Bomb suspect likely aided by Taliban in Pakistan
U. S. officials said Wednesday that it was very likely that a radical group once believed unable to attack the country had played a role in Saturday's bombing attempt in Times Square, elevating concerns about whether other militant groups could deliver at least a glancing blow on American soil.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said Wednesday that it was likely a radical Islamic group once believed unable to attack the country had played a role in Saturday's bombing attempt in Times Square, elevating concerns about whether other militant groups could deliver at least a glancing blow on American soil.
After two days of intense questioning of the bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, officials said evidence was mounting that the Pakistani Taliban had helped inspire and train Shahzad in the months before he is alleged to have parked an explosives-filled sport-utility vehicle in a Manhattan intersection Saturday night. Officials said Shahzad, 30, had discussed his contacts with the group, and investigators had accumulated other evidence that they would not disclose.
On Wednesday, Shahzad, son of a retired senior Pakistani Air Force officer, waived his right to a speedy arraignment, a possible sign of his continuing cooperation with investigators.
As his interrogation continued, Homeland Security officials directed airlines to speed up checks of new names added to the no-fly list, a requirement that might have prevented Shahzad from boarding a flight to Dubai on Monday night before his arrest.
The failed attack has produced a flurry of other proposals to tighten security procedures, including calls by members of Congress to more closely scrutinize passengers who buy tickets for cash, as Shahzad did.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., proposed stripping accused terrorists of U.S. citizenship, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked Congress to block the sale of firearms and explosives to those on terrorist watch lists.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave few specifics about what Shahzad has told investigators and said their understanding of the bomb plot could evolve as a dragnet spanning two continents gathers more evidence.
One senior administration official cautioned that "there are no smoking guns yet," suggesting the Pakistani Taliban directed the Times Square bombing. But others said there were strong indications that Shahzad knew some members of the Taliban and that they likely played a role in training him.
One issue that investigators are pursuing is who provided Shahzad with cash to purchase the SUV and his plane ticket. "Somebody's financially sponsoring him, and that's the link we're pursuing," one official said. "And that would take you on the logic train back to Pak-Taliban authorizations," referring to the group.
There is no doubt among intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by CIA drones in the past year has made Pakistan's Taliban, which goes by the official name Tehrik-i-Taliban, increasingly determined to seek revenge by striking at the United States.
The CIA's drone program in Pakistan, which was accelerated in 2008 and expanded by President Obama last year, has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, in part because it was perceived as eliminating dangerous militants while keeping Americans safe.
But the December attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, and now possibly the SUV attack in Manhattan, are reminders that the drones' success may be provoking a costly response.
When Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud boasted in March that his group was planning an attack on Washington, D.C., that would "amaze everyone in the world," many U.S. officials dismissed his claims as empty bravado. His network, they said, had neither the resources nor the reach to pull off an attack far from its base in the mountains of Pakistan.
But Saturday's attempted attack has forced something of a reassessment, especially as U.S. officials see militant groups determined to score a propaganda victory by pulling off even the crudest of attacks.
The biggest prize in the jihadist universe — a successful attack on U.S. soil — could have significant payoffs for such a group, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
The message, he said, may be, " 'The U.S. is pounding us with drone attacks, but we're powerful enough to strike back.' It's certainly enough to attract ever more recruits to replace those they're losing," Hoffman said.
The Pakistani Taliban have used a relentless campaign of violence to undermine Pakistan's secular government. The group has been blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as bombings in Islamabad, Lahore and elsewhere.
As casualties mounted in Pakistan in 2008, officials there pleaded with Washington to begin striking the group with CIA drones. American counterterrorism officials had never considered the group to be a top priority, but last year the Obama administration approved targeting Pakistani Taliban leaders, in part to win Islamabad's tacit approval for drone strikes elsewhere in the tribal areas. Mehsud was believed to have been killed in a CIA drone attack in August.
Some American officials bristled at the idea that the United States has not taken the threat from the Pakistani Taliban seriously.
"We've been pounding their leadership — including figures like Baitullah Mehsud — and their training camps and other facilities," said one American counterterrorism official. "Those actions have probably taken other people like Shahzad off the board."
Denis McDonough, the chief of staff for the National Security Council, said the Times Square plot showed that Pakistan and the United States face a common enemy, calling it "a pretty stark reminder that the same collection of terrorists that are threatening them are threatening us."
The Obama administration has been in intensive contact with the Pakistani government, delivering the message that "there are clear links to Pakistan and that we would fully expect them to do what they should do," said the State Department spokesman, Philip Crowley.
Pakistani officials have arrested about a dozen people they believe may be linked to the plot, authorities have said.
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