Friday, May 7, 2010

NYC Bomber, Faisal Shahzad: Lone Wolves Are Also Bad Omens

By Ashesh Prasann
The failed Times Square car bomb attempt which came to light this weekend is tough to analyze because the investigation is not yet complete and there is still uncertainty about the facts. Gen. Petraeus has recently ruled out Pakistani Taliban’s involvement, describing Faisal Shahzad, the individual arrested for attempting the attack, as a “lone wolf”. 

At the same time, Pakistani officials have hinted that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a group with a Kashmir centered agenda, might have been responsible for his training.  Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban has denied any role as well, after initial YouTube videos which seemed to suggest otherwise.

While it will take a while for the facts to emerge, let us assume that Shahzad did not belong to the rank and file of a terror group but simply acquired the training to make and detonate a bomb during a short stint in Pakistan (most likely scenario – check out Steve Coll’s post on how Pakistani terror groups treat US based volunteers as “freebies”). This is troubling in two respects:
  1.  It hints at possible radicalization of young Pakistani-Americans, a phenomenon previously seen in the UK (London Underground bombings being the most infamous attack by British-born Pakistanis trained in Pakistan), but not in the US.  It is noteworthy that in early 2009, the CIA had advised President Obama that British Islamists were the biggest threat to the US. While one of the key reasons for radicalization of British-born Pakistanis was the UK’s involvement in Iraq, high joblessness and discrimination were other underlying factors as well. In comparison, the Pakistani-American community is more prosperous and socially integrated into the mainstream.

  2.   It emphasizes that while terrorist organizations mainly recruit from the poor and marginalized, their ability to attack the U.S. depends upon individuals who are often wealthy, educated and integrated in the West. Faisal Shahzad’s higher education was in Connecticut and his father was Air Vice-Marshal in the Pakistan Army. The underwear bomber studied in London and his father was the chairman of a Nigerian bank.  This is significant because it indicates the limits to effectiveness of US aid to Pakistan, even if it successfully reduces poverty and promotes economic development in targeted regions of the country.
There are other things to look out for in the days to come. Pakistan’s arrests of Shahzad’s associates in Karachi is being touted as evidence of the ISI’s (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) increasing cooperation with the U.S., but such enthusiasm needs to be tempered given Pakistan’s spotty track record with keeping suspects under arrest.  

The real bone of contention between the U.S. and Pakistan is the Pakistani Army’s refusal to undertake a large-scale offensive in North Waziristan, the home of the Haqqani network (which targets US forces in Afghanistan) and Pakistani Taliban. There is little to suggest that the failed Times Square bomb plot will change that.

Ashesh Prasann is a candidate for Masters in Public Policy at the University of Chicago's Harris School for Public Policy. He was Junior Fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2008-2009) and infrequently blogs at

CORRECTION [2010-05-08 10:45]: " ... Shahzad did belong ... " was a mistake and now reads " ... Shahzad did not belong ... "

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