February 6, 2002
2050 IST


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Omar Sheikh: A deadly whirlpool of terror

Josy Joseph in New Delhi

Sheikh Ahmed Omar Sheikh, now the prime suspect in the abduction of The Wall Street Journal scribe Daniel Pearl, is a familiar face to the Indian security and intelligence agencies.

There is a quiet sense of satisfaction among the Indian agencies at having been proved right again, as the US state department acknowledges that the sophisticated, suave Omar is probably behind Pearl's abduction.

Sheikh was released from Indian custody in exchange for the hostages of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane, IC 814.

"He is suave and intelligent to plan out the kidnapping of a westerner better than an average jihadi in Pakistan," a senior Indian intelligence officer said.

Indian intelligence officials said that Omar is a specialist in kidnappings, and had already proved his capability by kidnapping five foreigners in 1994 in New Delhi. He was arrested during that operation.

Indian agencies always believed that Omar Sheikh was the most dangerous of the three terrorists released in exchange for IC 814 hostages on December 31, 1999.

The other two released were Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Mushtaq Zargar.

Ever since his release, Indian intelligence spotters saw Sheikh 'on and off' in Pakistan and once was seen in Afghanistan, near one of the camps of Osama bin Laden.

After September 11 attacks, the Indian agencies insisted that they have enough reasons to suspect that he was somehow party to the conspiracy. There were, however, no convincing explanations for their claims.

But, a few weeks after their claims there were western news reports saying that Omar Sheikh had wired $100,000 to some contacts, who in turn sent it to the hijackers.

Indian agencies believe that Omar Sheikh is capable of much more.

The only change in his life, marked by impressive academic abilities and rare dedication to jihad, during the past two years has been his marriage.

But, with his links to the abduction of Daniel Pearl becoming clear, marriage seems to have had no effect on his activities.

The story of Sheikh's father is typical of any successful Pakistani migrant to the west, and that of Sheikh typical of a modern day jihadi.

Saeed Ahmed Sheikh, Omar's father, was born in Dhoka Mandi village near Lahore and lived there till his early 20s before migrating to London sometime in 1968 to pursue Chartered Accountancy course.

After being an accountant with a record company for a short while, Saeed Ahmed Sheikh started his own wholesale garment business under the name 'Perfect Fashions'.

At present, his company earns over half a million pounds annually.

His family owns a house (bought in 1977) in London, some shops and land.

Omar Sheikh is the eldest of the three children, and was born on December 23, 1973 in London.

His younger sister, Hajira Sheikh, was confirmed to be a medicine student till recently at Oxford, while his younger brother, Awais Sheikh, was a student of A level in Oxford.

All the three children are known to be brilliant, and are recipients of scholarships.

Omar Sheikh did his schooling at Nightingale Primary School and later at Forest School at Snaresbrook. Present English cricket team captain Nasser Hussain was his classmate at school.

In 1987, Omar's father wound up his business and moved back to Lahore, but returned to London soon after in 1990, after he had a fall out with his cousins.

During his stay in Lahore, Omar went to Aitchison College. Indian agencies said that Omar was known for his temperamental behaviour and he had enough quarrels that forced his father to call him back to London. Omar went back to Forest School and finished his Senior Cambridge in 1992.

During his Forest School days, Omar had a short-lived romance with an English girl, Sarah, about whom he spoke affectionately to Indian interrogators.

Omar is a combination of complex interests, according to intelligence agencies.

He was a chess champion during his days at London School of Economics, where he was also reputed for his brilliant academic abilities. He is also a keen arm wrestler, and took part in the 1992 World Arm Wrestling Championships in Geneva.

A martial arts enthusiast, Omar's prowess was seen by Indian police officers, who nabbed him in mid 90s, when he was holding five foreigners captive outside Delhi.

While in a Ghaziabad hospital, after being arrested by Delhi and Uttar Pradesh Police, he punched a deputy superintendent of police, and threatened to track down and kill the constable who had slapped him back.

Later at the Meerut jail, he kicked the jail superintendent, and was shifted to high security Tihar jail in Delhi, after the Uttar Pradesh Police categorised him as 'dreaded'.

During his LSE days, Omar dabbled in shares and equities and was earning up to 1000 pounds a day from a chain of retail customers he had set up using his father's business base.

Moved by a documentary on Bosnia (Destruction of a Nation) in 1992, Omar Sheikh took to jihad and went to Bosnia on a trip with 'Convoy of Mercy'.

Indian officials believe that he had tacit support from his father.

According officials, Omar was in contact with Maulana Ismail of Clifton Mosque in North London, who inspired him to join Harkat-ul-Ansar and come to Kashmir.

An Indian intelligence official told that psychologists who interacted with him during his stay in Indian jails believe that he is an 'anti-Zionist and anti-Christian who believes that Muslims can never be friends with Christians and Jews'.

"He feels it is the duty of every Muslim to take up jihad and strengthen the Muslims wherever they were in minority," the official said.

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