Time Square bomb threat

Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad has apparently told investigators that he was not acting on behalf of any international terrorist organization. However, given that he spent several months in Pakistan just prior to returning to the U.S. to conduct the attack indicates he may well have been in contact with international terrorist networks.

Given the increasing fluidity of group membership and cross-pollination of the various terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan, it may take time for investigators to discern exactly with whom he may have been working and what was his primary motivation for carrying out the attempted bombing.  It is becoming increasingly important to identify individual terrorist organizers and masterminds based abroad rather than thinking in terms of group affiliations.

The focus of the investigations needs to turn to Shahzad’s activities during his five-month stay in Pakistan, which may have been critical in both motivating and technically preparing him to carry out the attempted attack.  Previous terrorist attacks and plots here in the U.S., Europe, and India over the last five years have had connections to Pakistan-based terrorist groups and individuals. The case of David C. Headley, who scouted sites for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and was arrested in Chicago in October 2009, is a prime example of the need for U.S. investigators to run down leads inside Pakistan. In addition to meeting with leaders of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba responsible for the Mumbai attacks, Headley met regularly with his Pakistani handler, a former major in the Pakistani Army, in Dubai, as well as the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate organization, Harakat-ul-Jihadi-Islami (HUJ-I), Ilyas Kashmiri, in northwest Pakistan.

Similarly, Rashid Rauf, the terrorist leader suspected of involvement in the 2006 liquid airliner bomb plot, had links to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad. Rauf mysteriously escaped from Pakistani custody in December 2007 and then a few months later directed Afghan-born Najibullah Zazi and Zarein Ahmedzay to bomb the New York subway system.  Ahmedzay and Zazi were picked up in New York last fall and have pleaded guilty to involvement in the foiled subway plot.

Although it is early to speculate too much on Shahzad’s connections to international terrorist networks, it is clear that the U.S. will need to work closely with Pakistani authorities to run down any leads inside Pakistan. Pakistan’s military has been conducting aggressive operations against militants in the tribal border areas over the last year, which have been helpful in degrading the terrorist threat emanating from this region. However, to prevent future acts of terrorism in the U.S., Washington needs to get a better handle on the connections among individuals involved in terrorism inside Pakistan and convince Pakistani authorities to take firm action against them. In addition to aggressive military operations, Pakistani authorities need to be willing to arrest, detain, and prosecute, if appropriate, terrorist plotters and facilitators. Rauf’s escape from Pakistani custody in December 2007 is unacceptable. It could have had deadly implications for Americans, had U.S. investigators not been so successful in breaking up the plot here in the U.S.

The greatest challenge for U.S. policymakers is convincing Pakistan to deal firmly and unambiguously with all terrorists, even those who are targeting Pakistan’s arch-rival India. The increasing fluidity and cross-pollination of the different terrorist groups in Pakistan makes it no longer possible to make distinctions between those groups targeting India and those targeting the rest of the world, including Pakistan itself.