A week-and-a-half after Faisal Shahzad drove a car bomb into Times Square, high-ranking administration officials have been putting an increasing emphasis on a connection between the failed attack and the Pakistan-based Taliban group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). According to Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking on Sunday, "I can say that the evidence that we've now developed shows that the Pakistani Taliban has directed this plot." But Congressmen briefed on that evidence are less convinced. Publicly, little information has become available since officials first suggested the Shahzad-TTP connection last week.
During raids Thursday in connection with its Shahzad investigation, the FBI arrested three Pakistani men in the U.S. Northeast on immigration charges. The agency says it was looking for "cash couriers" who bring in money from outside the country. But officials told CNN they had no evidence linking the arrested suspects to Shahzad's car bomb: The New York Times reports that investigators are unsure if any of the suspects, who have not been charged, actually gave Shahzad any money. Officials acknowledged that, even if they had, they may have simply been lending money to an acquaintance, ignorant of how it would be used. In a New York Times profile of Shahzad last week, several friends and family members said Shahzad had been financially struggling since 2008.
Pending evidence linking the arrested suspects to Shahzad, the alternative possibility is that the FBI hasn't actually uncovered cash couriers, but is rather fishing for them, in the hope that the arrests will reveal a money trail linking Shahzad to a foreign group like the TTP. But that's not the picture painted by the administration in recent statements.
On the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, top administration officials made a number of appearances to impress a Shahzad-TTP connection, although they offered differing theories on the level of the Taliban group's involvement. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Meet The Press of the TTP, "We know that they helped facilitate it; we know that they helped direct it. And I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence which shows that they helped to finance it." Senior White House counterterrorism official John Brennan, stopping short of accusing the TTP of directing or funding the attack, said on State of the Union, "It looks like he was working on behalf of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ... it is again looking like the TTP was responsible for this attempt, that he had worked with the TTP over the past number of months when he was in Pakistan." In more cautious language, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on 60 Minutes, "There are connections. Exactly what they are, how deep they are, how long they've lasted, whether this was an operation encouraged or directed ... those are questions still in the process of being sorted out."
Information on Shahzad that has become public since last week has brought little clarity. CNN reported on Monday that, according to an anonymous "senior administration official," Shahzad had already planned an attack before traveling to Pakistan and seeking out the TTP for guidance on how to execute. If true, this would suggest that Shahzad was not a Taliban agent, let alone integrated into the group's command structure, but rather an independent actor who contacted the TTP on his own initiative for tactical advice. He may also have wished to join the Taliban in Afghanistan. Newsweek reported on Tuesday that NYPD officials believe Shahzad had traveled to Pakistan for that reason. Family friends last week told the New York Times that Shahzad, in 2009, had asked his father for permission to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
While it remains possible that Shahzad did so, alternative -- and certainly no less plausible -- possibilities include that he traveled to Pakistan wishing to join the Taliban but was convinced to instead execute his pre-planned Times Square attack; or, that he was refused by the Taliban outright, for reasons the New Yorker's Steve Coll explained, and decided to build a car bomb, instead.
Whatever information convinced Holder and Brennan has either not reached or not fully persuaded Senators on the Select Committee on Intelligence, who were brief earlier this week. Speaking after the briefing, chairwoman Dianne Feinstein offered a more measured interpretation than her fellow Democrats in the White House. "He received explosives training in Waziristan," she said. "I believe there is a high likelihood that he did have training while he was in Pakistan, specifically Waziristan, from the Taliban." But the TTP merely training Shahzad would be a far less substantial connection than the administration's case that the TTP financed and directed his efforts. The Committee's Ranking Member, GOP Senator Kit Bond, could not even endorse Feinstein's interpretation. "I am not convinced by the information I've seen so far that there is adequate, confirmable intelligence to corroborate the statements on Sunday television shows," he said. "I think people should wait to speak about the origins until they are certain about it." Bond's fellow Republicans have been equally doubtful.
It's possible the Republicans are simply playing politics, but the absence of GOP press releases accusing President Obama of being "soft on terror" suggests their skepticism might not be about embarrassing Democrats. The administration may be struggling to make its case because, as Marc Ambinder has now reported, U.S. intelligence picked up no relevant signals intelligence either before or after the attack. Any terror group, especially one as large as the TTP, has to communicate within the ranks to coordinate an attack, especially one this elaborate. U.S. intelligence always has its ears open for communications, such as phone calls or emails, that might precipitate or follow an attack. Those communications are generally called signals intelligence, or SIGINT. But in this case there wasn't any. The lack of SIGINT doesn't just make their case that the TTP was behind Shahzad more difficult to establish; it actually points in the other direction -- i.e., away from Shahzad's attack being an organized terror effort -- as no communications suggests no organization.
As Congress puzzles over the possibility of a Shahzad-TTP link, the administration is moving forward on two policy initiatives based on their assertion of a strong connection. The first is officially designating the TTP as a foreign terrorist group, which would allow the U.S. to freeze any related assets. The second is pressuring Pakistan's military to launch an offensive in the border regions where the TTP is based.
Without a Shahzad-TTP connection, the rationale for both policies still makes sense: The TTP has claimed many terror attacks within Pakistan, and a Pakistani offensive in the border regions could help stifle the Taliban groups attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But the longer the administration goes forward basing such major policy decisions on Shahzad's alleged links to organized terror, when legislators remain unconvinced and even top administration officials give conflicting interpretations, the more they risk ultimately jeopardizing public support for those policies.