ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – American Bela Nuss knows only too well about the fanaticism that drives the Islamic militants who murdered reporter Daniel Pearl. Eight years ago, Nuss was kidnapped by a gang led by the same man who confessed to abducting Pearl.
He recalls the horror of kidnappers holding a gun to his head. He remembers how one of them later laughed while being tortured by police.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, Pearl's confessed kidnapper, was the frontman in Nuss' 1994 abduction, too.
Friendly, well-spoken and intellectually curious is how Nuss describes the young British-born man who befriended him in a New Delhi restaurant and invited him to eat with his family. Traveling alone and keen to experience Indian family life before his monthslong tour of the subcontinent ended, the then 43-year-old Californian tourist happily accepted.
But the family turned out to be a gang of militants who chained Nuss to the floor of a stifling, mosquito-ridden windowless room, took photos of him with a gun to his head and demanded the release of comrades jailed for fighting Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Nuss was rescued after 12 days in captivity. But Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter abducted Jan. 23 in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, was killed.
One of those extremists was Saeed, who was arrested Feb. 12 and said during a Karachi court hearing that he engineered Pearl's abduction to protest Pakistan's alliance with the United States' post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.
In Nuss' case, he and Saeed climbed into a car with men Nuss assumed also were going to the family meal. One pulled a gun. Nuss' mind reeled. "It's almost like I was going in and out consciousness, because I was trying to hold it together without splitting apart at the edges," Nuss said in a telephone interview from his San Francisco home.
Saeed sat beside him and warned Nuss to stay calm. "He was giving me the 'everything is going to be all right line,' and telling me not to do anything because if I did there would be trouble," Nuss said.
"As nice as they appear, and as friendly and as solicitous as they are, they change on a dime," he said. "It's kind of frightening because they're really driven. Like any religious fanatic, they're blind to a lot of things. They're so intent and focused."
At the house, Saeed left Nuss with other captors. Nuss never saw Saeed there again. The captors spoke only broken English, kept him under constant guard and prayed three to five times a day, Nuss said. Their leader "made the hair on my neck stand up," he said. "He was absolutely frightening. He just wanted to kill me, I could see. I knew he was going to kill me in a second when the time came."
That time never came. Indian police broke into the house and freed Nuss. He told police that Saeed had said they also were holding three British tourists. The kidnappers had threatened to behead all four unless their jailed comrades were released. Nuss, now aged 51, said the lead captor taunted police who tried to force him to reveal where the Britons were.
"They were basically torturing the guy, trying to get information out of him. They were twisting his limbs, putting lit matches to his skin and doing all kinds of things," Nuss said. "The guy would scream but then he would just laugh. He was in another place mentally."
The Britons were freed unharmed. Saeed was arrested and held until Dec. 1999, when India exchanged him and two other militants for passengers on an Indian Airlines jet hijacked to Afghanistan.