Is the Taliban Really Behind the Times Square Car Bomb?

The New York Times and others are reporting that evidence could link failed Times Square attacker, Faisal Shahzad, to the Pakistani Taliban group, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). The news reports, and U.S. authorities they quote, question how Shahzad, who had struggled with financial problems, got the money to buy the used Nissan SUV and the airline ticket to Pakistan, both paid for in cash. They also suggest that TTP officials could have "helped inspire and train" Shahzad during a recent trip to Pakistan, when he said he visited the war-torn region of Waziristan, where TTP has a strong presence. These are compelling signs of a TTP connection, but there are similarly compelling reasons to doubt a connection.

As the son of a high-ranking Pakistani Air Force officer, Shahzad grew up in a comfortable, upper-middle-class family. Military officials in Pakistan typically enjoy higher financial and social standing than their American counterparts. His wife also comes from a prominent and wealthy family. Speaking of a possible TTP connection, one U.S. official told the Times, "Somebody's financially sponsoring [Shahzad], and that's the link we're pursuing. ... And that would take you on the logic train back to Pak-Taliban authorizations." But it seems plausible that Shahzad could have simply gotten the money from his family. After all, many Americans borrow money from their parents to buy a car. One of the first people arrested by Pakistani authorities in connection with Shahzad was his father-in-law, Mohammad Asif Mian, an author of four books on economics and holder of two master's degrees from the Colorado School of Mines, a respected research university. If he had recently wired Shahzad money for the car and flight, perhaps believing them to be innocent purchases, that money trail would certainly lead authorities to Mian.

Reports of Shahzad's supposed Taliban associations all link him to the TTP. We in the West might be apt to mistake all South Asian terror groups as holding the same agenda, and it's true that TTP has no love for the U.S. But the TTP arose in direct response to the Pakistan military's 2004 advances into the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, which includes Waziristan. As the military sought to return government control to the region, Taliban elements that had focused on the war in Afghanistan organized to fight a war against the Pakistani military. For the TTP, there are few enemies more hated than the Pakistan military and few goals more high-ranking than targeting high-ranking military officials. But Shahzad's own father is a retired high-ranking military official. If he were to connect with a Pakistan-based terror group, why would he choose the one that would love to send a suicide bomber into his parents' home? And why would the group trust him?

The U.S. gains diplomatically from even the possibility of a connection. While the TTP has targeted U.S. forces in Afghanistan, they have not made the U.S. their primary target. Their tensions with the more anti-U.S. Taliban groups, which kept the TTP from engaging fully in the Afghan war, were not resolved until last March. But the U.S. has been trying for months to convince Pakistan to launch a large-scale military campaign in Waziristan. Pakistan has hesitated, as many groups there do not currently target Pakistani cities, and the military doesn't wish to provoke more internal terror. Now U.S. officials have seized on the possibility of a connection between Pakistan-based Taliban groups and anti-U.S. terrorism to pressure Pakistan into attacking Waziristan.

Even if Shahzad did meet with members of the TTP or any other organized terror group, it's important to remember that meeting with a group is not the same thing as joining it, and that receiving some training is not the same thing as being integrated into the command-and-control structure. Pakistan-based terror groups, paranoid about CIA infiltration, are extremely skeptical of American-accented, middle-class, well-educated Pakistanis who suddenly wander into their compounds after years spent in the U.S. As the New Yorker's Steve Coll explains, "At best, the jihadi groups might conclude that a particular U.S.-originated individual's case is uncertain. They might then encourage the person to go home and carry out an attack--without giving him any training or access to higher-up specialists that might compromise their local operations. They would see such a U.S.-based volunteer as a 'freebie,' the former officer said--if he returns home to attack, great, but if he merely goes off to report back to his C.I.A. case officer, no harm done."

See also: "5 Reasons to Question Times Square's Links to Organized Terror"

Update 1 (5/7): Thursday night, after more than 48 hours of blanket media coverage on Shahzad's putative connections to organized terror, General David Petraeus told the Associated Press that he believes Shahzad acted alone. Petraeus, whose authority as CENTCOM commander extends to Pakistan, called the would-be terrorist a "lone wolf," inspired by but not connected to Pakistani terror groups.

Update 2 (5/11): Top administration officials appeared on the Sunday shows this past weekend to argue for a Shahzad-TTP connection. 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. They were intimately involved in this plot." Senior White House counterterrorism official John Brennan said on State of the Union, "It looks like he was working on behalf of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the TTP, as the Pakistan Taliban." 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." On Monday, CNN reported 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 seem to imply that Shahzad was not a Taliban agent, let alone integrated into the group's command structure, but an independent actor who contacted the TTP on his own initiative for tactical advice.