Frustrated sons of privilege, caught between East and West, sometimes make for dangerous militants. Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was the son of a Cairo lawyer and the grandson of a doctor. The so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is the son of a wealthy Nigerian diplomat. Faisal Shahzad, too, appeared to be a fairly secularized, Westernized Pakistani. His father was once a high-ranking official in Pakistan’s Air Force, and Faisal had become a U.S. citizen. But unknown to many who knew him superficially, his life was riven by tensions that propelled him toward terrorism.
That Shahzad failed in his attempt to set off a lethal fireball in Times Square this month was reassuring, but not very. The FBI and New York City police were able to capture the alleged bomber in part because the 30-year-old Shahzad was a bungler when it came to building bombs. Unfortunately, there are more would-be terrorists like him out there, and terrorists learn from their mistakes. Al Qaeda may be on the run and (possibly) not capable of pulling off a 9/11-style spectacular, but various wannabe and splinter terror groups seem to be able to attract recruits with American passports and the will to kill civilians, if not quite the know-how.
Americans demand that the government keep them safe from the Shahzads of the world. Yet it is not always easy to spot an alleged terrorist in the making, at least not at first. Like most Pakistanis his age, Shahzad had received rigid Islamic schooling, instituted by the Pakistani government in the 1990s. And like a good number of privileged young Pakistanis, he was sent to the West to further his education. He picked up a business degree at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and got a job managing accounts at Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics maker, in the affluent town of Stamford. He and his new wife, Huma Mian, who has a degree from the University of Colorado, bought a house in the Connecticut suburbs for $273,000. Shahzad got a job as an analyst at Affinion Group, a financial-marketing-services company, in 2007—just as the market bubble was about to burst. He became an American citizen.
He appeared to develop money troubles. Friends noticed that he began talking more about Islam, and he frequently traveled back and forth to Pakistan. Last year he and his young family suddenly abandoned their house, leaving behind rotting food and toys. The house went into foreclosure.
Last week Newsweek interviewed Shahzad’s cousin Zulfikar Ali, a bank employee in Peshawar, who said that in recent months Shahzad didn’t seem like the same person he knew when he was younger. Ali described Shahzad’s family as not being particularly religious. “The father ran a disciplined family,” he said. “The father really kept Shahzad under his thumb.” Ali, who said he had met Shahzad at least 10 times in the past few years, last saw him six months ago at a family wedding in Mohib Banda village. He was very different. As a younger man, Ali said, Shahzad was polite, well mannered, and enthusiastic about his studies. “I was never suspicious of him,” he recalled. But when Ali saw him at the wedding, Shahzad seemed to have changed. “He seemed more serious, quiet, and distant,” Ali said. Ali wondered whether Shahzad’s embrace of militancy could have partly been a revolt against his father’s military-like strictness.
When Shahzad came back to America in February after a five-month visit in Pakistan, he was alone. His wife and child remained behind. He rented an apartment in a gritty blue-collar neighborhood in Bridgeport and began making some suspicious purchases, including more than 150 firecrackers, some bags of fertilizer, and a couple of alarm clocks. Consulting Craigslist, he bought a used SUV—a Nissan Pathfinder big enough for a bomb—for $1,300 cash, paid in $100 bills. No papers changed hands. He had the windows tinted so no one could see in and removed the vehicle-registration number from the dashboard. He somehow obtained some new license plates off a different car, but not one that was reported stolen. He was fairly careful, though not careful, or clever, enough.
Law-enforcement sources tell Newsweek he took a practice run on April 28. He arranged a getaway car, an Isuzu Trooper, which he parked just a few blocks from Times Square. At 6:28 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, he drove into Times Square, where hundreds of people were bustling by on a warm spring night, and left the car running, with its hazard lights on.
He went to his getaway car, and realized, no doubt to his shock, that he had left the Trooper keys on the key ring in the Pathfinder. Also his apartment keys. He may have been wondering why he heard no explosion.
He had bungled the bomb. The fertilizer was the wrong kind. (Since Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City with a fertilizer bomb in 1995, the feds have made it harder to buy explosive fertilizer.) The firecrackers weren’t powerful enough to detonate the containers of gasoline and propane tanks he had loaded in the car. Instead, a street vendor with i love new york on his T shirt noticed some suspicious white smoke, and the cops were soon on the scene with a bomb squad.
Meanwhile, Shahzad took the commuter train back to Bridgeport. He called his landlord, Stanislaw Chomiak, and explained that he needed to be let into his apartment. “He looked nervous, but I thought, of course he’s nervous, he just lost his keys,” Chomiak later told The New York Times.
That night, a detective who specializes in stolen cars examined the engine block of the Pathfinder and discovered that Shahzad had failed to erase a second vehicle-identification number. The feds and the New York City police were able to track the Pathfinder back to the woman who had sold Shahzad the car. He had smartly used a disposable, prepaid phone to contact the car’s seller. That should have made Shahzad hard to identify. But the feds were able to match at least one phone call from the disposable phone to a number in a Homeland Security database. It turned out to be a number used by Shahzad. Under new, more stringent procedures instituted after the underwear bomber, Shahzad had been taken aside by Customs agents when he entered the country from Pakistan in February, and they asked him for a phone number.
By Monday, Shahzad was under surveillance by the feds at his Bridgeport apartment. But maybe a little too much surveillance. FBI agents no longer wear regulation white shirts and snap-brim hats as they did in J. Edgar Hoover’s day, but Shahzad’s neighborhood was soon crawling with burly men in SUVs. Equally noticeable, reporters—tipped off by law-enforcement sources to expect a big bust—began showing up in the area. Something may have spooked Shahzad, because he apparently slipped out the back and—undetected despite all the surveillance—got into his car and drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Shahzad’s name had been put on the no-fly list by the feds at about noon that day. After the underwear bomber, airlines have been required to regularly update their lists, but Emirates airline failed to do so. Shahzad was able to pay cash for a flight leaving that night to Dubai, where he planned to catch a connection to Pakistan.
Fortunately, all passenger lists must be run through a Homeland Security database one last time before takeoff. When Shahzad’s name turned up, alarms went off at the Terrorist Screening Center near Washington. Federal agents rushed to the plane, which was still at the gate. Shahzad seemed to be expecting them; he inquired if they were from the FBI or NYPD. He almost immediately began talking to interrogators.
Based on what Shahzad is telling them, as well as other evidence, U.S. intelligence officials believe that he probably received some kind of training from the Pakistan Taliban. Shahzad grew up not far from where American drones have been striking Taliban targets, and he has made at least a dozen trips home in the last decade. He apparently claimed to have met top Taliban leaders, though he may have been exaggerating, since a naturalized American citizen would almost certainly be regarded with suspicion as a spy. More plausibly, perhaps, Shahzad told interrogators that he had watched the fiery videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was reportedly linked to the Fort Hood shooter and the underwear bomber. All Shahzad needed for that was an Internet connection. Investigators are looking at his financing. He brought in at least $80,000 during his various trips back from Pakistan. That could be money from his well-to-do family to help him through hard times (his wife reportedly liked to shop), or it could be funding to pay for a terrorist attack, or both. In Pakistan, local authorities began making arrests, though Shahzad’s backing remains murky. The Pakistan Taliban is less an organization than a shadowy web of militants with ties to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
The military and intelligence services of the United States have been using Predator drones to kill Islamic militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan with increasing frequency. The Americans have picked off a number of high-ranking Qaeda operatives and, more recently, top-level members of the Pakistan Taliban. The Taliban posed a threat to the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but was not capable of directly striking the people of America—or so it was widely thought. But in December, the Pakistan Taliban claimed credit for planting a suicide bomber inside a secret CIA outpost in Afghanistan, killing seven agency officers. And last week U.S. intelligence officers increasingly came to believe it was likely the Pakistan Taliban that dispatched a terrorist to explode a car bomb in an American city.
True, the Americans, too, have upped their game. They have tightened the antiterror net in the years since 9/11—and even more so since Abdulmutallab slipped through with near-fatal results last Christmas. The question is, which side is learning faster? After a long slow spell, the jihadists seem to be picking up the pace, recruiting American Muslims who once seemed relatively immune from jihadist importunings. Thanks to some good intelligence and police work (as when a limo driver bent on bombing the New York subways was nabbed last year), so far the only deaths have come from the deranged Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, last Nov. 5, killing 13. The vast antiterror apparatus of post-9/11 America can claim an admirable record of securing the homeland; and yet, in the twisted world of jihad, chopping the head off one snake seems to beget two more.
The more success America has at killing Islamic militants in the wild mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the more motive the jihadists have to strike back. Last week NEWSWEEK correspondent Sami Yousafzai spoke to a high-ranking planner and propagandist in the Afghan Taliban who has been involved in fomenting attacks on the Afghan government and American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He said the jihadists in the Pakistan Taliban want revenge for American drone attacks that killed their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009, and drove his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, into hiding. “The Afghan Taliban and many tribal elders thought they [the Pakistan Taliban] shouldn’t claim responsibility because it will only bring more American attacks on our areas,” he said. “But Hakimullah doesn’t care. He just wants to strike out.”
While this Taliban leader thinks it unwise for the Pakistan Taliban to further arouse the wrath of the Americans, he believes that Shahzad’s failure will serve as a recruiting poster. “As long as the U.S. wages war in this region, the numbers of those like Shahzad who will turn against the U.S. and the West and join us will increase,” he said. “We’ve got more publicity from this one failed bombing in New York than from more than 100 bombings in Afghanistan,” he added.
The Afghan Taliban leader somewhat breezily told NEWSWEEK that there is no lack of recruits like Shahzad from the West. “With all this new technology, it’s not difficult to recruit people in the West,” he said. Over the past two years, he claimed, several jihadi Web sites linked to the Afghan Taliban have received hundreds of e-mails from serious potential jihadis in the West who “want to join us.” He said the Afghan Taliban’s Haqqani network, which is largely based in North Waziristan and carries out operations in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul, has set up a working group to screen the flood of e-mails it receives from aspiring volunteers and the scores of hopeful recruits who simply arrive unannounced at the camps in the tribal badlands offering their lives for the fight. “It’s hard to contact Al Qaeda,” he said. “But it’s very easy to get in touch with the Pakistani Taliban.” It’s difficult to tell if what he says is true or if it’s propaganda, but he claimed that a large number of these volunteers are Americans and Britons of Pakistani origin, just like Shahzad. “I’ve seen and talked to a number of volunteers with Western passports who have come to visit us, have trained with us, and have gone back prepared to sacrifice themselves,” he said. “They confidently think they can accomplish the attacks.”
The myriad jihadi groups working out of sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal areas are as suspicious of volunteers coming from the West as they are of Afghans, Pakistani tribals, and Pakistanis from the populous Punjab or Kashmir. Sorting the true believers from the spies is not easy, senior insurgent leaders say. “We and the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda are very aware of the possibilities of infiltration by spies,” says a former senior Taliban intelligence officer who is now the representative for a regional Afghan Taliban commander in the tribal area, the contact point for many would-be volunteers for the jihadist cause. “Just because someone comes from the West doesn’t mean he’s legitimate. They, too, must be closely watched.” Checking out the bona fides of a man like Shahzad, a U.S. passport holder of Pakistani origin, is especially difficult. “The expressions of good will and sweet words from a new Western contact are not enough,” says the former intelligence officer, who agreed to speak only if he was not quoted by name. “We don’t believe what people say right away. Getting to know what’s true or false, who’s real and who’s a plant, is a real challenge.” Shahzad apparently passed the test to allow him some, if only limited, entry into one or more of the many and scattered jihadi training camps, largely hidden behind high mud-brick walls, in remote Waziristan.
Foreigners who want to sign up have to have a very convincing story, have some verifiable jihadi contacts, and spend some hard time living almost like prisoners in the primitive conditions in the Waziristan mountains. Groups sometimes cross-check with other jihadi bands to see what they may know of a potential recruit. The Afghan officer says new Punjabi recruits are sometimes sent on dangerous frontline missions to test their commitment and courage. If they agree to put their lives on the line, they’ve passed the test. If not, they are in real trouble. Hundreds of so-called spies have been brutally executed over the past few years in the tribal agencies, many without any hearing at all. The Afghan officer says his Taliban group takes a similar tack, sending many new volunteers on dangerous missions at first to test their commitment. “If they are hesitant, then we know they’re not true Taliban,” he says. “If you are a Taliban, you are always putting yourself at risk.”
The failed bombing attempt in Times Square set off the predictable political reaction in Washington. After Senate conservatives learned that Shahzad had been read his Miranda rights, they squawked that he should be treated as an enemy combatant and stripped of his rights as a citizen. (Some of these same senators, however, balked at legislation that would ban suspected terrorists from buying guns. Shahzad had a legally purchased firearm in his getaway car.)
In any case, reading Shahzad his rights does not appear to have silenced him. Indeed, a court hearing was put off so he could keep talking. At week’s end, there was talk of sending more American commando forces into Pakistan to hunt down terrorists. But that may just create more terrorists. It may be that Americans have to continue to do what they have learned to do since 9/11: live with uncertainty without succumbing to fear.
With Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in Pakistan and Christopher Dickey in Paris