Pakistan: Faisal Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban
Published on May 10, 2010 | 2338 GMT
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said May 9 that the United States has evidence linking the Pakistani Taliban to Faisal Shahzad, the man who confessed to the failed bombing attempt at Times Square in New York City on May 1. Shahzad is a naturalized U.S. citizen who demonstrated a willingness to carry out an attack on U.S. soil. However, his status as a U.S. citizen would have been problematic for the Pakistani Taliban, who must remain wary of potential infiltration from U.S. intelligence. Furthermore, the attempted bombing showed little to no signs that Shahzad had help from an outside group.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced May 9 that the United States had uncovered evidence linking the Pakistani Taliban to Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent who confessed to the botched May 1 attempt to bomb Times Square in New York City. Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, made essentially the opposite contention May 7, arguing that Shahzad acted alone. Any link between Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban is not as meaningful as it appears, but it does draw attention to the need for a more sophisticated discussion of the Pakistani Taliban phenomenon and the way in which Shahzad approached the organization.
The Case of Faisal Shahzad
In the wake of the attack, Shahzad allegedly has been linked not only to the Pakistani Taliban but also to Anwar al-Awlaki, the former U.S.-born radical imam of a mosque in a Virginian suburb of Washington, D.C., who is now thought to be in hiding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was also linked to two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who gunned down 13 at Fort Hood in November 2009.
But even Hasan, who appears to have had closer ties to al-Awlaki, acted as a lone wolf and did not inform anyone of his intentions. In other words, despite some loose ideological affinity, the connection played no operational role in the attack, as the old apex leadership of al Qaeda prime did in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. What made Hasan an effective lone wolf was not his ideological connections, but his insider knowledge of a good location for an attack at Fort Hood, his professional and personal proficiency with small arms and an appropriate target selection commensurate with his skill.
Shahzad was more of a “Kramer” jihadist in the tradition of Richard Reid — an ultimately inept radicalized individual with no operational understanding of basic tradecraft, no self-awareness of that lack of skill and ambition to carry out an attack utterly beyond his capabilities. Shahzad’s skill set is strikingly similar to that of Najibullah Zazi or the Glasgow group — they were all failed bomb makers.
The ‘Walk-In’ Jihadist
About the only thing Shahzad brought to the table was the passport of a naturalized U.S. citizen and a willingness to carry out an attack on U.S. soil. However, that entails more problems than opportunities.
A militant group that U.S. and Pakistani intelligence are actively targeting has to be inherently skeptical of outsiders — especially if one shows up on their doorstep (as Shahzad did) with an offer that appears to be too good to be true. Any entity must balance operational security with the active pursuit of its goals and objectives. But the lack of tradecraft that Shahzad exhibited is only further evidence that if Shahzad interacted with the Pakistani Taliban meaningfully — and there is not yet much evidence either way about how far he made it up the chain of command during his visit – they did not help him attain any meaningful skills. Although subsequent events might have shown that the group — if it was behind the plot — missed a chance to strike at the U.S. homeland, the ensuing investigations and focus of both U.S. and Pakistani intelligence efforts will only make operational security all the more important and any Shahzad-like offers all the more difficult to trust.
Shahzad’s childhood in Pakistan afforded him both cultural and filial connections in the country. There are even reports that a childhood friend was behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Childhood has little bearing on adult operational capability, though it did make it easier for Shahzad to travel outside Peshawar, where he once lived, and make contacts with innumerable individuals — some invariably with some degree of connection to the shadowy, amorphous world of the Pakistani Taliban and their local and transnational allies.
However, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had spent more than a decade in the United States — even one with some historical acquaintance among militants — is problematic. It is next to impossible for a jihadist group to have any confidence in the trustworthiness of an individual who walks in and volunteers in a scenario such as this. The potential for that individual to be a double agent is simply too high to meaningfully compromise operational security — especially as the United States and others are trying very hard to enhance their intelligence for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in the region. The lack of tradecraft in Shahzad’s device is compelling evidence that whatever “contacts” or “training” he might have received in northern Pakistan was largely confined to physical training and weapons handling, not the far more sophisticated skill set of fashioning improvised explosive devices.
So whoever he did talk to in Pakistan — and the list of potentials is virtually endless for someone who grew up in the area — reveals almost nothing. More information may become available about whom he spoke with and what was discussed but there is no meaningful context for these conversations. Basic tradecraft and Shahzad’s Times Square device that make it clear that at most, the Pakistani Taliban sent a low-level representative to speak with him. It is unclear who provided the training, but it is reasonable to assume that he underwent basic guerilla training courses, but not advanced bomb-making courses. (Zazi received the bomb-making training but still failed in his attempt to attack New York’s subways because training without experience is insufficient.) However, the May 3 video of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud claiming he had not been killed in a 2009 U.S. UAV strike probably gave the group an almost irresistible opportunity to claim credit for the May 1 attempted attack in the United States — even if it was an inept one — in order to bolster the larger movement’s standing (although the Pakistani Taliban is so fractious and diffuse, it can hardly be said that the claim was from “the group”).
The Pakistani Taliban is an outgrowth of the Afghan Taliban that Islamabad nurtured in the 1990s. The radical Islamist ideology and militant training that Pakistan (along with the United States and Saudi Arabia) had cultivated in Afghanistan during the 1980s war against the Soviets in order to consolidate control over the country eventually spilled back across the border. With a recent rise in attacks against Pakistani government targets, Islamabad began to grasp the implications and consequences of its existing policies. Consequently, in April 2009, it initiated an unprecedented counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the leading group in the amorphous and diffuse phenomenon that is the Pakistani Taliban (even though the TTP itself is fractious), certainly has had ambitions to attack the continental United States, a supporter of the regime in Islamabad that it opposes.
However, it is important to note that at its strongest, the TTP demonstrated the ability to strike at urban targets in Pakistan. It has never demonstrated the capability to strike far afield, much less on the opposite side of the world. Others, such as splinter factions of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizb-ul-Jihad al-Islami, have demonstrated that capability recently, but not the TTP. So while it has the intent, it has never had the capability to carry out an attack at that distance. The closest it has come to an international attack is the suicide bombing on the CIA facility in eastern Afghanistan across the border from the FATA, which for all intents and purposes should be considered a local operation given the close proximity and porous nature of the border. In that instance, the group got lucky in that the bomber had independent access to agency officials. And the ongoing campaign in FATA is only further pressuring the Pakistani Taliban. Facing both the Pakistani military and American UAV strikes, the group has seen its operational reach within Pakistan severely constrained. The idea that the group has sufficient capacity to plot and support a strike on the continental United States is increasingly far-fetched, despite its desire to do so. In any event, Shahzad’s actions were not only carried out ineptly by an untrained individual, but have no evidence of meaningful outside support.
So while there are links that should not be underestimated, the botched Times Square bombing is merely the latest in a now well-established trend of “grassroots” and “Kramer” jihadists. They absolutely pose a danger — and an ongoing one at that — but they must not be mistaken for the coherent, transnational phenomenon of al Qaeda 2.0.