By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Five years after he led the investigation that nabbed the suspected terrorists behind the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Randall Bennett is still haunted by the case.
"It's the most memorable case I've worked on and the most intense, but is also the one biggest personal tragedy to me, because we didn't get Danny back," said Bennett, 55, a special agent with the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security who was posted in Pakistan at the time of Pearl's kidnapping. "I try to balance that against the fact that we caught the people who orchestrated the crime. But really nothing compensates for Danny's death."
Bennett joined the bureau in 1987 after a brief stint selling and marketing resort properties. "I was looking for something physically, intellectually and spiritually engaging," he said. Protecting people has filled the bill, he said. Since Sept. 11, 2001, his career has been focused on anti-terrorism efforts. He provided key information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, an American accused of planning to use a radiological "dirty bomb" in the United States.
Bennett is in New York for tonight's premiere of "A Mighty Heart," a film based on a book of the same name by Pearl's widow, Mariane.
The film, which will open nationwide June 22, traces Pearl's kidnapping, murder and the five-week investigation led by Bennett that resulted in the capture of Sheik Omar Saeed, an al-Qaeda lieutenant.
Pearl, 38, disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan, while exploring links between Pakistani Islamic extremists and Richard C. Reid, the British citizen who tried to blow up an American jetliner in December 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes.
Shortly before he vanished, Pearl met with Bennett to ask whether the special agent had heard of a source Pearl intended to interview. Bennett is a 20-year veteran of the diplomatic security bureau, which protects U.S. diplomats and embassies worldwide. He had been in Karachi for more than three years and knew most of Pakistan's Islamic militants.
"I had never heard of him and expressed that concern," Bennett said, referring to the man Pearl planned to meet. Bennett cautioned Pearl to interview the man only in a public place.
But Pearl's source changed the location at the last minute, switching from a restaurant to a madrassa, or private school. The next morning, Bennett learned that Pearl hadn't returned home. The hunt was on.
Bennett was joined by Pakistani intelligence and police officials and FBI agents in the search. Help from the Pakistanis was essential, he said. "I couldn't have gone out and done those things in al-Qaeda neighborhoods without these professionals," said Bennett, who had developed a good rapport with Pakistani officials through work on previous cases.
The team traced cellphone records, e-mails and computer software before landing their first solid lead -- a young man whose laptop was used to send the first e-mail claiming that Pearl had been abducted. Authorities arrested the man at night, but realized they needed to capture his associates before morning prayers at 5:30 or word would spread and the others would get away.
"The use of the word 'frantic' had applicability here," Bennett said. "We were certainly in a big hurry to work our way through the cell before the sun came up."
By sunrise, they had captured the principal planners of the kidnapping.
Still, Pearl was beheaded by his captors, who made a video that was posted on the Internet. His remains were found in a shallow grave near Karachi.
Four people, including Saeed, were convicted in July 2002 of killing Pearl. Saeed was sentenced to death for masterminding the abduction and murder; the others were sentenced to life in prison.
And it's not clear that the case is closed -- al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed, held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has recently claimed that he killed Pearl, in addition to planning the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bennett, who remains in contact with Mariane Pearl and considers her a good friend, said the Pearl case taught him how terrorists think and reinforced his commitment to diplomatic security.
"I have more clarity on their intentions," said Bennett, who recently completed a posting in Iraq and is about to start a one-year tour in Islamabad, Pakistan. "It gave me greater motivation to work harder to try to overcome or resolve the problem we're facing from the terrorists. This is essentially World War III, in my opinion."