Times Square bombing; was the inspiration from the U.S. or Pakistan?

May 4, 2010

times squareThe failed car bomb attack on New York’s Times Square this weekend is almost certain to rekindle questions about a “jihadi highway” where citizens of western countries, often radicalised at home, seek either inspiration or training from one of many militant groups based in Pakistan.

According to a U.S. law enforcement source, Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American arrested on suspicion of driving the car into Times Square this weekend, told authorities he was acting alone. But investigators are also looking into a recent trip he made to Pakistan to see if he had links to Islamist militants based there, which include al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and a host of Punjab-based groups and splinter organisations, some originally linked to the fight against India in Kashmir.

In Pakistan, security sources said police had made some arrests, including of family members, in connection with the attack.  An intelligence official said Shahzad had received militant training in northwest Pakistan near the garrison town of Kohat. The area around Kohat is a stronghold of Tariq Afridi, the main Pakistani Taliban commander in the region.

Any training Shahzad did receive in Pakistan (and let’s remember that he has only been arrested so far rather than found guilty) was unlikely to have been particularly extensive given the rather amateurish nature of the car bomb he is accused of assembling.

“My first take is whoever did this didn’t have a whole lot of training, if any. And could have solely gone off manuals they’ve found on the net,” counter-terrorism expert Leah  Farrall wrote on her blog before some of the latest details were reported.  “There are ample training materials out there from all manner of terrorist groups and crazies. And plenty of things that outline how to build a device just like this.”

She adds that it is far more difficult for an untrained person to engineer a bomb explosion than most people think. ”This is why, for example, training for construction of explosives and explosives devices in terrorist training camps has historically taken up to two years,  as opposed to the usual basic training where people are trained how to ‘use’ explosives instead of how to build devices. It is an ongoing problem for militant groups. This is why some of them (and here I’m thinking AQ) often sent the detonator or a key part of it back with those it was deploying to carry out attacks. Especially for the more sophisticated attacks.  Or they gave intensive one on one or small group training.”

Alec Barker made a similar point in an article for Foreign Policy.

“This attempted attack reveals how easy it can be to deliver a car bomb — or at least a vehicle loaded with combustible materials — into the center of a bustling urban area,” he wrote.

“However, it also shows how difficult it can be to actually accomplish a full explosion. Producing a complete detonation has been the most important hurdle for a number of failed terrorist bombers, including Christmas Day bomber Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, shoe bomber Richard Reid, the bombers of the June 30, 2007 Glasgow Airport attacks, and the bombers of the July 21, 2005 attacks against the London public transit system. While all of these attackers in some way initiated their bombs, none of them caused the explosions — or the accompanying devastation and loss of life — that they intended.”

Nor does Shahzad appear to have received the kind of motivational training that produces either the suicide bombers associated with al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, or the “fedayeen” attackers  – trained to fight to the death – often associated with Kashmir-centric groups. “The aspiration to martyrdom associated with al-Qaeda and similar movements does not appear to have motivated the bomber in this instance,” wrote Barker. 

So the question that is likely to come up – and if past experience is anything to go by it will be a subject of much soul-searching and angry debate - is this: To what extent was Shahzad an “amateur” who had been radicalised in the United States in a way that may have prompted him to seek training or contacts with Pakistan-based militant groups? Or alternatively to what extent should Pakistan-based militant groups be seen as “exporting” their jihadi ideology abroad?

It’s a question that has come up often in Britain given its large Pakistani diaspora. It has only emerged far more recently in the United States, particularly after last year’s arrest in Chicago of David Headley, who has pleaded guilty of working with the Lashkar-e-Taiba to plan the 2008 attack on Mumbai .

In a globalised and Internet-connected world, the answer is likely to be somewhere between the two – domestic radicalisation is made more dangerous by the presence of militant camps in Pakistan where would-be jihadis can seek inspiration and training.  But remembering that it is not black and white is important, particularly for those who want simple answers to the threat of terrorism.

And as a brief postscript, stand-by for some rehashes of that now very familiar question. Why are U.S.-led forces fighting in Afghanistan when the threat appears to be coming from militants in Pakistan? Or, for that matter, from those at home?

(Photo Times Square/Shannon Stapleton)

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