You’d be forgiven for missing it in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, but British citizen Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who has been on death row since 2002 for the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, has just had his death sentence overturned by a court in Pakistan.
Sheikh’s name resurfacing after all these years is like a visit from a cruel spectre of the past. Two decades after his sentence and nearly three after he first joined the global Jihad, his case shows that from Shamima Begum to the Beatles, today’s terrorists will still be tomorrow’s problem.
Rumour and scepticism have always shrouded the Sheikh case: suspicions of his links to elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments abound, and even former President Musharraf has speculated that at one point Sheikh was an MI6 agent.
Whether Sheikh actually murdered Daniel Pearl himself has long been disputed, not least because 9/11 architect Khaled Sheikh Mohammed confessed to carrying out the beheading personally:
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the internet holding his head”
CIA vein-matching of those very pictures seemed to confirm that the hand of the killer in the choreographed murder did indeed belong to “KSM”. At the very least, Sheikh did have a hand in Pearl’s abduction and the kidnapping of tourists in India during the 1990s.
Britain’s troubled history of exporting Jihad has earned it something of an unwanted reputation. In the TV series The Looming Tower, the FBI team tracking al-Qaeda after the ‘98 US Embassy bombings are dispatched to “the one place that has the highest concentration of al-Qaeda outside of Afghanistan” – the scene cuts to an iconic red double decker bus.
Indeed, what was Pearl doing in Pakistan when he was snatched by an old boy of a very minor East London public school? He was on the trail of yet another Londoner – prison convert Richard Reid, the so called ‘Shoe Bomber’ who had tried and (thanks to his sweaty feet) failed to blow a passenger airliner out of the sky just a couple of months prior.
Years before 9/11 and the War on Terror, Sheikh himself had been part of a trickle of Britons who travelled to Bosnia to connect with the foreign Mujahideen during the 1990s, earning the conflict the moniker the ‘cradle of modern Jihadism’.
Sheikh originally set out for the warzone in a so called aid convoy – exactly the type of aid convoys that were pumping money and foreign fighters into the Syrian civil war two decades later. Confirming what many have known for years, one of those aid convoys’ ‘failings’ was just found by Britain’s charities watchdog to have contributed to the death of Alan Henning, brutally murdered on camera by Islamic State.
Alan Henning’s killer was of course, yet another Londoner, whose unmistakable accent and masked glare menaced the international news cycle for months as he butchered British, American and Japanese aid workers and journalists on film.
In addition to the early generation in Bosnia, the ‘originals’ who linked up with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the 900 or so Brits who performed hijrah (migration) to Islamic State’s Caliphate, Britain’s extremist exports have visited misery on the people of East Africa too.
For a brief period before the emergence of Islamic State, East Africa was the preferred destination for British would-be mujahideen, and it was Somalia’ al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab they sought out, rather than the safari adventure they claimed.
Al-Shabaab is responsible for some of the most appalling attacks on innocents of any Jihadist outfit: colossal truckbombs in Mogadishu, the terrifying Westgate mall siege in Nairobi and the massacre of 148 Christian students asleep in their dormitories at Garissa University. There has been speculation (treat with caution) about the role that Britons have played in some of these acts of mass murder, including Buckinghamshire tabloid favourite Samantha Lewthwaite, ‘the White Widow’.
These are just a few of the most notorious names and their place in a global web of violence, but research from the Tony Blair Institute found that the vast majority of British terrorists in their sample had fought overseas in Jihadist theatres. The research also found that far from poor and vulnerable, many were very well educated, indeed, one of the men behind the devastating 2019 Sri Lanka bombings was yet another London university alumnus.
Nor are Britain’s international Jihadi contingent simply everyone else’s problem. The still-at-large White Widow earned her name as the wife of 2005 London transport bomber Germaine Lindsay, while al-Qaeda commander Anas al-Liby, implicated all the way back in the 1998 East Africa bombings, was a connection of 2017 Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi’s father. The impact of global extremist networks which put roots down in Northern England in the 1990s, echoed in devastating fashion in Manchester Arena over twenty years later.
Even more recently, a UK Supreme Court ruling on the Islamic State Beatles reveals more headaches caused by Jihadi exports: 600 witness statements relating to kidnap, torture and murder of hostages, yet still Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service concluded they had no chance of prosecution so the pair were offloaded for an American court to deal with – despite US Government protests.
Britain’s terrorist foreign legion have cast a long shadow over the years. For nearly three decades they have wrought havoc on our allies, on good men like Daniel Pearl and Alan Henning, as well as on local populations less fortunate and societies less resilient than our own – often the very same people these terrorists imagine they are defending. If Sheikh’s case tells us anything, it is that we should brace ourselves now, the ripples from Britain’s latest generation of terrorists will be making waves around the world long into the future.