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August 22, 2008

Project Pearl: The Bravest Class in Town

Will a dogged group of college students in D.C. solve the grisly murder of journalist Danny Pearl before the FBI does? Interview by Abigail Pesta

pearl project class at georgetown university

Members of the Pearl Project, which includes graduate students as well as undergrads, at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies in Washington, D.C. From left: Caitlin McDevitt, Jill Phaneuf, Mary Cirincione, Professor Asra Nomani, Shilpika Das, Katie Balestra, Erin Delmore (seated on floor), Kira Zalan, Jessica Rettig, Sakshi Jain.

Photo Credit: Douglas Adesko

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Jessica Rettig, a 20-year-old journalism student wearing a bright blue cotton sundress and flip-flops, is sitting in her professor's office at Georgetown University, dialing a number in Pakistan. She's hoping to interview a man with possible ties to terrorists.

The man answers the phone and says he'd be glad to talk, but asks: Could they do it by e-mail instead? Rettig takes down his e-mail address, hangs up the phone, and sends him a quick note. Almost immediately it bounces back: address unknown. The e-mail is a fake.

It's a hard lesson — one of many — in what might be the toughest class in town.

Rettig and 20 other students are trying to track down the killers of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic radicals in Pakistan in early 2002, a few months after the 9/11 attacks. The murder — which was the subject of the 2007 movie A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie — shocked the world and marked a new era of peril for reporters. The images of Pearl, a handsome, 38-year-old father-to-be, with a gun pointed at his head set the precedent for the sort of brazen kidnappings that have since become common in Iraq.

Leading the class is Asra Nomani, a journalist and activist who teaches alongside associate dean Barbara Feinman Todd. Nomani wants to finish the work the FBI started. "The FBI says this is an open investigation, but in talking to officials, it's clear there's no work being done on the ground," she says. "You can argue over whether it's right or wrong, but the FBI has moved on to other priorities." (The FBI says it can't comment on the status of the case.)

Called the Pearl Project, the investigation, now entering its second year, draws mostly female students from as far away as Qatar and Lebanon. Says Erin Delmore, a 21-year-old from New Jersey, "We're not studying history in this class; we're trying to make history."

And maybe they will. So far, the students have figured out the real identities of 15 of the estimated 19 suspects still at large, many of whom were previously known only by aliases. The next task is determining their whereabouts.

For Nomani, there are deeply personal motivations behind the project. She was a close friend of Pearl's; the two worked together for nearly a decade at the Journal. "Danny and I were always scheming to get unconventional stories into the paper," she says, while sitting in her office amid maps of Pakistan, a basket of plastic dinosaurs, and a DustBuster. "He believed in breaking the mold." Indeed, Pearl made a name for himself by writing quirky front-page features about things like the world's largest Persian rug.

Nomani, now 43, bonded with Pearl over their backgrounds. "We were both children of immigrants. His parents moved here from Israel; mine came from India," she says. "He was Jewish, and I'm Muslim, so our stories are different, but still, he helped me find my identity. He helped me understand that I could be an American and a Muslim. When I told him I'd never been to a prom because I was a good Muslim girl, he threw me a prom and invited all our friends," she laughs. "I wore a ridiculous bridesmaid dress."

Nomani has an unusual résumé: A former travel reporter for the Journal, she has also written a book about tantric sex, in addition to a memoir about her pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's most sacred city, as an unmarried Muslim mom. The New York Times has compared her to Rosa Parks for her gutsy brand of feminism. For inspiration, she carries around Nancy Drew's Guide to Life in her backpack.

"You don't have to be defined by boundaries," says Nomani, who received death threats when her controversial book about Mecca hit shelves. "I've learned that I can't compromise my voice. I can't be submissive. I have to be fierce."

Nomani traveled to India in 2000 to write her sex book, Tantrika, riding a motorcycle through the Himalayas to interview swamis, gurus, and scholars. After 9/11, she was reporting on news from Pakistan when Pearl was kidnapped. In fact, Pearl and his pregnant wife, Mariane, had been staying at Nomani's rented house in Pakistan when he vanished.

Nomani's home then became command central for the investigation. She and Mariane holed up there with FBI officials, Pakistani intelligence officers, and Journal reporters, poring over e-mails and phone numbers stored on Pearl's laptop to try to figure out who had kidnapped him. About five weeks later, a courier delivered a gruesome video of Pearl's murder to authorities.

Since that time, only four men have been convicted in Pakistan. Another man, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an al Qaeda terrorist who is in U.S. custody for masterminding the 9/11 attacks, has claimed he personally killed Pearl, and Nomani's class is looking into whether he's telling the truth or trying to thwart investigators. Mohammed's claim has also been questioned by human-rights advocates, who suggest it could have been an attempt to alleviate harsh interrogations while in custody.

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