KARACHI, Pakistan – The kidnapping of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl is widely seen as an attempt to strike a dramatic blow at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for getting tough on Islamic militants and siding with the United States in the war against terrorism.
Many Pakistanis, including security officials and political analysts, fear the Jan. 23 kidnapping may be followed by other moves by extremists seeking to undermine Musharraf.
Appearing before a judge here Thursday, chief suspect Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh admitted his role in the kidnapping.
"I think that our country shouldn't be catering to America's needs," he added.
Islamic radicals had been suspected of the kidnapping since Pearl disappeared on his way to meet a Muslim activist as part of a story on links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, arrested in December aboard a Paris to Miami flight with explosives in his shoes.
Police said Sunday they detained four people for questioning overnight but at this point do not consider them suspects.
Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani intelligence officer familiar with Islamic militant organizations, said he believes Pearl, with whom he had spoken by telephone several times, became an innocent victim in the struggle between Musharraf and the extremists driven by hatred of the United States.
Pakistan's Islamic parties maintained close ties with Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers, whom they admired for promoting "true Islam."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Khawaja said the Taliban's defeat and Musharraf's support for the United States angered religious extremists.
He said that anger was fueled by pictures of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in chains at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In an e-mail to news organizations, which included pictures of Pearl in captivity, the kidnappers said he would be kept in the same "inhuman" conditions as the Guantanamo prisoners.
Musharraf himself drew a link between the kidnapping and his efforts to crush Islamic extremism and support the U.S. war against terror. "I had expected a certain degree of fallout to these steps," he told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
Following the Taliban's downfall, Musharraf moved to confront extremists at home. In a speech Jan. 12, he banned five Islamic organizations, including two implicated in Pearl's kidnapping, announced plans to assert state control over religious schools and declared that most Pakistanis do not want to live "in a theocratic state."
That represented a reversal of the policy of previous governments which promoted ties to religious extremists at home and abroad.
A big problem for Musharraf is that the very security forces whose help he needs have close ties to the organizations they are now expected to combat. Those ties go back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration used the government of the late President Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and Pakistan's secret service as a conduit for weapons to Afghan resistance fighters.
Those ties were strengthened in the early 1990s, when Pakistan's intelligence service helped the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan and in the struggle against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir. To many in the intelligence service, cracking down on extremists means turning their backs on their longtime allies.
"You talk, you meet, you develop a relationship and then the government orders you to turn against them," Khawaja said. "Can you? No. We have been working with these people. They are the same people now as they were then."
One of the biggest hurdles facing Musharraf may come if the government follows through on his pledge to rein in Islamic schools, widely seen as a breeding ground for extremists.
Musharraf wants to impose a standard curriculum on these schools — some of which emphasize jihad or holy war and maintained strong ties to the Taliban.
Maulvi Salimullah, who runs one of the largest religious schools, Jamia Faruqia, espouses the same philosophy as the Taliban, considers its regime in Afghanistan the purest Islamic government and would like a similar one to rule Pakistan.
At another school, Jamia Darul Khair, headmaster Mohammed Asad Thanvi claimed in an interview that the United States "wanted to destroy the Taliban because they were afraid that their pure Islamic rule would spread throughout the Muslim world, including Pakistan."