For Times Square Suspect, Long Roots of Discontent

 Reproduced from The New York Times

Published: May 15, 2010

This article was reported by Andrea Elliott, Sabrina Tavernise and Anne Barnard, and written by Ms. Elliott.

Just after midnight on Feb. 25, 2006, Faisal Shahzad sent a lengthy e-mail message to a group of friends. The trials of his fellow Muslims weighed on him — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the plight of Palestinians, the publication in Denmark of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Shahzad was wrestling with how to respond. He understood the notion that Islam forbids the killing of innocents, he wrote. But to those who insist only on “peaceful protest,” he posed a question: “Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows?

“Everyone knows how the Muslim country bows down to pressure from west. Everyone knows the kind of humiliation we are faced with around the globe.”

Yet by some measures, Mr. Shahzad — a Pakistani immigrant who was then 26 years old — seemed to be thriving in the West. He worked as a financial analyst at Elizabeth Arden, the global cosmetics firm. He had just received his green card, making him a legal resident in the United States. He owned a gleaming new house in Shelton, Conn. His Pakistani-American wife would soon become pregnant with their first child, whom they named Alisheba, or “beautiful sunshine.”

Four years later, Mr. Shahzad stands accused of planting a car bomb in Times Square on a balmy spring evening. After his arrest two days later, on May 3, while trying to flee to Dubai, the few details that surfaced about his life echoed a familiar narrative about radicalization in the West: his anger toward his adopted country seemed to have grown in lockstep with his personal struggles. He had lost his home to foreclosure last year. At the same time he was showing signs of a profound, religiously infused alienation.

But the roots of Mr. Shahzad’s militancy appear to have sprouted long before, according to interviews with relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors, colleagues and government officials, as well as e-mail messages written by Mr. Shahzad that were obtained by The New York Times. His argument with American foreign policy grew after 9/11, even as he enjoyed America’s financial promise and expansive culture. He balanced these dueling emotions with an agility common among his Pakistani immigrant friends.

As Mr. Shahzad became more religious, starting around 2006, he was also turning away from the Pakistan of his youth, friends recalled, distancing himself from the liberal, elite world of his father, Bahar ul-Haq, a retired vice marshal in the Pakistani Air Force.

And while in recent years Mr. Shahzad struggled to pay his bills, it is unclear that his financial hardship played a significant role in his radicalization. He still owned his home and held a full-time job when he began signaling to friends that he wanted to leave the United States.

In April 2009, the same month Mr. Shahzad got his United States citizenship, he sent an e-mail message to friends that foreshadowed his militant destiny. He criticized the views of a moderate Pakistani politician, writing, “I bet when it comes to defending the lands, his opinion would be we should do dialogue.” The politician had “bought into the Western jargon” of calling the mujahedeen, or foreign fighters, “extremist,” wrote Mr. Shahzad, who urged the recipients of the message to find “a proper Sheikh to understand the Quran.”

One of the recipients responded by asking Mr. Shahzad which sheikhs he followed.

Writing in Urdu, Mr. Shahzad replied, “My sheikhs are in the field.” A few months later, he abruptly quit his job and left for Pakistan, where, officials say, he was later trained in bomb-making by the Pakistani Taliban.

But precisely what combination of influences — political, religious and personal — drove Mr. Shahzad to violence remains a mystery, even to those close to him.

“We all know these things, what the geopolitical problems are,” said Mr. Shahzad’s father-in-law, M. A. Mian, 55. “Every day we sit in our living rooms with our friends and we discuss these issues.”

“But to go to this extreme, this is unbelievable,” he said, adding: “He has lovely children. Two really lovely children. As a father I would not be able to afford to lose my children.”



Military Upbringing

Faisal Shahzad grew up somewhat rootless. He identified proudly with his tribal Pashtun heritage, yet knew little of his father’s ancestral village, Mohib Banda, a collection of mud huts ringed by sugar and wheat fields in northwestern Pakistan. Mr. Shahzad’s father, Mr. Haq, had entered the Pakistani Air Force as a common airman before climbing the ranks as a fighter pilot who excelled at midair acrobatics, with posts in England and Saudi Arabia.

By the time Mr. Shahzad was 12, his father had been transferred from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to the Pakistani city of Quetta, followed by Rawalpindi. As the son of a senior military officer, Mr. Shahzad was swaddled in privilege, tended to by chauffeurs, servants and armed guards in an insular world made up almost exclusively of military families. Mr. Shahzad’s household was a blend of strict and liberal; Mr. Haq, who spoke British-accented English and drank alcohol socially, was stern with his children and quick to anger, friends and former colleagues recalled.

When Mr. Shahzad entered high school in the mid-1990s, his family had settled in Karachi, a throbbing mega-city in the south. By then, Pakistan had plunged into chaos. As political instability and sectarian violence roiled the country, many Pakistanis blamed the United States. After propping up the Pakistani military dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, in the 1980s, the American government was now imposing hefty sanctions in retaliation for Pakistan’s nuclear program. The economy stalled as anti-Americanism spread.

Mr. Shahzad came of age during Pakistan’s state-sponsored jihad against India’s military in the breakaway region of Kashmir — a conflict that granted legendary status to Pakistani jihadists. “We used to see the mujahedeen as heroes,” said one graduate of Mr. Shahzad’s high school, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “When I look back, I think, ‘What was I thinking? What were we all doing?’ But in that era, it made sense. We all wanted to do something.”

It is unclear how formative these events were for Mr. Shahzad, who continued to lead a somewhat sheltered existence, living with his family in a neighborhood of stately homes fringed by palm trees and bougainvillea. His school, located on a military base, taught the same rigid curriculum — with an anti-Western slant and a strict form of Islamic studies — imposed nationally by General Zia.

After graduating, Mr. Shahzad enrolled in Greenwich University, a business school in Karachi known for drawing affluent underachievers with fancy cars. Mr. Shahzad proved a mediocre student. (In high school, he had gotten D’s in English composition and microeconomics, according to a transcript.) But what he lacked in academic prowess he made up for in ambition, friends recalled; he was determined to finish his degree in the United States. Taking advantage of a partnership between his college and the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, Mr. Shahzad applied for a student visa.

On Jan. 16, 1999, at the age of 19, Mr. Shahzad left Pakistan for a new life in America.


Driven to Success

The wide, maple-shaded streets leading to the University of Bridgeport seem a long way from Karachi. The quiet, tidy campus overlooks a tranquil stretch of the Long Island Sound, where ferries pass in the distance.

When Mr. Shahzad started classes there, more than a third of the college’s students were foreigners — 15 of them from Pakistan. Mr. Shahzad stood out. He walked with a confident air, showing off his gym-honed muscles in tight T-shirts. He carried the air of a privileged upbringing, coming off as aloof and, at times, snobbish.

While the Pakistani students stuck together, playing cricket and collecting free meals at the campus mosque, Mr. Shahzad had a wider circle of friends and a fuller social calendar. A skilled cook, he drew students to his dorm room with the scent of his simmering lobia, a Pakistani lentil dish. He worked out obsessively and, on weekends, hit New York City’s Bengali-theme nightclubs. He loved women, recalled a former classmate, and “could drink anyone under the table.” He showed little interest in Islam.

Mr. Shahzad rarely seemed pressed for cash — he had a large television in his dorm room and drove a Mitsubishi Galant. But he still looked for work. Nimble with his hands — he would later take to gardening and painting — he landed a job designing intricate gold pendants for a jeweler at a mall in Milford. While Mr. Shahzad did not seem to distinguish himself academically, he came across as witty, street smart and “fast on his feet,” recalled one classmate. He and his Pakistani peers were chasing the same dream, the classmate said: “Back then, it was all about fast cars and becoming something.”

While Mr. Shahzad seemed eager to carve out a life in his host country, his anger at America flared early. The classmate recalled walking into Mr. Shahzad’s apartment a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to find him staring at news footage of the planes hitting the towers.

“They had it coming,” Mr. Shahzad said, according to the friend, a Pakistani-American. The friend said Mr. Shahzad believed that Western countries had conspired to mistreat Muslims. “He would just go off,” said the friend, adding that he paid little heed to Mr. Shahzad’s eruptions, dismissing them as a product of his fierce Pashtun pride.

“He was always saying, ‘If these people come to my land, it’s not going to be good,’ ” the friend recalled.

By late 2001, Mr. Shahzad seemed focused on his American future. Having graduated from the University of Bridgeport with a bachelor’s degree in computer applications and information systems, he was working as a clerk for Elizabeth Arden in Stamford. The following year, while holding the same job, Mr. Shahzad began taking night courses at the University of Bridgeport’s business school. He had bought a black Mercedes, as well as a $205,000 condominium in Norwalk. Two years later, Mr. Shahzad sold the apartment at a $56,000 profit.

His broker, Keven Courbois, was struck by Mr. Shahzad’s sense of responsibility, given that he was only 25. “I thought it was great: Look at this guy who is handling a condo on his own,” Mr. Courbois said.

At times, Mr. Shahzad seemed deeply frustrated with his job at Elizabeth Arden, complaining to a friend that the company never raised his $50,000 salary. (The company declined to discuss Mr. Shahzad’s employment.)

In July 2004, three months after selling his condo, Mr. Shahzad bought the gray, two-story house in Shelton, in a quiet, hilly neighborhood of well-tended flower beds and rambling older homes. He was preparing for marriage. His parents agreed on a suitable match: Huma Mian, an ebullient 23-year-old from Denver who had recently graduated with a degree in accounting, and whose Pakistani-American father was a prominent oil industry engineer and economist.

On Dec. 25, 2004, they held a lavish wedding in Peshawar, Mr. Shahzad’s ancestral turf, celebrating with a rare touch of modernity: the women and men danced together.

Mr. Shahzad’s “bachelor days” were behind him, the former classmate recalled. He was ready to settle down.


New Religiosity

Two years later, when Mr. Shahzad wrote the e-mail message telling friends that Muslims must defend themselves from “foreign infidel forces,” he seemed to be living a stable suburban life. That June, he took a new job as an analyst at the Affinion Group, a financial marketing firm in Norwalk, telling a friend that his annual income had jumped to $70,000. Two months later, he finished his master’s degree in business. On weekends, Mr. Shahzad hosted barbecues, mowed his lawn and played badminton in the yard. His wife was pregnant.

Mr. Shahzad had long been critical of American foreign policy. “He was always very upset about the fabrication of the W.M.D. stunt to attack Iraq and killing noncombatants such as the sons and grandson of Saddam Hussein,” said a close relative. In 2003, Mr. Shahzad had been copied on a Google Groups e-mail message bearing photographs of Guantánamo Bay detainees, handcuffed and crouching, below the words “Shame on you, Bush. Shame on You.” The following year, Igor Djuric, a real estate agent who helped him buy his house, recalled that Mr. Shahzad was angered by President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

If anything struck Mr. Shahzad’s friends and family as different, it was his new religiosity. He no longer drank, and was praying five times a day, stopping into mosques in Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport. Some of his friends thought nothing of it; plenty of Pakistani immigrants went through more spiritual phases. What set Mr. Shahzad apart, they said, was not his Islamic devotion, but the particular religious frame through which he had begun to interpret world events.

His 2006 e-mail message echoed the same arguments found on militant Internet forums: that the West is at war with Islam, and Muslims are suffering humiliation because they have strayed from their religious duty to fight back.

“The crusade has already started against Islam and Muslims with cartoons of our beloved Prophet,” wrote Mr. Shahzad, who went on to quote verses from the Koran as proof of what “Allah commands about fighting for Islam.”

During casual conversations with friends, Mr. Shahzad had taken to citing Islamic theology. He was a fan of Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th-century scholar who inspired a puritanical following, and Abul Ala Mawdudi, a chief architect of the Islamic revival and founder of Pakistan’s largest Islamic political party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

On visits home, Mr. Shahzad began to clash with his father.

Mr. Haq had long been wary of political Islam, and found his son’s evolution troubling, friends recalled in interviews. The scrutiny went both ways. Mr. Shahzad glared when Mr. Haq once asked him to fetch water to mix with his whiskey, a family friend recalled. “He wanted to change his father,” said the classmate.

By late 2008, Mr. Shahzad seemed to oscillate between contentment and frustration. He doted on his two small children, even changing diapers to the amazement of his more patriarchal relatives. But he felt demeaned at work, complaining of a manager who used to “insult him,” a close relative recalled. He felt that American Muslims were treated differently after 9/11, said the classmate.

“He used to say that when they refer to us, they say ‘Americans of Pakistani origin’ — they don’t say ‘Americans with German origin,’ ” the relative recalled. “These kinds of things, they were all the time cooking in his head.”

During a visit to Pakistan in 2008, Mr. Shahzad gave perhaps the clearest indication yet that he was heading down a militant path. He asked his father for permission to fight in Afghanistan, friends of the father and the relative recalled. Mr. Haq denied the request and appealed to the friends for help in managing his son, they said.

The following year brought a turning point. Back in Connecticut, Mr. Shahzad told his former classmate that he was ready to leave the United States. He was tired of his commute. He found it stressful to keep up mortgage payments on a single income, even though he had urged his wife not to work, said Dr. M. Saud Anwar, a pulmonologist in Connecticut who shares acquaintances with Mr. Shahzad.

“He was like, ‘Why am I paying so much for everything — why am I even here?’ ” the classmate recalled.

As time went on, Mr. Shahzad’s pride kept him from asking for money from either his family or his wife’s, according to a close relative and the classmate. His plan was to wait until he became an American citizen, so he could find lucrative work with an American company in the Middle East and live among Muslims, the classmate recalled.

Mr. Shahzad got his citizenship on April 17, 2009. That same month, he sent the e-mail message to friends saying that his “sheikhs are in the field.” (Dr. Anwar provided portions of the e-mail message, which he obtained from Mr. Shahzad’s friend, to The Times and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)


Return to Pakistan

Over the next few months, Mr. Shahzad and his wife held yard sales. The marriage appeared to be strained; Mr. Shahzad was pressuring his wife to wear a hijab, Dr. Anwar said. He also insisted that the family return to Pakistan while he searched for a job in the Middle East; his wife wanted him to find the job first, recalled the close relative.

On June 2, Mr. Shahzad called his wife from Kennedy Airport. He said that he was leaving for Pakistan, and that it was her choice whether she wanted to follow him, the relative recalled. Ms. Mian refused. Later that month, she packed up her children and moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where her parents were living.

Mr. Shahzad stayed with his parents in Peshawar. He appears to have stopped paying his mortgage; the bank foreclosed on his Connecticut home in September. One month later, at a family gathering in Peshawar, Mr. Shahzad seemed angered by the American-led drone strikes along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a close friend said. He was “condemning the attacks and the government for not doing anything about it,” the friend said.

Mr. Haq was reassured about his son’s plans when Mr. Shahzad agreed to start working in the family’s farming business. “He bluffed them,” said one of the father’s friends. In December, he left home, saying he would be back in a couple of days, the relative recalled. He never returned.

By then, according to federal investigators, Mr. Shahzad had set himself on a course to attack Times Square.

When he returned to the United States on Feb. 3, he circled back to his first days in America. Looking for work, he dropped by to see the jeweler who had hired him in college. He took out a lease on a small apartment just miles from the university campus. His movements over the next few months remain largely a mystery.

Last week, his landlord, Stanislaw Chomiak, walked through Mr. Shahzad’s apartment, pointing out the spot where he had been building a wooden replica of a mosque. He looked around, as if searching for clues. Mr. Shahzad had been nice, pleasant — a perfect kind of tenant. He had even lined the burners of the stove with aluminum so they would not get tarnished.

“Where are you going to find a guy like this?” the landlord said. “Nice guy and look what happens.”


Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, FATA, Identity, Iraq, Islam, Islamabad, Islamism, Pakistan, Religion, Taliban, USA, violence, War On Terror

19 responses to “For Times Square Suspect, Long Roots of Discontent

  1. Ranjit

    What is so difficult to understand here? Basically Pakistan needs to give up on jihad, period!! As long as there is ambivalence about “freedom fighters” vs “terrorists” and the hope of using such people against India in Kashmir or Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, you will be supporting an environment where young people get attracted to jihad. You may never get Kashmir or Afghanistan, but you will certainly end up with jihad in your DNA, which is exactly the situation today.

    The time has come to unequivocally stop this jihad nonsense all across the length and breadth of Pakistan, regardless of whether it is meant for Kashmir or elsewhere. Can Pakistan do this once and for all?

  2. Anon

    Well said

  3. Anon

    Even now after all of this , men are waiting on the POK side of border almost every week to cross and are supported by cover fire. What makes anybody think that state of Pak. has learnt and is determined to give up on such things.

  4. @ Ranjit,

    Officially Pakistan has realized that there is no need to pursue Jihad but on individual level it ll definitely take some time to absorb the doctrine of moderation as religious extremism in post soviet-war generation has systematically been injected through out a decade.

    Its quiet possible that Kashmir will remain bone of contention between two countries forever but retreating from basic stance on Kashmir is virtually impossible even for moderate Pakistanis, just the way a common Indian turns into an RSS Jihadi when we talk to him on this issue.

  5. Prasad

    Dear Tanzeel,

    ‘Common Indian turn RSS Jihadi’

    I dont think you have any RSS Jihadi operating in Pakistan. People here realise the futility of wasting human life on such worthless cause.

    Yes. Kashmir cannot be resolved with the present stand taken by both India and Pakistan. Status Quo is the only solution. You keep your part, we keep ours and forge a strong tie in the subcontinent


  6. Prasad

    correction ‘common Indian turns into an RSS Jihadi’
    regret the error

  7. aurora

    Islamic jihad is worldwide. Indians who fight against it are not going out of India to fight all over the world. Islamic jihad is aggressive and expansionist. Hindus are by nature defensive and remain in their own land. Aggressor’s violence cannot be equated with defender’s violence.

    Kashmir needs self-determination, a true one – that means freedom from the agents and followers of ideologies or religion from Arabia.

    Pakistan was created by and for vilifying hindus – and hence Pakistan cannot exist without continuing this vilfication.

  8. pHaze


    “Pakistan was created by and for vilifying hindus” – thats pretty ridiculous. Political Islam can never exist with any idea political ideas/system. It is obvious that if Islam is in the majority – then the minorities of that state are in deep shit. If not Islamists tend to ‘break’ away by becoming separatists. You can start by looking at histories of *all* Muslim countries. Hindus have born brunt of Islam’s aggression over centuries. In fact, my parents were officially ‘dhimmi’s/ Kafirs (worthy of death!) – and where Hinduism was banned – Ramayana and Bhagwad gita were banned!. All this by a Muslim king in India – and that too not very long back!. Most Indians unfortunately don’t even know their own history.

  9. Urban Angst

    “Kashmir needs self-determination, a true one – that means freedom from the agents and followers of ideologies or religion from Arabia”

    How do you propose this be done?

    “Pakistan was created by and for vilifying hindus – and hence Pakistan cannot exist without continuing this vilfication”

    Ok, lets say we all agree to the above statement. So what? We all know that many Pakistanis blame India for all their ills. Your statement is obvious and irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

  10. Urban Angst


    “Most Indians unfortunately don’t even know their own history.”

    Most Indians would like to have economic prosperity and physical security, than to know their history. Pragmatic economic policies & robust intelligence gathering by RAW/police would be much more helpful than blaming the Muslim King of yesteryear.

  11. Maryanne Khan

    This sad tale is evidence of a certain type of immigrant experience — the search for meaning.

    It seems to me that Mr. Shahzad found none in his privileged (and therefore somewhat disconnected) upbringing in Pakistan, and none in the so-called American dream of good job, big car, family home. Those things are no buffer for one like Mr. Shahzad, who would have suffered the post 9/11 fears that, justified enough, lead to social profiling in the States and a certain degree of ever-present suspicion.

    If there is nowhere to ‘belong,’ one such as he might well have turned to the haven of religion, unaware that unwittingly or not, he was being used by those to whom he had given his allegiance for ends other than those he was seeking. Now he has lost everything and failed to make the gesture he set out to make for whatever reason.

    Is his story not one of a man alienated from his roots and the new identity he sought to embrace?

    We hear talk of jihadism as being a phenomenon of ‘disenchanted youth’ but it is a stronger force than that when it provides any lost person with a reason for their otherwise meaningless existence. And therein lies the real evil.

  12. Ranjit


    Pakistani nation has to do a really honest cost-benefit analysis regarding its jihad policy. There are almost no benefits of jihad, other than enjoying a sick, perverted pleasure from the violence itself. Its not as if Kashmir or Afghanistan will be conquered by Pakistan any time soon, just because it manages to send some crazy people to go there and kill a few innocent people. OTOH, the cost of jihad is terrible as it is destroying civilized life in Pakistan and turning its own citizens into mentally deformed psychopaths.

    That warm, fuzzy, emotional, almost romanticized image about jihadis being holy warriors on a mission to kill infidels is the most dangerous and hurtful obsession among ordinary Pakistanis. Even peace loving, normal Pakistanis, in their heart of hearts seem to be willing to turn a blind eye to the ill effects of jihad. That is the attitude that is destroying Pakistan and affecting everyone else in the world.

  13. Ranjit


    Adding further, the enmity between India and Pakistan will probably last for generations. It is too deep rooted to disappear any time soon. However, that does not mean that jihad as a policy makes sense for either India or Pakistan. In fact, it makes no sense for Pakistan and may cost it very dearly in the long run as its image takes a beating. Imagine if the Times Square bomb had gone off. You can imagine the consequences that Pakistan would have suffered.

  14. YLH

    Confirms yet again more or less what I wrote in my article “faisal shahzad’s radicalization”.

    Good article.

  15. Atish

    How does this conform to what you wrote in your article? There were some common words, that’s all. I read his error strewn letter that regurgitated the story about Qasim and Dahir blah, blah. Apparently, he learned that too in the US. Nonsense.
    I can see that you have a habit of claiming ownership by association no matter how tangential the relationship may be. Go back to quoting selective sources. That’s your niche.
    Oh, and I am so surprised that the author hasn’t blamed Gandhi for his radicalization. What a gross mistake!

    Btw, it just boggles me as to how this pinhead could make 70k and have a beautiful wife, with a fancy house to boot, and our learned YLH still left seething angry and discontented. There is no justice in this world!

  16. karun


    yes why dont you post your article on Kasab which you wrote before it was known that he hails from Faridkot. “Grand Indian Conspiracy then” and Grand American conspiracy now. wow! Bullseye!!

  17. bushra naqi

    A very good article which states clearly the journey of Faisal Shahzad towards religious extremism. How he slowly imbibed all the propaganda against the West and Americans, depicting muslims as the victims and the oppressed. How the feeling of martyrdom and hate was nurtured by this propaganda and further exacerbarted by his isolationist behavior.

    What was actually the failure of muslim countries to consolidate and strengthen their territories that they fell victim to the stronger Western powers Religion unfortunately became the first casuality and the misconception that they fell because they were muslims was deliberately harbored in Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya etc.

    Those of the younger generation like Faisal Shahzad have little knowledge of histiory beyond the partition of India and Pakistan, so they are more likely to fall a victim to false propaganda. It has therefore become imperative now to open the frontiers of globalization and shed our social insularity so that the young can look beyond their own ethnic and religious identities and build a harmony with the rest of the world. .

    In all cases religion has been the first casualty

  18. Farukh Sarwar

    Every single day we come across new facts about Faisal Shehzad and his life in US. If his intentions were wrong then he must be punished.

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