Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the Man Rajkummar Rao Plays in ‘Omerta’
How did a London School of Economics student turn into one of the most dreaded terrorists of our times?
Rajkummar Rao and Hansal Mehta’s next joint project Omerta is all set to release on 4 May. The film, which was screened in the Special Presentations section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, has Rao playing Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British terrorist of Pakistani descent. Sheikh has been accused of being involved in the 1994 kidnappings of foreign nationals in India, having a hand in the 9/11 attack, and plotting the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
If judiciously handled and not creatively stifled, Omerta is a potentially explosive film, with Rajkummar Rao getting the opportunity to play a complex living character, who is believed to have been part of some of the biggest terror attacks in world history.
So who is the real Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh?
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was the eldest of three siblings and was born in London on 23 December, 1973. His parents, Saeed and Qaissra Sheikh, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1968, ran a prosperous clothing business.
Omar joined the Forest school in Snaresbrook, east London, in 1980, where the ex-England cricket captain Nasser Hussain was reportedly a contemporary. He studied in the elite school, which cost £1,000 a term, till 1987. After his name came up linked to the terror attacks, the school gave an official statement describing him as: “ ... a good all-round, solid and very supportive pupil; a nice bloke and very respectful. I never recall him being particularly religious or politically motivated.”
A classmate however disagreed. In an article in The Guardian, Alex Hannaford described him as a good-humoured but competitive boy who was always eager to show off his physical strength.
Another classmate remembered Omar knocking down an adult teacher as an eight-year-old.
"(He) constantly wanted to show his strength... When he was eight, he punched a teacher called Mr Burns and knocked him to the floor. He was a full-grown man, and this was an eight-year-old boy." There were other instances of scuffles in school and Omar reportedly grew up taking to hand-wrestling - and chess - in a big way.
In 1987, the Sheikh family moved to Pakistan. Omar went to study at the elite Aitchison college in Lahore, but was expelled for fighting and bullying. He returned to Forest in 1991 to take the A-level examinations. According to various accounts, it was after this Pakistan phase that Omar began displaying eagerness about religion, and spoke to classmates about ethnic cleansing and the worsening situation of Muslims in the Balkans.
Incidentally, when he shared a prison cell with the British musician Peter Gee in Tihar Jail in 1998 and 1999, Omar told him he faced racial discrimination in school and was rejected and referred to by peers as the “Paki bastard”.
Making His Way In
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh won a place in the London School of Economics (LSE) in autumn 1992, where he immediately joined the Student Islamic Society.
He is believed to have been radicalised during a Bosnia Week organised by the society in November that year, where he watched and sympathised with various documentaries on the atrocities perpetrated on Bosnian Muslims.
Subsequently, Omar volunteered for Convoy of Mercy, a registered charity based in north London which delivered relief supplies to Bosnia in 1993.
After a short trip to Bosnia and some more volunteer work, Omar dropped out of his LSE course in the very first year and enrolled for a 40-day course at the Khalid bin Waleed training camp in Afghanistan.
“The schedule included morning prayers in the mosque followed by physical exercise till 0800 hours. After breakfast, we were imparted classes in handling of small and medium firearms, Kalashnikov and Seminov, till lunch followed by a rest of two hours and then prayers.”Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in his journal
It’s during the camp that he reportedly met Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder and leader of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Azhar is said to have persuaded Omar to return to England to rally for more followers and renew his passport. In May 1994, Omar returned to Afghanistan and began work as an instructor.
Kidnapping of Foreign Nationals
From various accounts of people who have met Omar, he is a very intelligent and charismatic man. The London Times reporter Jon Stock, who interviewed Gee, quoted him as saying:
“According to Omar he lived practically like a mafia don. He was natural leadership material. His voice had a quiet, persuasive authority, and he had powerful eyes which could hold you in their gaze for as long as he thought necessary. He told me that he had to be wary of being seduced by the power and glamour that came with his position.”Peter Gee, British Musician
It was no wonder then that Omar rose fast through the ranks and was soon handling his first assignment at the age of 21 in 1994. Armed with a British accent and East London background, Omar had no trouble winning the trust of the American and three Britons he kidnapped in New Delhi.
Paul Ridout, one of the British captives, later talked about being "kept like animals", and testified how Sheikh and the rest of his militant gang threatened to behead the captives if their demands were not met.
Luckily for them though, the mission failed when the Indian police carried out a rescue operation and Omar was wounded in a gun battle. He spent the next five years in jail.
According to reports, Omar managed to smuggle a note to a favorite Aitchison teacher from there:
“I hope this letter finds you soaring the heights of happiness. Living in the cold, hard world of criminals and the brutal echelons of state power, a world of self-interest and devious calculations ... I often wander down memory lane, seeing with more experienced (hopefully wiser) eyes all those people who gave me love — glowing, unselfish love. Yes, sir, you encouraged me so many times and you stood up for me when I was a hot-headed youngster. I feel indebted to you and more than a little wistful. Sir, if possible, please do jot a quick note telling me how you and your family have fared over the last few years.... My parents are in London, busy with the old garment business. Naturally, my case came as quite a shock to them, but Allah has given them the strength to cope. They understand that this is the path I’ve chosen. They have been tremendously supportive. Sir, if you could put in the occasional prayer for me that would be wonderful. I’ll sign off now. Who knows, perhaps I’ll pop round to see you soon. Yours with affectionate respect . . . ” PS: “If there are some spare copies of the last few Aitchisonians [the school magazine], I’d be thrilled to have them.”
Hijack of IC 814
Omar would have spent a much longer time cooling his heels in prison, but things took a rather unexpected turn in 1999. On 24 December, IC 814 flew with 178 passengers and 11 crew members from Kathmandu for Delhi. It was hijacked shortly afterwards by the now renamed Harkat ul-Mujahadeen terrorist outfit. Pilot Captain Devi Sharan pleaded low fuel and landed the plane in Amritsar. In less than an hour, the flight was airborne again for Dubai, where 26 passengers were freed before being taken to Taliban-controlled Kandahar, Afghanistan.
A week and a dead and several injured passengers later, the Indian government gave in to the hijackers’ demand. The 27-year-old Omar, along with the dreaded Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, walked free.
From Kandahar, Omar travelled to Pakistan and is said to have visited his family in London in 2000. He went back to Afghanistan and reportedly helped devise a secure web-based communications system for al-Qaeda.
Talks were on about succeeding Osama bin Laden, who he had reportedly met in Kandahar and who referred to him as “my special son”.
Back in the business of terrorism, Omar reportedly got on to the wrong side of his superiors much too often. Masood Azhar sidelined him from Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Omar joined hands with the Benares-born Aftab Ansari, who masterminded the 2002 attack on the American Cultural Centre in Kolkata that left four police constables and a private security guard killed and 20 others injured.
9/11 followed. A series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the al-Qaeda on the US on the morning of September 11, 2001, saw 2,996 people killed and over 6,000 injured.
According to investigators, a person named ‘Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad’ had wired more than $100,000 to hijacking ringleader Mohammed Atta, weeks before the Trade Centre attack. On October 6, a CNN reportage revealed that Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad was none other than Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh .
Execution of Daniel Pearl
Omar by now was on the radar of the British and US intelligence. But that did not stop him from pulling off his third assignment - the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal American-Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl, who had travelled to Pakistan to investigate a story on terror groups after 9/11.
On January 23, 2002, Omar, working under an alias, managed to get Pearl to Karachi, where he was held hostage for a week before being brutally executed on camera. The video was released a month later, though Pearl’s body was discovered only in May.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh later said:
“We had nothing personal against Daniel. Because of his hyperactivity, he caught our interest.”Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh
Omar was arrested by Pakistan police on 12 February 2002- though he insisted that he had actually surrendered to save his family. "I was not arrested," he told the court. "I gave myself up... to save my family from harassment."
His family consistently maintained his innocence while refusing to be drawn into the issue.
Omar was sentenced to death on 15 July 2002 by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan.
Not Pearl’s Executor? A Double Agent?
But the plot thickens here. Omar admitted to the kidnapping of foreigners and abducting Daniel Pearl. But, he insisted, that he had nothing to do with the latter’s execution. His superiors took the call about it. It was corroborated by the investigative report of the Pearl Project and confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who admitted to masterminding the 9/11 attack as well as executing Pearl.
According to a CNN report, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told a US military tribunal that he personally beheaded Pearl in 2002.
“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.”Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who also confessed to be the 9/11 mastermind
Another theory points towards Omar being originally recruited as an MI 6 agent who then went rogue - it has been suggested by none other than former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who wrote in his memoir In the Line of Fire:
“It is believed in some quarters that while Omar Sheikh was at LSE, he was recruited by the British intelligence agency MI-6... At some point, he probably became a rogue or double agent.”Pervez Musharraf, former Pakistani president, in his memoir In the Line of Fire
Hoax Call; Attempt at Suicide
Prison did nothing to stymie Omar’s spirit or resources. In 2008, after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, he pretended to be Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s External Affairs Minister, to make a hoax call to then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Chief of Army Staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. He was secretly using his mobile phone in prison.
“He is a very intelligent, strong and sharp criminal with dangerous designs. So his attempt to commit suicide comes as a surprise.”A prison official
A case was filed against him subsequently for attempted suicide. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is till date serving time in a Karachi prison.
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