5 Reasons to Question Times Square's Links to Organized Terror

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The arrest of Pakistani-born American Faisal Shahzad, who authorities say is responsible for the car bomb in Times Square, has raised concerns about how a naturalized American citizen decided to launch a terrorist attack. At this point, little is known about Shahzad or his motivations, but his connections to Pakistan raise the possibility he could be linked to a terror group based there -- in particular, al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), sometimes called the Pakistani Taliban. If true, such links would be an alarming demonstration of al-Qaeda or TTP's reach. In the case of TTP, it would indicate that a group historically focused in Pakistan and Afghanistan had drastically expanded its ambitions to include attacks on the United States. At this point, anything is possible. But there are five important signs that point in the opposite direction, indicating that Shahzad may not be connected to these groups at all.

1. The fertilizer

Some fertilizers contain chemicals that can explode violently and have been used as bomb materials in terror attacks such as Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing. Shahzad's bomb used the wrong fertilizer, which was inert and non-explosive. Most observers are reading this as a sign of the attack's amateurism. But it's an especially telling amateurism given Shahzad's Pakistan connections. For years, fertilizer has played an important and politically sensitive part in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After Taliban insurgents began using the fertilizer in improvised explosive devices, the U.S. and Afghan military made it a policy to seize dangerous fertilizers, often in massive quantities. The Afghan government even banned some of the explosive brands. (Within the region, this was a politically controversial move because fertilizer is so important to the agrarian economy.) As a result, terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan tend to be highly knowledgeable about the use of fertilizers in terrorism. They are, indeed, fertilizer experts. If Shahzad had connections to Pakistan-based terror groups, he would have heard a lot about the use of fertilizer explosives. But he seems to have known very little.

2. The walk-away

If a prominent Pakistani terror group had been involved, it seems likely that it would have preferred, if not insisted, that Shahzad's bomb be a suicide attack. This is because suicide car bombs are much more effective, allowing the attacker to drive directly into a target (they are also much more dramatic, and so more effective at causing fear). Additionally, the larger and more secretive the terror group, the more likely it is to prefer suicide attackers in such a high-profile attack. That way, once the attack is completed, the attacker's knowledge of his collaborators' network dies with him. Organizations like al-Qaeda are able to survive because of their secrecy. Allowing an attacker to park a car bomb and just walk away would be an extraordinary and highly unusual risk to that secrecy.

3. The trips to Pakistan

Many observers have noted that Shahzad had traveled previously to Pakistan, when he would have the opportunity to meet secretly with terrorist handlers and trainers. But Shahzad still has family in Pakistan. Indeed, his wife and two children may live there now. Shahzad's neighbors form his home in Connecticut say he formerly lived with his family but that, about a year ago, the wife and children moved out.

4. Naturalization

Shahzad was recently naturalized as a U.S. citizen, which includes an extensive background check. It's possible that he developed terror connections after his naturalization, or that he did so long enough before his naturalization that U.S. officials missed it, but background checks are designed to search for exactly the kind of connections that come with joining a terror group.

5. The videotape

Much has been made of a videotape in which officials claiming to represent the TTP claim responsibility for the Times Square incident. But there's at least one very good reason to believe the tape isn't real: The TTP says it isn't. The group's official spokesman has denied that it had anything to do with the tape, and further denies that it has anything to do with the attack itself. It's highly unusual for a terror group, which attacks specifically for attention, to go out on a limb to disown an incident. While this was a failed attack, terror groups typically still trumpet such incidents. For example, al-Qaeda proudly claimed the failed Flight 253 attack in December. After all, even failed attacks generate massive media attention and imply the threat of future attacks. Groups like TTP would not want to give that up.

See also: "Is the Taliban Really Behind the Times Square Car Bomb?"


Update: Shahzad has made contradictory statements since his arrest. He first claimed to authorities that he acted alone, but U.S. officials are still investigating. Pakistani officials have arrested a man in Karachi who they say met with Shahzad and who is connected to a mosque associated with terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad. Shahzad now says he received bomb-making training in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. Waziristan is the war-torn home of many of South Asia's most experienced and battle-hardened militant groups, including al-Qaeda. If Shahzad's statement is true, it's all the more striking that his trainers, based in one of the world's most prolific regions for fertilizer-based bombs, could not even explain to him which fertilizer to buy.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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