May 4, 2010

Times Square and the Pakistan connection

Faisal Shahzad is now in federal custody after a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that he built and parked in New York City's Times Square failed to detonate.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that this attempt to create a mass casualty event was not "thwarted," despite claims by President Obama and Attorney General Holder - it simply failed. When a VBIED is parked in a crowded public place in the heart of New York City, the driver walks away and the bomb begins to detonate and then fails to explode, that is not thwarting, it is reacting.

Along that same line, it is not helpful when senior administration officials explain in detail what component of the explosive device failed. In the last several failed attempts, the weak link has been identified as the detonators. Thanks to these officials wanting to impress the media, the perpetrators now know they need to perfect their detonator design, or increase their training on that portion of the device.

What we have here is a combination of an intelligence failure on our part, incompetence on Shahzad's part, followed by what appears to be excellent police work by the NYPD and the FBI. That said, the clock almost ran out - Shahzad was already on board a jetliner bound for the Middle East en route Pakistan.

Why Pakistan?

Not only is Pakistan Shahzad's native country, it is also the place he visited last year for five months, part of that time spent at a jihadist training camp in the lawless Waziristan tribal area along the Afghanistan border. It was here he learned how to make the device that he assembled in the vehicle. This area of Pakistan is what Afghanistan was prior to the American invasion of the that country after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Since Afghanistan is no longer a viable training ground, the jihadists - be they al-Qa'idah, the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani), or the various other Pakistani Islamist groups - have set up shop in the fiercely independent tribal areas virtually out of the reach of the government in Islamabad. Al-Qa'idah has also moved some of its training to Yemen, as well.

A Pakistani man associated with Shahzad was arrested in Karachi. Karachi is a hotbed of fundamentalist jihadist activity, where many al-Qa'idah, Taliban and other groups maintain a covert presence. It is also Shahzad's original home before he emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen. There is also an al-Qa'idah and Taliban presence in other Pakistani cities - Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Quetta to name a few.

Shahzad's background is interesting. He comes from a prominent family - this is not a disaffected impoverished youth lashing out at the excesses of the West. His father is a retired Air Vice Marshal (U.S. major general equivalent) in the Pakistan Air Force, and his uncle was the chief of Pakistan's civil aviation authority. Shahzad holds an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. It will be interesting to discover his motivation to attempt mass murder. It will also be interesting to know if his acquisition of American citizenship was a pre-planned part of the operation. Al-Qa'idah has for years attempted to recruit American passport holders since they can leave and enter the United States at will.

More and more, Pakistan seems to be the common thread in a series of terrorist attacks around the globe. The British subway bombers were trained in Pakistan, as were the Mumbai hotel killers. American John Walker Lindh received his initial weapons training in Pakistan in 2000.

Pakistan is now the primary site for al-Qa'idah and Taliban training, not Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we have decided to embark on a nation-building exercise in Afghanistan while terrorist training goes on just across the border. We should be taking on the terrorists who threaten us, not propping up a corrupt government in a country that no longer poses or harbors a threat.

The Obama Administration needs to demand that the Pakistanis police their own house in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan. If they can't, then we should. The CIA drone strikes are a start, but obviously are not solving the entire problem. If you believe some of the Taliban announcements, this action was in retaliation for those very drone strikes. It takes more to root out these vermin.

We have been lucky twice - on Christmas Day (the so-called "underwear bomber"), and again this last weekend. We will not continue to be so lucky - we must break this Pakistan connection.