bs - and was accepted to study mathematics and statistics at the London School of Economics. However the lure of the classroom was not as strong as his burgeoning interest in the fundamentalist Islamic groups that were dotted around the city. He would regularly skip lectures to attend a variety of mosques and it was here that he was invited to join a Muslim charity, the Convoy of Mercy, which was working in Bosnia at the height of the conflict. So inspired was Sheikh by the sacrifice of the Muslim fighters that when invited to attend a training camp organised by al-Qaeda in Khalden, Afghanistan, he accepted.
After one month of training in hand-to-hand combat, small arms and explosives, Sheikh was sent on his first mission to arrange the kidnapping of American and British tourists in India. Posing as "Sharma", a British student of the LSE who had been left a village in his father’s will, he talked his way in among a group of British travellers and invited three of them, Myles Croston, 28, Paul Rideout, 26 and Rhys Partridge, 27 to accompany him to the village. When the party arrived they were greeted by armed terrorists. They spent the next few weeks chained to a stake and tormented by Sheikh, until they were freed after an armed raid by Indian police.
Rhys Partridge remembered Sheikh as displaying a split personality, playing chess one minute and then holding a knife to their throat and threatening to kill them the next. "He told us how he would only kidnap people who he considered intelligent and wanted to spend time with."
The news of Sheikh’s arrest was taken calmly by his brother, Awais, who told the BBC: "Obviously I am disappointed because he was a brilliant student at the LSE. He gave that up to better the situation in Kashmir- however I am proud of the sacrifice."
For five years Omar Sheikh was imprisoned in Delhi’s Tihar Prison, but while lesser pawns would have been allowed to rot, the young Briton, by dint of his nationality and intelligence, was deemed an important player. Important enough for an Indian Airlines jet to be hijacked in December 1999 and the hostages used as leverage to buy his release. Upon his return to Pakistan, officials at the Foreign Office offered to arrange his return to Britain and insisted he would face no charges, but England was no longer home, the country under whose flag he had once competed would become his foe. Instead of returning to Britain to pick up his academic career, Sheikh picked up the tools of his new trade and became a successful kidnapper, extorting many hundreds of thousands of pounds from the families of wealthy Indian and Pakistani businessmen.
Why Daniel Pearl, the 38-year-old journalist, whose wife was six months pregnant, was chosen as a target is indicative of the vagaries of a profession that deems any foreigner a potential victim.
"We had nothing personal against Daniel. Because of his hyperactivity, he caught our interest," said Sheikh.
Pearl was kidnapped on 23 January after he arranged to meet Sheikh, who used the name Chaudry Bashir. Sheikh had promised to introduce the journalist to Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the leader of a band of terrorists, the Jamaat ul-Fuqra, who had had dealings with the British shoe bomber, a story he was chasing. Instead he was bundled into a waiting car and taken to an address in Karachi.
Sheikh was among the suspected kidnappers from the moment Pearl’s disappearance was reported, but he was not arrested until 12 February. In between his 90-year-old grandfather was arrested to put pressure on him and his aunt telephoned and begged that he give himself up.
Nine days after Sheikh’s arrest the American Embassy in Islamabad received the horrific video in which Pearl was forced to say: "My father’s Jewish, My mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish." Seconds later his throat was cut and his severed head held aloft in front of the camera.
Throughout his arrest and subsequent trial Omar Sheikh displayed no pity for his victim and only contempt for the court. At an early hearing he shouted: "I will not hire any lawyer, I don’t trust them."
Despite his demands, a lawyer was appointed but made little difference - his conviction was now a national necessity rather than the result of compelling evidence. The only link to the crime was a taxi driver who said he dropped Pearl off and witnessed Sheikh take him away in another car. The defence insisted the driver was the brother of two policemen and an obvious plant.
Few doubt his guilt and fewer still would mourn his demise. If he should finally walk to the gallows, one of his previous victims, Rhys Partridge, will take a keen interest. "I don’t agree with the death penalty, but if it was ever justified, this would be the case. He showed such contempt for the lives of others it is difficult to show any different for his."
Faithful followers of treachery
UNTIL Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh’s conviction for his part in the murder of Daniel Pearl, "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid was the most notorious Briton to have associated himself with al-Qaeda’s cause.
Brought up in south-east London, Reid came from a broken home and as a teenager soon became involved in petty crime. Encouraged to convert to Islam by his father - himself a convicted criminal - he came to believe in an extreme brand of the faith which made him willing to kill himself along with 197 crew and passengers on American Airlines flight 63 on 19 December last year.
A farewell note to his mother, Lesley Hughes, confirmed Reid’s readiness to die, warning: "You will never see me again. You had better all convert to Islam." Thwarted by crew members and passengers on the flight, the would-be bomber is now in jail in South Walpole, Massachusetts, awaiting trial on a charge of attempted murder.
Reid’s career in terrorism is mirrored by the young American, John Walker Lindh, who was found in Afghanistan last December. Just a normal kid, Lindh had been a hip-hop fan at 14. Two years on, he converted to Islam and when he was captured last year, after the prisoners’ insurrection at Qala-i-Jhangi in Afghanistan, this 20-year old Taleban had long lank hair, a beard and a bullet wound in one leg.
While amateur criminologists have assigned Reid’s conversion to extremism to his difficult childhood in England, they ascribe Lindh’s crimes to another cause, "Bay Area culture" and excessively liberal parenting. Lawyer Ronald Kuby (who, coincidentally, represented the 1993 World Trade Center bombers) summed up the case against Lindh, describing him as "a pathetic schlub who was deluded by religion and badly in need of parental guidance".
Lindh yesterday pled guilty to charges of aiding the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
Despite the oddball status assigned to both Reid and Walker, US and British authorities believe that a handful of other Westerners pose a threat because of their involvement in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Seven Britons are among 564 men from 39 countries being held by the US at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Three - Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - are from Tipton in the West Midlands. Others are believed to be from London and Manchester.
The men’s treatment at Camp X-Ray has angered human rights campaigners. Louise Christian, lawyer for Feroz Abbasi, from Croydon, south London, said the British government was obliged to respect the fundamental human rights of its citizens adding it "is not a duty which exists just when they are on British soil and it is not a matter of foreign policy".
Those who protest the men’s innocence can point to a previous case of wrongful detention. James McLintock, who was originally from Dundee, became known as the "Tartan Taleban". He was held and interrogated by the CIA in Peshawar, Pakistan, last December. After five weeks he was released without charge and returned to his family in Karachi.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East