Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
The weekend bomb which tore through the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing 53 people, was a reminder that Pakistan is entering the eye of the storm of Islamist militancy. But for me, it was also a more personal reminder of a childhood friend who went from a suburban upbringing in London to become one of Pakistan’s most notorious militants.
Omar Sheikh, a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of the Prophet) organisation which has been linked to the bombing, is currently on death row in Pakistan for organising the kidnapping and beheading of the brilliant Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in February, 2002.
I had long since lost contact with Omar since we both graduated from Forest School in north London in 1992 and the sight of a heavily bearded Sheikh flanked by Pakistani police during the Pearl trial came as a shock. My jumbled memories of Omar were of a tall, lantern-jawed adolescent with dark-rimmed glasses, a serious but polite demeanour, a childish sense of humour but an unblinking, fearless appetite for a fight. Even as a boy, he spoke feverishly and often of “My Country” and praised the authoritarian and strictly Islamic regime of General Zia — who ousted and killed Benazir Bhutto’s father and helped the mujahedin throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
A tangle of contradictions, Omar’s other great love aside from patriotism was arm-wrestling and the would-be Islamist would often be found in smoky pubs — drinking only milk — competing with his team.
We had both started at Forest School at the age of 11 and I remember he never cried at anything – unless he was angry with himself. He loved chess and often spent his lunch breaks pouring over a chess board with a group of friends who were mainly from Sri Lankan, Indian or Bengali families.