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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Times Square: A Dramatic Arrest And A Parcel Of New Questions

In a dramatic last-minute save, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani origin, was snatched off an airplane bound for Dubai and a connection to Pakistan.

The FBI issued a cautiously worded statement indicating it was still looking for possible other conspirators, but Shahzad claimed to have been working alone. He had traveled to Dubai at least one time previously.

It's not clear when he was last in Pakistan, and his family is from the Northwest. All of this lends significant credibility to Sunday's claim of responsibility by the Pakistani Taliban, first reported by the Long War Journal. The claim was initially greeted with some skepticism by many people, including (I must admit) myself. A follow-up message indicated that multiple terrorist operatives were deployed to the U.S., a possibility which must be taken very seriously.


The head of a major Pakistani Taliban faction, Hakimullah Mehsud has not exactly been a household name in the United States, although he's a well-known figure to anyone following events in the Af/Pak region.

Mehsud was thought to be dead, or at least that's the story the Pakistani government was peddling, so his sudden re-emergence in conjunction with an attack on the U.S. homeland is a rather dramatic turn of events and one which leaves Pakistani counterterrorism officials with egg on their collective face.

As I noted earlier, the Pak Taliban claim of responsibility for the "recent attack" in the U.S. cited U.S. treatment of Aafia Siddiqi as one of the reasons for the attack. It's bad enough that Mehsud came back from the dead in dramatic manner to strike a blow against the United States on its own soil (albeit a failed blow), but that attack is also tied to an issue that has a lot of traction among ordinary Pakistanis. As I reported a couple weeks ago, the tale of Aafia Siddiqi has been boiling over in Pakistani media outlets, with no sign of cooling.

In short, the narrative around this attack really catapults Mehsud into a position of prominence and imbues him with some populist credibility he previously lacked. It's a dangerous development. Terrorism is storytelling, and Mehsud's story just became a lot more compelling. Let's hope he doesn't have any additional operatives running around on U.S. soil.

Finally, some reports have indicated that the Taliban videos were posted from Connecticut, where Shahzad lives. The first claim video was fairly generic, but if Shahzad (or another member of his cell) was empowered to post the first video of Mehsud since his alleged death, that means he's probably more than just a useful idiot. On the other hand, that conclusion is undermined by the bomb itself.


If Shahzad is indeed affiliated with the Pak Taliban, it's really surprising that he didn't use a better bomb design.

Keep in mind that when I and others talk about the bomb design being "good" or "bad" or "amateurish" we're not saying it's undangerous or that it might not have gone off and killed people.

What "amateurish" means is that the bomb is 1) inefficient for its size, 2) not suited to its apparent target, and 3) not equipped with a reliable detonation system.

In this case, the bomb is also "amateur" looking in that it doesn't resemble the most common forms of improvised explosive devices which have traditionally been taught by Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So if Shahzad was born in Pakistan, and his family hails from the Northwest (near Peshawar per CNN TV), how is it that he became involved in this kind of operation without getting better training in bomb design?

It's possible that Shahzad was simply personally incompetent. Terrorists come in all varieties, ranging from stupid to brilliant. However, bombs come in all varieties too, from simple to complicated, and the Times Square bomb was a bad combination of complicated and inept. If Shahzad was incompetent, but working for Mehsud, I would have expected his handlers to give him the simplest possible shopping list for bomb components.

I'll have some more thoughts about this when we have more facts.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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