by David Williams
The Daily Mail
July 16, 2002
Former British public schoolboy Omar Sheikh was sentenced to death yesterday for the kidnap and murder in Pakistan of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Within minutes of the 28-year old British-born terror mastermind being sentenced to be hanged by a Pakistani court, his lawyers read out a chilling personal message in which he threatened anyone who tried to carry out the court's sentence.
'I will see whether who wants to kill me will first kill me or get himself killed,' Sheikh said in the message. 'Musharraf Pakistan's President should know that Almighty Allah is there and can get his revenge.' Sheikh attended the London School of Economics and was brought up in East London, where his father runs a clothing business.
Here, the Mail investigates how this promising, unassuming but brilliant student became one of the most clinical and deadly terrorists in the world. There could be few greater contrasts than the stark, dank isolation cells of Hyderabad Central Prison and the genteel surroundings of an English public school. As Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh lay down on the cold stone floor of his cell last night to consider his death sentence, his devoted parents Saeed and Qaissia could be forgiven for wondering just what had gone wrong.
It is a question that both British and U.S. intelligence have been trying to unravel during the past months as the extraordinary story of the 28-year-old Islamic militant and terrorist mastermind has emerged.
For, just a decade ago, Omar Sheikh had been the model of a London public schoolboy, a keen, courteous student heading for university, a teenager who had been proud to represent Great Britain at sport.
But today, the former pupil of Forest School in Snaresbrook, East London, is condemned as a ruthless, calculating terrorist killer with links to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network and beyond; the man who orchestrated the kidnap and execution this year of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The trial and exhaustive investigation has revealed how the teenager, first drawn to the Islamic cause while studying at the London School of Economics, had been earmarked as a future terror leader, and was an ally of Maulana Azhar Masood - founder of the banned Jaish- e-Mohammed radical movement which India blames for the attack on its Parliament last December.
It revealed, too, disturbing links between Sheikh and Pakistani intelligence - itself linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It showed how he trained in Afghan terror camps, and how he is alleged to have transferred large cash sums to the bank account of the September 11 suicide hijack leader Mohamed Atta.
It also showed how he had been freed from an Indian jail where he was held for the kidnap of British tourists, in response to Islamic militant demands after an airline hijack.
Sheikh describes himself as a 'revolutionary, a social scientist and a future conqueror' whose sole purpose in life is to 'wage war against the enemies of Islam'. An Indian intelligence official in Delhi describes him as 'an evil, ruthless terrorist'.
'He is not like the conventional portrait of an Islamic terrorist he is far better, far more accomplished,' he said.
'His background, his Britishness, his English accent and his intelligence that allows him to manipulate, all mark him out as very different - potentially an important figure, whose contacts stretched both into terror groups and government.
'He could be charming and amusing, but at heart he is dedicated to his cause - and as we know, willing to kidnap and kill innocents for it without the slightest remorse, like all those seen since September 11.' It is a disturbing fact that so many alleged terrorists, such as shoe bomber Richard Reid or the so-called 20th suicide hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, were either recruited or drawn towards the Islamic fundamentalist cause while in London.
What makes Sheikh so fascinating - and so worrying - is that his entry into the world of terrorism was unlike that of any other murderous fanatic.
His parents, Saeed Ahmed Sheikh and his wife Qaissia, had come to Britain from Pakistan in 1968, from a village near Lahore, and settled in Wanstead, East London.
Five years later, on December 23, 1973, Omar was born at the nearby Whipps Cross hospital.
Later, they had another son, Awais, and a daughter, Hajira.
After attending Nightingale Primary School near the family home, Sheikh transferred to the GBP 8,000a-year Forest School in Snaresbrook, a favourite choice for professional and affluent parents on London's eastern fringe.
England cricket captain Nasser Hussain was a school contemporary, while another distinguished pupil is Manchester United's South African international Quinton Fortune.
In 1987, his father sold up his business in London and moved the family back to Pakistan, where Sheikh lived in Lahore with his grandparents while attending Aitchison College, a prestigious school favoured by Pakistan's elite. He left after two years when the family returned to Wanstead after a GBP 250,000 business venture failed.
While his father began a fashion import- export business in London's East End, Sheikh returned to Forest School, leaving in 1992 with four A-levels: two at grade A and two at grade B.
He is recalled by fellow pupils and teachers as 'popular and bright', a pupil who enjoyed chess and excelled at mathematics and computers.
Economics tutor George Paynter recalled him as 'willing and capable a jolly good brain'. He went on: 'We are absolutely stunned that he might be involved in these activities. The chap we knew was a good all-round, solid and very supportive pupil.
'He was in the premier league of students - there was absolutely no sign whatsoever of all this. He was a nice bloke and very respectful.' Sheikh gained admission to the LSE, where he read applied mathematics, statistical theory, economics and social psychology.
It was at this time that the 6ft 3in teenager was selected for the Great Britain team in armwrestling, attending international championships in Spain and Switzerland.
He is said to have become 'hooked' on the sport after seeing the Hollywood film Over The Top starring his hero Sylvester Stallone. He travelled around pubs in East London to compete, winning the Cockney Classic in Clapton.
Intelligence files show that during this period, the LSE was targeted by Islamic extremists intent on recruiting students to the cause of Moslem revolution.
Sheikh became a member of the university's Islamic Society, and in November 1992, saw a number of films on Bosnia in which Moslems were clearly the victims.
He was to record in his diary: 'One such film, The Destruction Of A Nation, shook my heart. The reason being Bosnian Moslems were shown being butchered by the Serbs.' Sheikh became involved in organising student conferences on Bosnia and fundraising. During his Easter holiday in 1993, he joined a 'convoy of mercy' taking aid to Bosnia, organised by a Pakistani businessman from North London.
While in the Croatian port of Split, he met veterans of Afghanistan who were going to fight with Moslem militia.
One of the fighters saw a potential recruit, and told him he should not waste his time on relief work in Bosnia but should train in Pakistan. He provided him with the name of an imam at a North London mosque who would be a contact.
Months later, Sheikh arrived in Lahore and travelled to Afghanistan with other recruits, where he attended a 40-day course of religious-instruction, weapons and explosives training at Al Qaeda's Khalid Bin Waleed training camp.
In December 1993, he joined a second course, said to have been run by the Pakistan army's Special Services Group, and was taught surveillance techniques, disguise, interrogation, secret codes, and how to mount attacks and night ambushes.
Guerrilla leaders told him they needed him to go to India, so he returned to Britain in January 1994 to obtain a visa in his passport.
But before he went to India, he returned to Afghanistan for further training. And during that visit the reason for his visit to India became apparent: he was to be sent there to help free a group of Islamic activists who had been captured.
He was told that he had a bargaining counter: several Western backpackers, he was informed, had already been captured in Kashmir with a view to being exchanged for the activists. But this was not true.
Five Westerners - including two Britons - had been captured. But they had already been murdered, and their bodies have never been recovered.
Unperturbed, Sheikh decided to organise his own kidnap operation after travelling to Delhi. Working with accomplices, he seized three Britons - Myles Croston, Paul Ridout and Rhys Partridge - and an American, demanding the release of the militants in exchange.
His diary displays a complete lack of conscience. In it, Sheikh reveals how he kidnapped the backpackers in India by pretending to take them to a village that he had inherited from an uncle: 'It seems amazing the story was greeted with such credible enthusiasm, but the newly arrived traveller in India yearns to hear extraordinary stories.' Another insight into his mind came when he delivered the package containing a photograph of the hostages and demands to a young female employee of the BBC.
He wrote in his diary: 'Tonight she will be telling the world that this tall, monstrous, terrorist sort of chap came to me in person tomorrow I'll ring her up and say: "Actually, my dear, I'm not like that at all."' Chillingly, given the later murder of Pearl, there were threats to behead the hostages, who were freed following a shootout in which a policeman was killed and Sheikh shot in the shoulder and captured.
Partridge later recalled how Sheikh had lured them into a trap.
'He was so believable, exceptionally intelligent and a forceful man.
He spoke superb English. But once we went with him, our "friend" became our captor, and we were held at gunpoint from then on.' Sheikh was sent to the Tihar prison near Delhi, where he spent five years as a 'model inmate'.
Then, in December 1999, he was freed as part of a ransom deal with the Indian government, in exchange for 154 passengers on board a hijacked Indian airlines plane.
The mere fact that his freedom was one of the hijackers' demands was an indication of his importance to the terror chiefs running Islamic groups in Indian-occupied Kashmir.
At this time, Britain offered Sheikh a deal that would allow him to live in London a free man if he told them all he knew. He refused.
Members of his family in Lahore also tried in vain to persuade him to give up his militant activities, but despite having married in Pakistan and fathered a child, he would have none of it.
As militant fighters rallied following the coalition attacks on Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban, he was active again.
Sheikh is said to have been the man who lured Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal who was investigating a story on Islamic militants, to a meeting with bogus extremists.
Just as in the previous kidnap, pictures of Pearl, whose wife Mariane was pregnant with their first child, were released, and in a number of emails the kidnappers demanded $ 2 million in ransom (about GBP 1.4 million) along with the release of Al Qaeda suspects held at the U.S. camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The email account from which the messages were sent was kidnapper-guy hotmail.com.
The emails and telephone calls were traced to Sheikh, who surprisingly gave himself up to a contact in Pakistani intelligence after his relatives were taken into custody.
Days later, the gruesome video of Pearl's murder was released.
Why it took a week for the Pakistani authorities to admit they had Sheikh under arrest remains one of the many unsolved mysteries.
Sheikh said this week: 'I know people in the government and they know me and my work.' He claimed he had learnt of Pearl's death in a telephone conversation with a man called 'Siddiqi', and said he had given the order for the American to be released in a prearranged code that said: 'Shift the patient to the doctor.' Sheikh said: 'Siddiqi replied: "Dad has expired. We have done the scan and completed the X-rays and post-mortem" meaning Pearl had been videotaped and buried.' Both the U.S. and Britain would like to question Sheikh - the U.S. has asked for his extradition - but the suspicion is that he will never be allowed to leave Pakistan, given his intimate knowledge of terror links between Islamabad's intelligence services and terror organisations.
Copyright 2002 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
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