Video: Investigating Daniel Pearl's murder

By NBC News Investigative Producers
updated 6/22/2007 12:58:13 PM ET 2007-06-22T16:58:13

The movie about Daniel Pearl's life and murder at the hands of al-Qaida opens this weekend across the country. Here, in a never-before released interview, one of the lead FBI investigators into Pearl's death discusses some of the details leading up to his murder and how al-Qaida became involved in his execution.

Ty Fairman was an FBI agent sent to Pakistan to investigate the murder of Daniel Pearl. He spent hours talking with Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man convicted of masterminding Pearl’s kidnapping.

Fairman, who has since left the bureau, talked about the case for the first time recently to NBC News Investigative Producers Robert Windrem and Richard Greenberg. He spoke about how the FBI ultimately learned that the kidnapping had morphed. What started out as an abduction by a local militant group with unrealistic goals apparently turned into an al-Qaida operation — one in which the evidence points to the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks as the actual murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter. Al-Qaida then trumpeted his death on the Internet as a victory for international jihad.

Pearl, stationed in Bombay, believed the shoe bomber who had tried to bring down an American Airlines jet just before Christmas 2001 had ties to Sheikh Mubarek Jilani, a Pakistani militant cleric living in Karachi. He enlisted the aid of Omar Sheikh, a London-educated militant, to get the interview but Omar Sheikh betrayed him. As Fairman explained, investigators came to believe the trail led to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, No. 3 in al-Qaida and the man who has since admitted to wielding the sword that killed Pearl. Getting there, though, was a tortuous path littered with lies and forensic evidence derived in part from the horrific video of Pearl’s death. The story begins one month after Pearl's abduction.

NBC News: How did you get involved in the Pearl investigation?

Ty Fairman: We had the Pearl case; it was our jurisdiction. We set up shop at the Wall Street Journal headquarters in New Jersey. Usually, you have a rotation. We were the second team that was assigned to go over there… We spent, you know, several weeks there and came back about April.

NBC: How many agents were there with you at the time?

Fairman: We had between six and nine agents on the scene in Pakistan at one time. Then it got backed off to about three agents for the majority of the time.

NBC: What was your role on the ground in Pakistan?

Fairman: Basically we had to do a transition first. While the first team was on their way out, we had to go through their information and get briefed up on everything they found — where the case was going, the relationships, and contacts with the police, the prison systems and all of the operational issues that they had to deal with. And we looked through all the paperwork and then come up with our plan to organize where we were going to go with this case.

NBC: Was Saeed Omar Sheikh already in custody by the time you got there?

Fairman: Yes, by the time we got there he was already in custody.

NBC: What was your role with regard to him? Were you supposed to do some investigation into his background? Were you supposed to question him? What was your role?

Fairman: To tell you the truth, it was never really outlined before we left. We had to pretty much to play it by ear. Because when we arrived there we were told that even though Omar Saeed Sheikh was in custody he was on a talking and eating strike. So he wasn't going to talk to any more agents. So we decided, well, we'll go ahead. We're going to take some photographs of his hands and his feet, anything that we saw in some of those photographs of the kidnapping, you know, photographs that were posted in the newspaper. So we said go set up, go take some photographs, swab for DNA just in case we found Daniel Pearl's body. See if we could place him at the scene or something like that.

NBC: Because at this time you did not have the body but you knew the location where this had taken place...

Fairman: Yeah, we knew the locations, you know, the meeting locations, we knew exactly where Daniel Pearl was picked up from. We knew that Omar Saeed Sheikh and everyone else was in custody. So we had to pretty much go from there and start to look at timelines, comparing testimonies and statements, you know, and then creating leads.

NBC: Overall, what you were able to determine about this case, and about who was responsible for murdering Daniel Pearl?

Fairman: Well, it was pretty interesting. I mean, first of all, we had to get Omar Saeed Sheikh to speak again. And the interesting thing is when we did approach him initially and we were there photographing him, I spoke to him, pulled him to the side and had a couple words with him and told him basically, 'Hey, we’re not here to interrogate you, we’re not here to find any evidence on you. We just want to find out exactly how you felt about it, what makes you tick, why would you choose this individual. See, we’re here for your story not to interrogation not to indict you. I said, 'That's what the first team did.' I said, 'So, by talking to us you’ll be able to get your story out there and I think it’ll be beneficial to where you're trying to go, what we're trying to do, I said, and we can help each other and help the world understand, you know, why terrorism exists and things like that."'

And he said, 'You know what? I think what you're saying is very interesting and I think I want to talk to you.' And he turned, and spoke to Captain Zubair who was the lead investigator for the Pakistani police and said, 'I want to talk to agent Fairman.'

NBC: And how much time did you spend talking to him?

Fairman: During that evening, about 20-30 minutes. Right then and there. Just small talk. Just things I wanted to understand about the hierarchy of his terrorism organization. About him, where was he born, where is he from, why does she speak such perfect English. Just the basic things to get to know him.

NBC: What did he tell you?

Fairman: He told me he was educated in England. And, you know, even though he was born in Pakistan, his family is a family of people that are educated. I mean his brother and sister were, you know, attending major universities in London.

NBC: Did he explain at all his ideology at that point? He wasn hiding his history, right?

Fairman: At that point he did not explain his ideology. I mean, we did not get to that; we did not get into that because we had a limited amount of time. And we were losing daylight. And where they [Pakistani security] were holding him they didn't have any lights. They just had a candle on the table and the candle wasn't doing too well. And they kept saying, 'You got to speed this up so we can go.' And since he had came off the talking strike and the eating strike, then he says, 'Well, you know, Captain Zubair told us, “Well, you can try to contact him and come speak to him at any time, since he’s off his strike.” So we said, 'Great we’ll go ahead and continue this at a later date when it, you know, is a lot better for us to do.'…

NBC: What did you learn? What did he tell you?

Fairman: Well, basically this interview was different. I mean, I have to tell you it was the hardest one we ever conducted because we still had those rules, and some of those limitations: do not ask any direct questions regarding Daniel Pearl. Do not ask any direct questions regarding anything to do with India... and then it was also about... six or seven high ranking Pakistani officials in the room, while we’re interviewing him, sitting right in between us. And then he was handcuffed to a very large Pakistani. So we had to, you know, be creative... So we decided to, for the first 45 minutes, we just talked in very monotone and low voice and we talk about his personal issues, OK? Uh, 'how many animals did you have?' Well, he had fish, he had rabbits. Let's talk about your personal life. Pakistan, your life in England, let's talk about racism. So we led him down a path that we wanted to be let down and we were able to slip in some of the questions, you know, regarding the mood of the conversation. We were able to get a lot accomplished and walk our way through. And he also, he volunteered information regarding Daniel Pearl which we were able to collect. Now prior to starting the interview we did read him his Miranda rights and he did sign his advice of rights. So anything that he disclosed and volunteered regarding Daniel Pearl we were able to annotate that separately, you know.

NBC: Did he acknowledge ever visiting the house where Daniel Pearl was being held?

Fairman: No, he said he never visited the home. Prior to setting things up, yes he was there to make sure everything was fine, that it was a location where authorities couldn't get to. Easy location to hide someone for a period of time. You know, he said but after he was actually kidnapped, he never came back down, never returned to Karachi.

NBC: So he scouted and chose the location, approved it, whatever?

Fairman: Yes, definitely.

NBC: What was the purpose of this operation as far as he was concerned?

Fairman: Well, the purpose he said basically, you know, at first there wasn't really a major purpose. He was introduced and he was told that this individual was seeking a meeting with Sheikh Jilani, and he thought it was an opportune time. To say, look this individual trying to meet with Sheikh Jilani, he must be a government official posing, you know, as a journalist. So he felt that this would be an opportune time to go ahead and meet this individual, feel him out and find out, you know, if in fact he is a journalist. If he felt he was a government official, basically a CIA agent, he would kidnap him.

NBC: Did he come to the conclusion that Daniel Pearl was more than a reporter or something other than a reporter?

Fairman: That's what they told us. During the interview he said he felt that Daniel Pearl was a CIA agent working for the government trying to get close to, you know, Sheikh Jilani, and he said he wanted to intercept that and do his own mission. However, he did say that his mission was approved by the leaders of Al-Mojahedin [Jilani’s organization], so he had straight approvals, direct approvals to conduct this mission.

NBC: And the mission was what?

Fairman: And that was to hold Daniel Pearl, kidnap him… he never said what was the end result, the true end result. He did admit to us that he wanted the hostages, the Pakistanis released from Gitmo. He wanted some F16s that were promised to Pakistan to be delivered, you know, for this one individual. And it didn't make sense, I mean, even if he had the President of the United States captive that would be one thing. But this guy was a journalist, you know, he thought he was a CIA agent and I still don't ever remember us trading anything like that for one individual.

NBC: But did he ever say what was the ultimate goal?

Fairman: He admitted that he would release him if he received those F16s and that they released those Pakistanis out of the prison at Guantanamo, which we knew doesn't happen. Has it ever happened, that we released F16s to Pakistan? Doesn't make sense.

NBC: Either he is really naive to think the government would cave on something like that or he's not being completely forthcoming...

Fairman: You're right, [we thought] either he was naive or he wasn't just completely being forthcoming or maybe he was in cahoots with other organization, possibly al-Qaida. Who knows? But it didn't make sense to us. So that's why he was pretty hard to believe and we had to pretty much ask more specific questions aside of his main objective and go down to each event.

NBC: Who did he say actually killed Daniel Pearl and how did it come about?

Fairman: He didn't tell us a name. During the earlier conversation we had on the first night we met, I asked him, 'We heard of a gentleman you guys call the ‘fat man’. Why would you guys call someone a ‘fat man’?” And he laughed, he smiled and said, "You have to know about this region, about the people, about the culture, he says here, if you look around everyone is skinny. I mean, food is not something that everyone is able to get plentifully, but if you're overweight, that means you have status. You have some kind of money, you have some kind of status, you have a place in society, because you eat a lot you get to afford a lot of unhealthy foods. And those individuals are usually part of a hierarchy.' And I looked at him and said, 'But you're not fat.' Then he laughed and said, 'Well, I have a healthy diet. He says, 'But you know who those individuals are, and there's only two.' And I said, 'What two would those be? Osama Bin laden, he's not fat; he's about 6'6" and he's slim. He said, 'Well, he's out there living off the land, so he doesn't have McDonalds and he doesn't have Kentucky Fried Chicken, doesn't eat a lot of meats and gravies and starches. But there's one guy who's operating north of here and one guy who's here in Karachi who are like the left and the right hand of Osama bin Laden.' I was like, 'That’s interesting.'

NBC: Did he describe how things happened?

Fairman: He did not really say how. One of the things we had to do was to put together the pieces. You know, listening to prior conversations and listen to some small talk. He described the hierarchy, he’s over the mission. And he compared this mission to some of his previous missions where he was not in charge of the missions and no matter what he wanted to do he could not supersede the authority of the individual that was actually over the mission. Even though he was second in command, by no way could you supersede the authority of the individual who was authorized to carry out the mission. And I said, 'Well, why does this mission differ?' He said it does not differ because my subordinates did not supersede my authority. I said, 'Well, you kept saying they. Before you said my subordinates. We know they didn't have names because everyone had a nickname. But then you kept saying, 'Well, they, we like to talk about us and them, so who were they? Were they your subordinates?'

He said well, no. I said, 'So they were an outside entity.' They had to be to supersede his authority. I said would it have been the “fat man” who everyone referred to? He said it had to be the “fat man.” He said the “fat man” is the only one who can supersede his authority.

NBC: Who was he talking about?

Fairman: Al-Qaida. It had to be either Abu Zubaydah or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

NBC: So at that point you guys had reason to believe that senior leaders in al-Qaida were directly involved in Daniel Pearl?

Fairman: Yes, and that was our thought. We felt strongly because prior to this interview we looked at the videotape that was turned over to the bureau. And we shot each frame, we looked frame-by-frame. We looked at the arms, the feet, you know, the hands the face and upper body basically was blocked out… it was edited. We noticed, this is the “fat man,” he has thick fat hairy arms, fat toes, and fat legs. So we put two and two together and said you're right. It has to be someone of status, someone who was prominent, in one of these groups or prominent in Pakistan.

NBC: But how do you get from there to it’s probably Sheikh Mohammed?

Fairman: Like I said, you know it is almost like putting to gather a puzzle. Looking at the photographs then we did a timeline of each person's statements and everyone made references, everyone knew who the “fat man” was. The fat man's name was mentioned over and over again, you know. No one else's name was mentioned over and over again… So we knew this individual was someone highly respected and was highly regarded and from an early conversation -- Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- hmm, makes sense... Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he's short. He's 5'5", 5'7, maybe 175, 180 lb. Abu Zubaydah, 5'9, 5’10”, maybe 180 lbs.. but if you look at the picture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed when he was captured he looked like he weighs about 220 pounds. And when our teams captured Abu Zubaydah, he looked like he was about 250-260 pounds. They did not look like the photographs that we'd originally seen…they were all huge. Now, Abu Zubaydah was not hairy. He did not have any hair on his arm and his feet, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was very hairy.

NBC: Were you able to actually compare the arms on the videotape to any pictures of his arms elsewhere?

Fairman: Our team was not able to compare the pictures from the videotape to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s feet and arms. We had nothing to do with that portion of investigation. That came several months later after he was actually captured. We were back in our office working on another things by then.

NBC: So who did that analysis, FBI or CIA?

Fairman: It was a combination of the two did that. And it was a much higher levels, at FBI headquarters and at the labs.

NBC: Did he acknowledge having met Osama bin Laden?

Fairman: Yes he did. He said after they hijacked their plane, India Air 814. When they arrived in Afghanistan, He waited approximately three days and he met Osama bin Laden and he met Mullah Omar, who was his ultimate role model. [Omar Saeed Sheikh had been part of a hijacking in late 1999 of an India Air jet. Passengers were ultimately freed after the hijackers were permitted to fly to Afghanistan.]

NBC:To what extent did he ever acknowledge, whether he called them al-Qaida or this umbrella group or whatever, that somebody else, some other entity had somehow gotten involved in this? Did he ever acknowledge that another group got involved in that and how they got involved?

Fairman: Basically, it was like a hostile takeover. Because he was upset. His mood started to change when he spoke about this “umbrella group” and the reason why we didn't say al-Qaida was because of the other Pakistani influential leaders that was in the room during the interview who may have been within earshot, you know, or listening intently. So, that was a code word – “umbrella group”, which I knew meant al-Qaida. But he was a little upset that his authority was superseded. And he says, you know, they, he talked about “they” and I knew when he said “they” or when he said “umbrella group” he meant al-Qaida.

NBC: But did he ever indicate how they got on the scene? How the heck did they even know about where to go? How did they know anything about this kidnapping other than what was, you know, in the public view?

Fairman: That is very questionable because Karachi is a very big place. There are a lot of anti-U.S., you know, pro-terrorism groups around there. The problem is that this name -- the “fat man.” So I’m asking myself, and we asked ourselves, well, if the fat man was introduced and everyone knew and they met him initially, and Omar knew, because he called him the fat man also, then that means that you were in cohoots together, that means that you have something in common and this was some kind of joint venture, or you were taking directions from them, and then they decided in some point in time, it’s time to pull the plug on this operation and, you know, murder Daniel Pearl.

NBC: So there was potentially some serious collaboration going on? It may just be he was upset because they took complete control and cut him out of the picture?

Fairman: Right, that made total sense to us. And that's why the “fat man” was very significant to this whole thing. And when he told us he had no idea or he was shocked or surprised that this happened, it let us know that you're believable in some things, but then in some things we not going to believe you because it doesn't make sense.

NBC: Did he acknowledge knowing personally this “fat man”?

Fairman: Well, he didn't acknowledge knowing him during the interview because they went by nicknames. They would never talk about or mention anyone's actual name.

NBC: But did Omar ever acknowledge that he had any contact whatsoever or knew who the fat man was?

Fairman: No, he never admitted to us that he did. But when you go through the different documents and the different statements you can see that, you know, he had to know who this individual was because he put this thing together, he was the mastermind. He brought all these individuals together. There were no strangers, no mystery people that came into this operation. Because, you know, they met at certain places, they knew the location, he had mapped out the location he felt was the best place to hold an American at that time. And all the parties, all those nicknames, were all together at the beginning. There were no surprises like here's this gentleman, this other entity that busted out of nowhere and took over the operation and just killed him.

NBC: Somehow there was a link between these guys but they had more authority than he did?

Fairman: Yes, I think there was definitely a link, and yes, they did have more power and authority. That’s why when you interview individuals like this you have to ask the same question, you know, in different ways and get more specific with the questions. Because he had us believing, you know, that this other individual came out of nowhere and that’s why we kept asking him, talk about the fat man. If they all met the fat man earlier and this guy had authority, this guy was respected, everyone knew who this guy was, then all of a sudden you keep saying 'they,' so it seems to me they were all subordinates and then there was another group that was collaborating with you who you identify as they. They was the “fat man” which was, we felt, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.


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