Jihadists and Times Square

Jihadists and Times Square

Ties to Pakistan in the Times Square bomb case suggest a direct al-Qaeda influence on the goals of some of Pakistan’s Taliban militants, says counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman.

May 6, 2010 9:26 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed car bomb attack in Times Square, reportedly received training in the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, and Pakistani authorities have arrested numerous Pakistani citizens in connection to the plot. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility, though some within the Pakistani military doubt such claims (AP). But Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New American Foundation in Washington, DC, says even more important is what the attack’s aftermath says about the Pakistan Taliban: After focusing exclusively on the Pakistani state, the group is demonstrating broader, al-Qaeda-like ambitions. "What we should take away from the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban] messaging around the Times Square attack is, even if they didn’t operationalize this particular attack, they want all of us to think that they did," says Fishman. "That’s a big deal, and it aligns very closely with al-Qaeda’s core priorities."

Setting aside the fact that there’s been no official confirmation of any sort of Taliban connections or links to the failed bomb plot, what’s your general reaction to alleged Pakistan links?

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There’s actually a bit of discord within the political messaging coming out of the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban]. There was this claim of responsibility by Qari Hussain, who has a reputation as a suicide bomber-trainer inside the TTP. He did not specifically mention Times Square, which has led some to speculate that this is just sort of a canned statement that wasn’t necessarily tied directly to this attack. There’s also been a statement by a guy named Azam Tariq, who is a TTP spokesperson, saying, "We had nothing to do with this." So, what’s interesting here is that there are multiple messages coming out of the TTP. In a lot of ways that’s not surprising--the TTP has been scattered by Pakistani military offensives in South Waziristan; it’s not surprising that they don’t have their ducks in a row. That said, we should take very seriously the possibility that the TTP did have something to do with--or at least an awareness of--an attack that might take place in the United States. Even if they didn’t actually operationalize this guy themselves, they may have positioned themselves to take political advantage of an attack that they had hints was coming.

Has TTP tried something like this before?

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Once before. They were implicated in a 2008 attempt, what would have been a suicide bombing, in the Barcelona subway. Spanish prosecutors have implicated them, and Baitullah Mehsud, the former emir of the group, took responsibility for that attack. So they have looked beyond the borders of Pakistan in the past. They also tried to take credit for an attack that they had nothing to do with, which was an attack on an immigration station in New York last year. That actually turned out to be committed by an out-of-control immigrant who was having a hard time finding a job. So they do have this history of actually operating overseas, but also of claiming credit for attacks that they didn’t have anything to do with.

But generally their focus has been on the Pakistani state, correct?

We should take very seriously the possibility that the TTP did have something to do with--or at least an awareness of--an attack might take place in the United States.

Absolutely. The TTP was founded in December of 2007 with the core mission of uniting Pakistani militant groups that wanted to target the Pakistani state. That was a mission and a sort of directive that was supported ideologically and operationally by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-supported militants in Pakistan. The TTP and AQ were in lockstep about operations in South Asia, and we see them now much more closely aligned in terms of operations outside of South Asia. What we should take away from the TTP messaging around the Times Square attack is, even if they didn’t operationalize this particular attack, they want all of us to think that they did, or at least some element of the group wants us to think that they did. And the current emir of the group, Hakimullah Mehsud, said, "Look, attacks in the United States are now our core focus, rather than attacks in Pakistan." That’s a big deal, and it aligns very closely with al-Qaeda’s core priorities.

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What should we take away from the trend that an increasing number of planned attacks on the U.S. homeland are originating in the tribal areas of Pakistan?

When you look at the phenomenon of individuals going to Pakistan to get trained, this really hasn’t changed that much. What’s changed is that these now seem to be American citizens, as opposed to citizens of Germany, North African countries, Saudi Arabia, the UK. We see more Americans going to do this and coming back, but really the phenomenon has been going on for a while elsewhere. Frankly, there is this very important ideological component to the jihadi movement, and it is ideology that keeps people motivated. But what gets people into the movement is frustration with policy.

For so long we’ve focused on al-Qaeda as being really the only threat to the U.S. homeland. But with this and other cases, are we seeing evidence that al-Qaeda is trying to co-opt other groups to adhere to its own objectives? Is there some sort of rub-off affect here?

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That’s absolutely right. Today al-Qaeda’s greatest strength is not its operational capability, though it has its own operational capability and has trained folks to go fight and conduct operations in the West, but the ability to infiltrate and co-opt other militant groups that have existing operational capability. That way al-Qaeda doesn’t have to build that capability on its own, and it can use folks that already have logistics in place, people in place. If they can convince those organizations or subsets of those organizations to conduct attacks, then al-Qaeda doesn’t have do it itself. That’s why you see U.S. government officials now using this term "syndicate" to describe the threat from Pakistan. There’s this whole milieu of militant groups, and individuals within those groups, that have come together ideologically and decided that they want to embark on this mission that al-Qaeda has set forth for them. That’s al-Qaeda’s strength. The ability to set priorities and point people in the direction that al-Qaeda intends.

What’s been the reaction to the failed New York attack in the chat rooms and on the message boards of the militant groups you monitor?

Generally it’s been very positive. People in the chat rooms are happy that there’s been another attempt on the United States. They feel like they can frighten us with these sorts of attempts. It’s the same kind of response that we saw after Northwest flight 253, the Abdulmutallab attack on Christmas day. But there is frustration that this attack in Times Square seems too amateurish, that the bomb didn’t go off, that it failed spectacularly in a lot of ways, despite the fact that it was a relatively simple mechanism. So there is fear among some people in the chat rooms that the al-Qaeda or jihadi movement at large looks weak when they try and fail at attacks like this.

That’s an opportunity, frankly, for U.S. strategic communications. We need to emphasize that these guys try and they fail, and they look silly when they do that. We need to make sure that folks that might be recruited into this movement think about these guys not as heroic warriors, but as untrained and angry, bitter individuals, without a cohesive ideology.

Was the fact that it was unsuccessful luck? Good intelligence work?

It seems like it was luck. But there are two elements to that. Faisal Shahzad, if indeed he’s found to be the one that did this, built a bad bomb and didn’t know how to use it. So, that’s lucky. But on the other hand, building a bomb may be harder than we often think, and just because you are committed to a cause doesn’t mean you have the skills to do it.

Even if [the Pakistan Taliban] didn’t operationalize this particular attack, they want all of us to think that they did. That’s a big deal, and it aligns very closely with al-Qaeda’s core priorities.

The other thing is we did have these very aware vendors and these folks in New York who kept their eyes open for this. That’s an element that we should think about here. At the end of the day, there were a series of failures until the point when those guys saw the bomb, and it didn’t go off. We want to make sure that people--whether it’s people in the Muslim community that may have known Faisal Shahzad and understood that he was radicalizing, whether it’s the people who sold him the propane tanks and the car, if they noticed anything strange--are aware that there is some small percentage of people that are out to do this.

If there were more cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, could this attack have been stopped even before the SUV was driven into Times Square?

It’s too much to say that if the Pakistanis had been doing more, this attack would not have occurred. But the Pakistanis have been holding back to a certain extent, in terms of what they have been willing to do, in terms of cracking down on militants in Pakistan. They have gone after the TTP, finally, and cleared them out of their former safe haven in South Waziristan. The TTP elements have fled mostly to North Waziristan and Orakzai Agency in the FATA. But the Pakistani government still is loathe to go into North Waziristan where there is this ugly stew of militants, including a lot of al-Qaeda guys, folks from the Haqqani network, now folks from the TTP.

The reason Pakistan has gone after the TTP is not because the TTP is targeting the West, it’s because the TTP has been targeting Pakistan. That’s what their priority is, which is understandable. But from an American perspective, it’s not good enough.


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