Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is walking toward me in a black prayer cap, a cream-colored tunic, and matching shalwar, or baggy pants. He’s hunched over, his beard dyed red, a symbol of piety to conservative Muslims, and I can’t take my eyes off him.
It’s May 5, 2012, the first time in three and a half years that KSM—as he’s known to American officials—has appeared in court, outside his prison cell. We are at Guantánamo, where a US military commission is about to arraign him and four other men for the September 11 attacks, in a courtroom that feels like a movie set. Erected atop an abandoned airfield on the base, it’s as big as a warehouse and has small trailers outside set up as holding areas, one for each defendant. When the courtroom door opened for the men, the Caribbean sun pushed its way into the room first.
I’m in seat number two in the first row of journalists and spectators, separated from the defendants by a wall outfitted with soundproof glass. A video system feeds sound and pictures to screens above us. I’m about 30 feet behind KSM, and there are 40 of us in the gallery. Yet as KSM takes his seat, it feels for a moment as if we’re the only two people in the room.
“Allahu, Allahu, Allahu,” I whisper.
For the families of those who died on 9/11, the day marks the start of what’s likely to be a years-long trial for justice against KSM, the self-described architect of the World Trade Center attacks. For me, it’s something else. KSM is the man who bragged about taking a knife to the throat of my Wall Street Journal colleague and close friend Daniel Pearl.
Danny Pearl and Asra Nomani goofing off during a reporting trip of Pearl’s to Karachi in November 2001.
Twelve years ago, on January 23, 2002, Danny left my home in Karachi, Pakistan, for an interview and never came back. Like so many of our peers, we had each put down roots in Pakistan to report on America’s so-called war on terror. I was on book leave from the Journal, finishing a memoir. Danny, the newspaper’s South Asia bureau chief, and his wife, Mariane, were living in Islamabad. They’d come to see me for a few days so Danny could do an interview for a story about Richard Reid, the Englishman who had packed his shoes with explosives and tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami three days before Christmas 2001. The plan was for Danny and Mariane to vacation in Dubai after Danny’s meeting. Mariane was five months pregnant. He had just texted me: “It’s a boy!!!!!”
That afternoon, a swarm of green parrots squawked overhead and the scent of jasmine flowers drifted through the air as Mariane and I stood outside my house on Zamzama Street and watched Danny’s cab pull away. “See you later, buddy,” I said.
We couldn’t have known that Pakistani militants would kidnap Danny. That they would keep him for days and then release strange and confusing ransom notes alternately identifying him as a CIA operative and a reporter and showing photos of him in a striped tracksuit, bound and with his head bowed beneath the barrel of a gun.
Not in our worst nightmares could we have imagined what happened after that.
On February 21, 2002, a courier for Danny’s captors met an FBI agent at the Karachi Sheraton and handed over a three-minute propaganda video glorifying his ghastly end.
Danny is without his glasses in the footage, with a few days’ stubble. He professes his Jewish heritage and criticizes the alliance between the US and Israel—obviously reading from a script—as the sound of exploding mortars blasts in the background.
Suddenly Danny is on his back and a hand holding a long knife saws furiously at his throat.
The next frame comes quickly—the video has obviously been edited—and shows Danny supine, a bloody swamp in place of his neck.
The film cuts to the killer holding Danny’s head up high by his hair for a good ten seconds.
Clearly, it was meant for the world to see—and after jihadis circulated it online and CBS News aired parts on its evening broadcast, millions did.
A year later, KSM was captured and taken by US intelligence officials to a secret detention center, where he was tortured and waterboarded throughout months of interrogations. During that time, and again after being transferred to the prison at Guantánamo, KSM confessed to his membership in al-Qaeda and to plotting a long list of terrorist attacks including the 1993 World Trade Center explosion, Richard Reid’s botched shoe bombing, and 9/11. He also confessed to cutting off Danny’s head.
A US military commission charged KSM and his four accomplices with terrorism, hijacking, conspiracy, and murder for killing 2,976 people on September 11.
But he hasn’t ever been charged with Danny’s death.
That’s why I’ve come to Guantánamo. Unsettled by my country’s failure to close Danny’s case, I spent a decade reporting the facts of his murder and chasing his killer. It was my obsession and even, for a time, my occupation. I knew I wanted to be at KSM’s arraignment as a witness for my friend. Little did I know I would also learn something about myself.
Pearl and Nomani celebrating her 30th birthday at a rooftop party in DC’s Adams Morgan.
Danny was unlike any of my other friends, both because of who he was and when he came into my life. Each of us was born in the ’60s, to parents who are scientists and immigrants. Danny’s came from Israel and raised him in a bedroom community of Los Angeles. My Muslim parents had me in Mumbai and raised me in Morgantown, West Virginia. Danny and I met in the spring of 1993 when he transferred from Atlanta to the Journal’s Washington bureau. I’d just emerged from a disastrous three-month marriage to a Pakistani Muslim. My therapist’s advice: “Have fun.”
Danny and I and our then-colleague Jill Abramson, now executive editor of the New York Times, decorated our cubicles in the Blake Building on Connecticut Avenue with McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and hung out with friends at the Big Hunt bar, where he converted me from Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers to wheat beer.
After I told him I hadn’t gone to my high-school prom because my conservative parents forbade me to dance with a boy, Danny said, “We’ll fix that.” He helped me throw my first party ever, which we called “A Mid-Summer Night’s Prom.” I was 28 and wore a purple velvet bridesmaid dress. On Mondays, we took salsa lessons at Planet Fred, a dive bar. Saturdays, we played volleyball by the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1996, Danny moved to the Journal’s London bureau. Not long after that, he wrote me to say he might have met The One. She was French, a radio journalist named Mariane Van Neyenhoff, and he needed my help in planning a fun itinerary for the first weekend she was to come from Paris to visit him. When they married three years later at a chateau in southern France, I helped throw the post-wedding picnic. We had a water-balloon toss with balloons I’d brought from the States.
Danny and I had always exchanged notes on dating, and he was intent on finding the right match for me, even after moving overseas. “I know this is, like, a war and everything,” he wrote me after 9/11, “but do you still want me to look for a husband for you . . . ?”
We were both living in Pakistan then, he in Islamabad and I in Karachi. He came to see me on December 29, 2001. It was the anniversary of my failed wedding, and I’d wanted to play volleyball with my old friend. We took over the sand courts at the Alliance Française and played against each other long into the evening. Danny wore new Nikes and shorts we’d just bought. (He was always forgetting things.) At the end of the last match, he threw himself across the court to save a shanked pass, winning the game for him and his team. Danny stood up, wiped the sand from his new shorts, and flashed his crooked smile. “Beer?” he asked.
The home Asra Nomani rented while living in Karachi. Photo by Derek Henry Flood.
Danny thought he’d be back at my house in Karachi from his interview by 9 pm. At 10, there was no sign of him, so Mariane and I flipped open his laptop to look for clues about his meeting. We found his source immediately. The man had written Danny from firstname.lastname@example.org. In Urdu, a native tongue of Pakistan, badmashi means troublemaker.
It seemed like an attempt to mock Danny, and I was instantly angry with myself for not having paid more attention to the nuances of the story he was chasing—had I seen that e-mail address, I could have warned him.
I spent the night working the phone for leads, and the next day Pakistani policemen swarmed my home. It didn’t feel right to sit back and watch them, waiting for news. As a journalist, I felt I had to investigate, too. I covered the dining-room wall in blank paper and wrote DANNY on the sheet in the middle; from there, I could map the connections among the people we came across. I’d used the tool while reporting a Journal story about tantric sex, when I’d had trouble keeping straight the different teachers and their students-slash-sex-partners. Danny had thought that was funny, and I imagined how hard he would laugh when he turned up and I could tell him we’d cracked his case thanks to my tantric-sex reporting.
Along with two of my Journal colleagues, Mariane and I chased every lead from our makeshift command center on Zamzama Street, and each day Mariane sat in front of a small shrine to chant her Buddhist mantra, praying for Danny to return. One night in the fifth week of the search, a team of Pakistani police officers, FBI agents, and State Department officials came to the house.
“I’m sorry, Mariane,” Mir Zubair Mahmood, the lead Pakistani investigator, said. “I couldn’t bring your Danny home.”
“No!” Mariane yelled, running to the bedroom where Danny had slept his last night of freedom. I was silent as I followed and took a seat outside her door, repeating to myself a prayer for protection that my mother had taught me as a child: “In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful . . . .”
Mariane emerged. “How do we know it’s true?” she asked me.
I took her question back to the group. It was John Bauman, then the US consul general in Karachi, who spoke: “They slashed his throat. They pressed on his jugular vein so his blood would gush out.”
The next morning, it rained for the first time during my five months in Karachi. Finally, I sobbed.
I was at Pinocchio’s Books & Toys in Morgantown, West Virginia, buying balloons for my son’s first birthday when Mariane called in the fall of 2003 and told me KSM had confessed to killing Danny. Condoleezza Rice, then the national-security adviser, had just told her. “It’s over,” Mariane said.
The Journal published the news, but nothing happened. KSM wasn’t prosecuted, and for years afterward it seemed as if the case had basically been closed.
Then in March 2007, the US government released a transcript of a military hearing at Guantánamo in which KSM again admitted to murdering Danny. “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan,” KSM said. “For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the internet holding his head.”
By that time, I had moved back to the US and tried to go on with my life. But I still hadn’t shaken lingering questions about who had actually killed Danny. In 2002, a Pakistani court convicted four militants for the crime. But I knew from my sources in Pakistan that there wasn’t solid evidence that the men had actually slit my friend’s throat—only that they’d planned the kidnapping. I also knew that Pakistani authorities had released the courier who had delivered the murder video to the FBI. I felt sure he was a link to the mysterious hand.
If that hand belonged to KSM, as he claimed it did, why wasn’t he being held responsible? Had KSM told his interrogators the truth? Was he really Danny’s killer?
A so-called "link analysis" from the Pearl Project shows the clues Nomani and others uncovered in their search for Danny's killers.
In the summer of 2007, I set out to answer that question—to finish Danny’s last story. I got trained in a social-network database program that intelligence analysts and law-enforcement officers use to sort the targets of their investigations, and Georgetown University’s undergraduate journalism director, Barbara Feinman Todd, and I launched the Pearl Project, an investigative-reporting course for 32 students. Computer-assisted reporting, combined with old-fashioned shoe leather, was how we’d try to prove whether KSM’s “blessed” right hand was the one in the video.
Our first big break came in an e-mail from a former FBI agent who had seen an article in USA Today about the course. “I know more than what the FBI has allowed to be told,” he wrote me. A week later, Tarine “Ty” Fairman, an agent who had been assigned to Danny’s case, showed up in our classroom with an inch-thick binder of internal FBI reports. He’d interviewed two of the convicted kidnappers—and the courier whom Pakistani authorities had released.
Getting the courier’s name helped us square an account we later got in online chats with a Pakistani policeman named Fayyaz Khan: Khan had interrogated a guard of Danny’s who had witnessed the murder and given the video to the courier.
Barbara, our students, and I went on and on like this, interviewing current and former officials from the FBI, the CIA, and Pakistan’s government and law enforcement. One source we plumbed regularly was a Pakistani police officer I’d met the day after Danny disappeared. The cop, like so many of the others who were helping us, was frustrated that after all the investigative work he’d done, so few suspects had been arrested. In the spring of 2008, he agreed to meet me in Dubai.
We picked a nondescript hotel and booked a conference room for daylong interviews with the policeman and a Pakistani private investigator. A couple of hours into the first session, the cop pushed a manila envelope stuffed with police reports across the table. I could see that the documents, many of them marked “secret,” were critical.
After the interview, I made five copies of the reports, stashed them in my room, and then found myself accompanying my sources to a completely different setting: a Dubai dance club filled mostly with men. All night long, a parade of dark-haired women gyrated to Bollywood ballads on the floor below us as we ate chicken wings and everyone else smoked hookahs. I thought to myself that Danny and Mariane could have ended up in a club like this, had they ever made it on that Dubai vacation, and that they would have devoured the cheesiness of the place. I felt excited about the accomplishments of the day.
But once I got back to the US, I couldn’t bring myself to open the folders of police reports for anything more than a cursory glance at their contents. I knew that a big chunk of the documents were written in Urdu and that I’d need my parents to translate them for me. But I couldn’t surrender them.
Four months later, in the summer of 2008, we moved the Pearl Project from Georgetown to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization that was going to publish our findings. There was still so much work to do, and I knew I couldn’t avoid the reports any longer, so I turned them over to my parents.
Over the next several months, they handwrote their translations, my mother agonizing all the while. In Pakistan, police sometimes write reports through the eyes of the informants and suspects they interview. That lends the documents a startling intimacy. Reading one account after another, my mother began to feel as if she were in the head of the kidnappers and witnesses. “Attaur Rehman, Faisal Bhatti, Fazal Karim, I see them in my dreams,” she said.
The report describing Karim’s police interrogation was the most unsettling to my mother and the most critical to me. He was the guard who was there for the killing and who had been with Danny from the day his kidnappers carted him to a walled-off compound on Karachi’s outskirts:
On the front seat was Daniel Pearl. I didn’t recognize the driver. Naeem opened the front door and got Daniel Pearl out, and he put one hand around his neck and had a pistol in his other hand and said, “Come on.” The driver was about 20 to 25 years old, and his skin was colored wheat. They called Daniel Pearl inside. . . . They took off all his clothes. They took all his belongings, which included his camera, small tape [recorder], mobile phone, wristwatch, glasses, wallet . . . shoes and Citibank card. . . . After about 10 to 15 minutes, Naeem Bukhari left with the Alto driver. After about two and a half hours, he returned with food, bedding, chains and a lock, and a tracksuit for Pearl. . . . Daniel Pearl asked in English, “What is going on?” . . . “Is this security?”
. . . We tied up his legs with a chain and bound the chain to an old engine that was lying in the room. . . . Then on the third day, Naeem Bukhari arrived with a camera. An English newspaper was put in Daniel Pearl’s hands and a photo was taken. . . . This went on for eight to ten days. . . .
. . . Three days before the murder, Daniel Pearl tried to escape in the night. Lagi Khan and I were sleeping. Haji and Lalu took Daniel Pearl to pee in the bathroom. Pearl pushed Lalu, who fell, and tried to jump on the latrine and began screaming, “Help me!” Lagi Khan and I heard the commotion, and all four of us dragged Pearl into the room and tied his legs, hand, and mouth. . . .
Karim went on to describe how on Danny’s last day, three “Balochi” men arrived. It was a reference to natives of Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province, from which KSM’s family originates:
They had a video camera. Naeem Bukhari said, “They are doing something. Let them do it.” . . . These boys had something wrapped in a cloth. In one cloth shopping bag, there were more shopping bags. The Balochi boys made a film with the camera and interviewed him.
Disguised Baloch No. 2 did the interview in English. . . . Later, they gave him a piece of paper with something written on it and asked him to memorize it. After they made him memorize it, he said it in front of the camera. It was a message for the American government saying, “Stop the cruelty and violence against the Muslims.”
. . . After the interview, Pearl’s hands were tied behind his back and a cloth was tied around his eyes. Baloch No. 1 took out two knives and a cleaver from within the cloth. At that moment, the camera was still on. Baloch caught Daniel Pearl by his hair while I held his waist. The Baloch then took the knife and slashed Daniel Pearl’s neck, but due to some technical difficulty, the scene was not captured on the video. Disguised Baloch No. 3 said that they were unable to film it. Disguised Baloch No. 1 expressed his anger. After fixing the camera, they reenacted the whole scene and separated Daniel Pearl’s head from his body.
Afterward, they cut up Daniel Pearl’s body into pieces and put it into the shopping bags. After being done with the work, they then began to walk around the plot and these three Baloch men started discussing if they should bury him here. Then, on the right side of the room, Gul Khan and I dug a big hole and took out Danny’s remains from the shopping bags and buried the pieces in the big hole. They had made ten pieces of the remains. . . . The floor of the room was then washed and the sunset prayer was done.
When my mother handed me Karim’s translated report, she said, “I hate these people.” In seven years, it was an emotion I had never entertained.
There wasn’t time to be angry after Danny died because there was too much to do.
Mariane and I went to Los Angeles and Washington for memorial services, and then I moved to Paris with her. She was seven months pregnant and didn’t have much family. I felt I had a duty to Danny to see their baby safely into the world.
At the same time, I was also pregnant and facing parenthood alone. In Pakistan, I’d fallen in love with a Muslim man who worked on Karachi’s Wall Street. We’d planned to wed, but the day after Danny disappeared, my boyfriend showed up on my doorstep and announced, “I can’t come around anymore.” He’d been spooked by a visit from an officer in the police department’s intelligence service—it made him think he’d go missing, too.
Mariane and I rented a studio apartment on the Rue des Martyrs and got to work once again, first on a book proposal about the search for Danny, then on a documentary-film proposal, all the while following the police investigation in Pakistan.
In late May of 2002, Bauman, the consul general in Karachi, e-mailed me Danny’s autopsy report. It was four pages long, a matter-of-fact accounting: “Tongue, eyes, nose are all decomposed. . . . Head is completely separated from the trunk. . . . The vocal box is intact. . . . The foot is attached to the leg and wears a sock. . . .”
Stabbing pains in my stomach woke me the next night. “My baby,” I whimpered.
Mariane and a friend sped me to her ob-gyn’s hospital, the Maternité des Lilas, where I recounted the trauma of the last few months and asked if my child would be all right. “The womb protects babies remarkably,” the doctor said. “During the Holocaust, pregnant mothers went under barbed wire to escape the Nazis. Their babies survived. Your baby will be okay.”
But I wasn’t okay. A longtime friend from grad school visited. She said I looked like “a pregnant zombie” and pressed me to go home. Eventually, another friend of Mariane’s found me a psychologist who specializes in EMDR, or eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, a therapy that’s supposed to lessen anxiety and ease posttraumatic stress. The psychologist had me close my eyes and imagine some of the worst memories of the previous months. I was to move my gaze internally at the same time, which was supposed to help. The therapy felt futile to me, and after the second session I never went back. I wasn’t ready to process what had happened because at that point I still didn’t really know. What was comfortable to me, and what I felt was most productive, was my default: acting the detached, questioning reporter.
Mariane had her baby boy, and two months before my own due date—October 10, Danny’s birthday—I left Paris and moved to my parents’ home in Morgantown. Shibli, meaning “my lion cub” in Arabic, was born on October 16, 2002; I gave him the middle name Daneel, an Arabic version of Daniel.
I became a single working mom who breastfed while I typed. I finished one book. I started another. For my research, I took Shibli on a three-week pilgrimage to Mecca and Jerusalem and to Petra and Amman in Jordan. I moved with Shibli back into my childhood home, making my old bedroom my writing office. I worked.
After I got the call from Mariane about KSM’s first confession in 2003, I went on a crusade against the radical wing of my religion, which treats women like lesser beings and preaches violence. I wrote op-eds decrying Islamic dogma and traveled the country to stage protests, going into the main sanctuaries of mosques, where women often aren’t allowed.
I never played volleyball, not once after the 2001 night in Karachi with Danny. Friendships dried up. Every year when his family held concerts in his memory—Danny had been an amateur violinist—I couldn’t bring myself to attend.
All the while, I never stopped checking in with my sources about the ongoing inquiries into Danny’s death. Once I finally started the Pearl Project in 2007, my quest consumed me 24-7. For months in 2008, I lived on Karachi time, ten hours ahead of Washington. My parents helped take care of Shibli so I could stay up all night interviewing sources in Pakistan, waiting for my contacts to show up in chat rooms. On Sundays, we ran a lab at Georgetown and Shibli would spend the day with us, often drawing on our investigative charts.
In May 2002, a new suspect leads police to Pearl’s head and body, buried in a yard in outer Karachi. The body wouldn’t be definitively identified with DNA testing for another two months. Photograph: Getty Images
I was living every fact of Danny’s death nearly every waking minute of every day. Yet I did my best not to contemplate the brutality or the anguish of it. I couldn’t watch horror movies and never read any news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of saying Danny was murdered, I’d say “when Danny died.”
Once, at the Target on 14th Street in DC, as I walked the aisles of Halloween stuff with Shibli, then six, I had to look away from the cartoony skeletons and bloodied butcher’s knives as he begged me to buy him some decorations.
“Mom!” he said. “Please!”
“I can’t, Shibli,” I said. “I just can’t.”
My son punched his fist into the air and blurted, “C’mon, Mom! Get the Halloween spirit!”
I had become a ghost myself. One of my favorite uncles died and I didn’t cry. Then my grandmother died—it was the same. Shibli fell on the playground, smashing his forehead on a bolt protruding from the jungle gym. Most moms would have flipped out. I just looked at him. We went to the hospital, where I videotaped him getting stitches. Shibli was nonplussed. It never occurred to me then that the effects of posttraumatic stress could be passed on.
In 2009, I became a cultural trainer for the US military and law enforcement, teaching cross-cultural awareness and communication to those deploying to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in hopes I could help save lives and atone for the badmashi I’d missed. I always taught a lesson on Pakistani identity using one of the ransom notes that Danny’s kidnappers sent. It demanded the delivery of some F-16 fighter jets that the US had promised Pakistan but then embargoed—back in the early 1990s. The note, I explained to my students, showed how long-held grievances could be passed on through generations.
Once, an FBI agent taking my class said a former agent in the bureau’s behavior-analysis unit, Joe Navarro, had a term for people in pain who carry their grief around with them: wound collectors. “Their recollection of these [traumatic] events is as meaningful and painful today as when they originally took place,” Navarro wrote in a book about the psychopathology of terrorists. “Wound collecting serves a purpose, to support and vindicate, keeping all past events fresh, thus magnifying their significance into the present, a rabid rationalization for fears and anxieties within.”
Nomani was one of 50 journalists who traveled to “Gitmo” for the proceeding, seeing it as an opportunity to be a witness for Pearl.
Ten years after Danny’s family buried him, I got the opportunity I thought would never come: a slot in the press pool for KSM’s arraignment at Guantánamo in May of 2012. After nine years of being locked up at secret CIA detention centers and the “Gitmo” prison, 183 waterboardings, and years of uncertainty over whether he would be tried in a civil or a military courtroom, the man who boasted about decapitating Danny would finally be facing justice. And I would be there, almost face to face with him.
On the eve of the hearing, 50 other journalists and I boarded a Miami Air charter jet at Andrews Air Force Base. It was a three-hour flight to Guantánamo, and I felt anxious the whole way. Our arrival was surreal. The first thing I saw on entering the airport was a sign reading souvenir shop GUANTÁNAMO BAY.
The US seized this slice of Cuba after 650 Marines stormed a beach called Fisherman’s Point during the Spanish-American War in June 1898. A naval base went up that year and was expanded during World War II. Today, Guantánamo is the largest US naval base in the Caribbean. More than 5,500 servicemembers, contractors, civilians and their families live there.
Inside the airport, a Subway advertises the LOW FAT DELICIOUSNESS! of its Turkey Melt. A kiosk is filled with flyers promoting weekday getaways to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and a magazine rack is lined with tabloids. BRITNEY: WEDDING IS OFF! reads a headline in the Star.
A member of the military’s public-affairs team hands me a “welcome kit” with a cover sheet reading JOINT TASK FORCE GUANTÁNAMO. SAFE, HUMANE, LEGAL, TRANSPARENT, and points me toward a hallway lined with Guantánamo Bay–through-the-years photos. In one, two boys in oversize helmets point toy guns at a barefoot young woman on a bike. “Little Broyn Bukdersky and John Campbell stop Miss Colleen Campbell during defense drill, October 1964,” the caption says.
Camp Justice, the compound where all the journalists will stay the night before KSM’s arraignment, is two shuttle buses and a ferry ride away, on the opposite side of the base. Before I begin the journey there, I peek into the souvenir shop. There are Guantánamo magnets and shot glasses, beach towels and beer mugs. A gray T-shirt catches my eye. GUANTÁNAMO BAY, it reads. CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR.
A waxing moon lights up the sky a little after 5 the next morning when I wake at Camp Justice and unfurl the cotton prayer rug I’ve had since childhood. I’m not exactly sure which way is northeast, toward Mecca, so I line up my rug to face the tent wall nearest my bed. I put my hands over my heart and begin, “In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful,” transitioning easily through the familiar prostrations and pulling my feet under me at the end. I step back onto the pine floor and out of the tent, uncertain what the day will bring.
One of the first people I come across while waiting for the courtroom doors to open is James Connell, a defense attorney.
“I’m sorry for the death of your friend,” he tells me. “This must be hard for you.”
I don’t know how to respond. Condolences aren’t what I expected to hear, especially from the defense. I’ve come defiant, wearing a gauzy pink tunic to reject the dark black shroud that a radical like KSM would expect on a Muslim woman. “Thank you,” I finally say.
By 9:25 am, we’re seated and a Guantánamo bailiff bellows, “All rise!” As Army colonel James Pohl, the judge, enters, the five defendants remain sitting.
Though KSM hasn’t been charged in Pearl’s death, he and four coconspirators were arraigned on terrorism charges in 2012 for the 9/11 attacks. Illustration by Janet Hamlin.
All day it goes like this.
The judge asks KSM questions, and he refuses to answer. The other men copy.
KSM was born in 1965 to an ultraconservative Pakistani family that had resettled in Kuwait, drawn by jobs in its booming oil industry. It’s said that he latched onto the idea of jihad as a teenager while attending lectures by the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical group that had been pushing for the formation of an Islamic empire. His family sent him to the US for college, and he graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in 1986.
After school, he moved around Pakistan and Afghanistan and, with his brothers, fought with the Afghans in the war against the Soviets. After the US, which had been funding the Afghans, pulled its support, a civil war erupted and one of KSM’s brothers died. Eventually, KSM moved into a Karachi apartment just minutes from my home.
I watch KSM and the other defendants whisper to one another throughout the morning of the arraignment. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni who was allegedly groomed to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11, can’t stop fidgeting. He pulls at his thick beard. Then he beckons to his young guard. Al-Shibh opens a book, pulls his cap off, pulls it back down tight.
For at least an hour, the defense attorneys press their cases for different cultural and religious accommodations for the men. One attorney wearing a full-length abaya and hijab over her head wants the women on the prosecutors’ team to cover up so the defendants won’t commit a sin by looking at their skin. Another attorney argues that KSM should be allowed to wear a camouflage vest. He wants to look like a combatant, and the lawyer says he should be allowed to because he fought in the US-funded Afghan war against the Soviets.
Seriously? I think. Danny didn’t get to wear the funky socks Mariane bought him in Paris for New Year’s in 2002. He didn’t get to hold his newborn son or see him off on his first day of school.
The stalling goes on and on: The judge’s credentials are questioned. KSM wants everyone in the back of the courtroom identified by name. It’s clear that none of the defendants will be pleading guilty. Four hours in, the judge announces a break for lunch and prayer. The gallery begins to empty. I stay.
KSM and his buddies start chatting and smiling, maybe joking with one another. The courtroom mikes are turned off, so I’m not completely sure. A few minutes later, I’m stunned to hear the familiar singsong of a call to prayer so loud it penetrates the soundproof glass.
I see Al-Shibh cup his ears, the sign that this melodious azan is his. “. . . Hayya ’alas-salah. Hayya ’alal-falah. Hayya ’alal-falah. Allāhu akbar . . .” he sings. “Come to prayer. Come to success. Come to success. God is great.”
Al-Shibh flings his rug on the floor, not taking the time to straighten it as we are taught to do. He stands on the tip of the rug with his shoes on. We’re taught always to take our shoes off. Watching the others lay out their rugs, I realize that earlier that morning I had laid mine in exactly the opposite direction as these men.
KSM takes his place in front of the others, and I watch as they begin the same series of rituals I did. They bend their heads to look toward the top of their prayer rugs—to focus, we’re taught to set our eyes on one point—and follow each of KSM’s actions.
I sought beneficence. So do they.
I sought mercy. So do they.
Finally, KSM sits back on his haunches and turns his feet underneath him. Each man turns to the metaphorical angels that Muslims believe sit atop our shoulders and record our deeds, good and bad. To them we say, “As-salam alaikum,” or “Peace be upon you.”
I feel sick.
Over the next several hours, I tune out the proceedings and instead study the men, watching for the smallest things that might make them human—KSM scratching behind his left ear, picking at the tip of his nose. I almost look forward to the second prayer break, when I know the building will be cleared of most everyone but the guards, and me, and the men will be themselves.
When the break comes, the azan is sung by KSM’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali. Known as Ammar, he allegedly filmed Danny’s death, according to our Pearl Project reporting. KSM again leads the prayer. As the men touch their foreheads to the ground, I hear another journalist say, “I’d like to kick them.”
A guard laughs and says, “I like your style.”
So do I.
“Number 84. Slit passengers’ throats by practicing on sheep.”
It’s 9 pm and retired Army colonel Robert Swann, an attorney for the military commission, is standing at the podium reading the criminal charges. “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others trained the non-pilot hijackers . . . how to slit passengers’ throats by making the hijackers practice on sheep, goats, and camels in preparation for the ‘Planes Operation.’ ”
Wow. He’s saying that KSM had a strategy for cutting throats. That even before Danny, he’d wanted all the 9/11 hijackers to cut the jugulars of their victims.
I go back in my mind to the night that our student Kira Zalan and I had a Deep Throat moment in the Pearl Project: It was the night we drove to the top floor of the parking garage at Pentagon City mall, as our source had instructed us, and got an FBI copy of the murder video.
Daniel Pearl. Photo by EPA/Newscom.
Until then, I had watched the killing online only once, in 2003, long after it happened. It was too gruesome, and it was hard to see any of the footage in real detail—not useful. But at the start of the Pearl Project, we learned that the original footage given to the FBI was clear, sharp, and nothing like what appeared on the web. I knew I had to get that copy to see the hands up close.
Kira and I took it back to our office in Georgetown and pushed the DVD into my laptop. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish,” came Danny’s voice.
The picture was perfect. The killer’s hand sawed and sawed and sawed, then yanked Danny’s head back and pressed on his jugular vein, just like the consul general John Bauman said, as blood rippled in the swamp at his throat.
I watched it over and over, pausing, rewinding, playing, pausing, rewinding, playing it again and again, to study the hand on the knife.
FBI agents did the same thing. Like our students and me, the agents were in search of the smoking gun to tie KSM’s right hand to the hand in the video. One agent even took still frames of the murderer’s hand and asked the CIA to compare the photo to KSM’s right hand. The telling detail on the FBI’s photo was a Y-shaped vein that extended from the killer’s middle and ring fingers up to the wrist.
Before long, the agent got a reply from his counterpart at the CIA: “The photo you sent me and the hand of our friend inside the cage seem identical to me.”
It was more than a clue—it was a confirmation. But the bureau didn’t act.
Nor did it act when KSM confessed to the agency. Nothing.
We learned that the FBI extracted that confession from KSM in 2007, and through crucial interviews we were able to clear up the last mystery: how it was that Danny ended up dying at the hand of KSM instead of the Pakistani kidnappers. KSM told the FBI the captors weren’t sure what to do with Danny and asked al-Qaeda leaders if they wanted him. They did, and it became KSM’s job to deal with him.
KSM told the FBI he believed that killing a Jew would make for powerful propaganda and incite his fellow jihadis. To ensure that the US would seek the death penalty against him should it ever pin the crime on him, KSM told the bureau, he butchered the journalist to have the man’s blood on his hands. “I know why you took the photo of my hand,” KSM said.
Over the course of the Pearl Project, we read more than 2,400 pages of court records and pored over hundreds of other documents, including classified diplomatic cables, slowly piecing together the identities of 27 people involved in Danny’s demise.
We also finished the Richard Reid story Danny had been chasing when he got kidnapped. On the day Danny left my house, he thought he was going to meet a man named Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the radical Pakistani cleric who the Boston Globe said could have assisted Reid with the American Airlines plot. Danny thought that finding Reid’s facilitator might lead him to the plotters of 9/11, and he had been promised an interview with Gilani.
But we learned from information KSM gave to the FBI that Gilani wasn’t actually Reid’s hookup; Ammar, KSM’s nephew, was. The source who promised Danny a meeting with Gilani never planned to deliver; the actual plan was to kidnap him. And as we learned from the FBI, it was his kidnappers who eventually handed him over to KSM—meaning, sadly, that Danny’s instinct about being led to the architects of 9/11 was right-on.
Yet of everything we learned and published in 2011 in our 31,000-word report, the FBI’s vein-matching revelation was the most significant. It was the strongest piece of evidence against KSM independent of his confession—evidence that I was never able to see with my own eyes.
Which, suddenly, at Guantánamo, as my mind replays the murder video and the TV screens above me show close-ups of KSM fiddling with paper, becomes so . . . obvious.
The reason I’m here.
It’s right in front of me.
It’s a look at KSM’s right hand.
All day I’ve been listening, I’ve been observing, absorbing, and now it’s almost over and I haven’t seen that hand.
And I need to.
I zero in on the screens, afraid to lose any glimpse I might get.
“Zoom in!” I think to the cameras that can’t hear me as I strain for a good look at the thing.
Is it the one that held that long knife? That hoisted my friend’s head high like a trophy and let it dangle in midair?
KSM reaches for a pen, and I see he’s right-handed. I watch as he goes to write, his hand clenched in a fist and bent slightly toward his core. Yes. Yes. The Y-shaped vein. I see it.
We all respond to trauma differently. For a decade, I subsisted by dissociating, by putting up a barrier between my emotions and the trauma of the murder. I took an analytical, clinical approach to it, investigating and absorbing every detail of Danny’s case but never grieving him.
Nomani, who is Muslim, memorialized her friend Daniel Pearl by giving her son, Shibli, the middle name Daneel, an Arabic version of Daniel. Photo by Andrew Propp.
Seeing KSM’s hand, I so badly wanted him to be charged with the crime. But I knew it wasn’t likely. In 2006, a group of federal officials had recommended trying KSM for 9/11, not Danny’s death, even though they believed they had a strong case for murder.
“Looking at the two photos, there was nothing that stood out to me to contradict that conclusion,” Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the Guantánamo military commission from 2005 through 2007, told me. “I have no reason to doubt that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Daniel Pearl.”
From a procedural perspective, as it was explained to me, federal officials felt that bundling Danny’s case with the 9/11 charges would make KSM’s prosecution more complicated.
And so it became clear, at Guantánamo, that the only work left for me to do was to heal my wound.
“What is grief?” I recently asked psychologist Steven Stosny, posing the obvious question I’d avoided for so long.
“It’s an expression of love,” he told me. “When you grieve, you allow yourself to love again.”
“How do you grieve?” I asked him.
“You celebrate a person’s life by living your life fully.”
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed never said a word to the court in Guantánamo that day. When the last words of the 88-page charge sheet were finally read at 10:28 pm, 13 hours and 5 minutes after the proceeding began, the judge cracked his gavel and just like that the arraignment came to a swift, odd end.
KSM stood up and smiled, and I watched as he picked up a stack of books draped with his tazbi, his prayer beads. A minute later, he was gone. And what was I left with?
Relief. Relief that I could finally feel sad that Danny would never come back.
In the months ahead, my life would change. I would start going out for beers again, with friends. My mother and I would plant rose bushes in my garden and instead of stalking suspects, Barbara and I would go to parties and drink wine. For the first time in a decade, I would pick up a volleyball, and I would coach my son Shibli’s club team to a victory in the league championships.
KSM’s next court appearance would come on October 16, 2012—Shibli’s tenth birthday—and I would have the option to attend. Instead, I would take my son on his dream vacation to Atlantis, in the Bahamas, and we would swim with dolphins.
I knew none of this that night in Guantánamo as I left that warehouse of a courtroom and walked to my tent. The sky was clear, lit up brighter than before by a super-moon.
I unfolded my prayer rug and laid it out over the bare floor in my tent, cupped my hands over my face, and whispered a prayer I’ve said since childhood: “Dear God,” I said, “please give me sukhoon.” Peace of mind.