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August 22, 2008

Project Pearl: The Bravest Class in Town

pearl project class at georgetown university

Student Margo Humphries charts her reporting.

Photo Credit: Douglas Adesko

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On a sunny afternoon, in a classroom plastered with handwritten charts of sources and suspects, Mary Cirincione, 22, stands up and summarizes her reporting on the infamous "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, whom Pearl had been investigating before the kidnapping. A couple of students lie on the floor; others lounge around on tables or chairs, listening intently. A stack of white three-ring binders labeled with names like "Asif" and "Zafar" sits near the door. Cirincione says she thinks she has found the e-mail address of a key Pakistani associate of Reid's.

After Cirincione's presentation, Nomani, wearing an Indian tunic and her signature pink Timberland boots, starts clapping. Then she smiles and says wryly, "I bet the FBI guys do that after their meetings — applaud everyone." The class breaks into laughter.

Typical course work goes something like this: To locate a man who may have guarded Pearl in the kidnappers' hideout, the students started Googling a name Nomani had obtained from a Pakistani policeman, trying to determine if the name was an alias. Progress: They found several newspaper stories about someone by this name who had been reported missing by his family. Then they contacted a lawyer mentioned in one of the articles; the lawyer, in turn, put them in touch with the family. Turns out the man in question is in jail on weapons charges. The class is now trying to contact him in prison.

A few of the students have only a foggy memory of the murder they are investigating, since they were just 13 years old or so when it happened. Others remember it vividly. Clara Zabludowsky, 20, recalls her high-school friends watching the murder video on the Internet after terrorists circulated it. "I couldn't look at it myself," she says. Shilpika Das, 26, a graduate student from India, watched the video and felt "horrified."

Nomani watched it herself with one of her graduate students, 27-year-old Kira Zalan. "I felt it was necessary in order to understand the forensic evidence the FBI has," says Nomani. "It's the ugly truth. To run from it seemed like doing our mission a disservice."

Among the students' many successes: They have managed to get their hands on the full-length version of the video — not the edited version that the terrorists released. (Nomani and Zalan got it from a source who can't be named for security reasons; the FBI has a copy as well.) On the longer video, the hands and feet of the killers are visible, along with other details that might eventually help to identify them.

Some of the students' parents worry about the grisly nature of what their kids are researching. Rettig says her folks "weren't thrilled" when she chased down the brother of the courier who had delivered the murder video to officials back in 2002. Rettig knocked on the man's door in Florida, then talked to him inside his home. Her younger brother was outside in the car. "He's a big guy," she says, "so I figured I could call on him if I needed him."

The students support each other as well. All praise the class's diversity, noting that the foreign students give the American ones a fresh perspective on the world. "We're not all from democracies," says Haya Al-Noaimi, 18, who is from Qatar, "so we don't necessarily expect a system of checks and balances. We know that in some places, a police chief can do whatever he wants."

Nomani hopes to kick-start a network of these types of courses across the country aimed at investigating journalists' murders. But for now, she is focused on the job at hand.

"This class is about the spirit of Danny," she says. "I learned a lot from him, and I always felt like Danny had my back. Now I have his."

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