Faisal Shahzad, arrested Tuesday as a Times Square car bomb suspect just before he left the country, had recently visited Pakistan. Several Americans showing interest in attacking America or militant Islam have journeyed there before.
The arrest of a Pakistan-born American in connection with this weekend’s attempted attack on New York City’s Times Square puts Pakistan back in the spotlight as a pilgrimage destination for would-be jihadis.
Police nabbed Shahzad Faisal, a Shelton, Conn. resident, as he tried to leave the US from New York’s J. F. K. airport Monday night on a flight for Dubai. He had recently returned from a five-month trip to Pakistan, the Associated Press reported, citing anonymous law enforcement officials.
It’s not known yet whom he may have met there. But over the past year, police have arrested on terror charges a string of American residents who journeyed to Pakistan to try to meet anti-Western militant groups. These travelers include Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born man who admitted to plotting bomb attacks in New York, and five young Americans from the Washington area who left behind a video in which they discussed the need to defend Muslims. Their trial continues in Pakistan.
Pakistani experts and United States officials initially downplayed Pakistani Taliban claims of responsibility for the fizzled New York City car bomb attempt because the group is not seen as having a trans-national organization. The recent trend, however, leaves open the possibility that walk-on players – rather than those actively recruited – from America could get welcomed, further motivated, then turned home even by parochial organizations with little reach.
“These are like walk-ons. They come here for inspiration, more for motivation than for training,” says Imtiaz Gul, a security expert in Islamabad.
As more details emerge, those looking to gauge the direct threat to the US from terror groups in Pakistan will look to see if Mr. Shahzad fits this model of walk-on player, or that of a recruit linked to a wider, well-coordinated effort.
The former have not proven especially effective. Mr. Zazi lost his nerve before carrying out a plan to bomb New York targets. The five Americans from DC allegedly failed to even reach the Pakistan militant organizations before being caught by Pakistani police.
There are conflicting theories on the amateur nature of these attacks. One possibility, argues Mr. Gul, is that the terror groups inside Pakistan have been shorn of capability.
Last Novembe, Gul found numerous Arabic-language bombmaking manuals scattered in former militant hideouts cleared by the Pakistani military in South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold bordering Afghanistan. That says to him that the expertise for that lay mainly with the small number of Arabs, rather than the Pakistani domestic groups. A few Al Qaeda bombmaking experts have been killed over the past year in Pakistan, he notes.
The loss of sanctuaries in parts of the tribal belt due to military offensives attacks may be squeezing the space groups have for training people together in one place, says Gul.
Others say that, despite the mistake-laden attempt in New York, larger dangers could loom. “It could be that these are amateurs who are emotionally moved to act. At the same time, this could be a distraction for something more organized, which is what I worry about,” says Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban.”
He shares Gul’s sense that beyond any desire to get training or establish a post-attack refuge, would-be jihadis trek to Pakistan to get fired up.
“This is where you meet the leaders and get inspired and all the rest of it. This is the hub. This is where you want to be to be part of a movement.”