The most spectacular acts of terrorism in the last decade have not been committed by Afghans. The September 11 attacks were perpetrated mostly by Saudis, the Madrid train bombings by North African immigrants, the London Underground bombings mostly by British citizens of Kashmiri descent, and even the Bali bombings by homegrown Indonesian Islamists. The Taliban's ethnic Pashtuns were not generally like the group they chose to shelter, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. They were mostly partisan locals, not international terrorists. But that may all be about to change.
Last weekend, agents in Denver and New York arrested three men of Afghan decent—including Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan national suspected of involvement in a Qaeda plot to blow up targets like Grand Central Terminal—raising the question: is the Afghan war now coming to American shores? Zazi is beginning to look like part of a trend.
For most of its 20 years, Al Qaeda's commanders recruited very few Afghan militants into their ranks because their parochial world views, their lack of international travel experience, and their poor education made them useless as global operatives. But when the Taliban was forced from power across the border in Pakistan—where it became a target in what the Bush administration called "the global war on terrorism"—its members became much more worldly. As they came to see the United States, rather than rival Afghan tribes, as their enemy, Pashtuns were radicalized in the border region, where they had easy access to Al Qaeda's training facilities. The war in Iraq, the mushrooming of Internet cafés in the region, and Al Qaeda's relentless propaganda efforts have widened the horizons of Pashtun militants who, a decade ago, had little concept of the outside world, let alone global jihad.
A sense of grievance against the United States has risen sharply (not least because of Washington's alliance with the Punjabi-dominated government in Islamabad) among the 40 million Pashtuns living in the mountain terrain between southeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, lands that many Pashtuns want to become an independent state. Airstrikes against militants in these mountains—by coalition forces in Afghanistan, by U.S. Predator drones in Pakistan—have also killed many Pashtuns, adding fuel to the flames. Pakistan's infrequent but heavy-handed military forays to retake control of these disputed territories have also claimed many innocent lives.
Al Qaeda has exploited this anger to establish a safe haven in the Pashtun heartlands and to spread its vision of global jihad among the inhabitants. The Pakistani Taliban (a conglomeration of Pashtun tribes formed in December 2007) and the Haqqani network (a Pashtun group loyal to veteran Afghan mujahedin commander Jalaluddin Haqqani) have struck a particularly close relationship with bin Laden's terrorist network. Suicide bombings, which as late as 2004 were anathema to Pashtun fighters—the first suicide attack carried out by a Taliban fighter is believed to have taken place in January of that year—have now been fully embraced, resulting in incredible bloodshed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were only five suicide bombings in Afghanistan between 2001 and the end of 2004, but there have been more than 100 per year since 2006, mostly carried out by the Taliban against targets ranging from Afghan police to Western installations. In the last two years, the tactic spread to Pakistan, where in 2008 there were more than 60 suicide bombings—a record number—mostly carried out by Pashtun militants against targets like police stations, Army barracks, and Western embassies and hotels. The importing of insurgent tactics from Iraq has also boosted their terrorist skills.
Meanwhile, the emigration of thousands of Pashtun refugees to Western countries has given a greater number of Pashtuns the capacity most coveted by Al Qaeda—a knowledge of how to operate in the West. Until recently, these emigrants seemed largely immune to Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. In the U.K., for example, the British South Asians convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in the years since 9/11 have been almost exclusively of Kashmiri or Punjabi descent. But elements inside the Pashtun diaspora are now cultivating a violent hostility toward the West. That is causing significant worry for counterterrorism officials, according to background interviews, because they know it is quite simple for these emigrants, on visits home, to get access to Qaeda and Taliban training facilities in Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas, where they can learn crucial bombmaking skills.
A case in point was Mohammad Junaid Babar, a naturalized American citizen from Queens, N.Y., born in Nowshera, a town 20 miles to the east of Peshawar. In 2003, Babar—who had moved to Pakistan shortly after September 11 to work for a pro-Qaeda British group—took advantage of his native Pashto language skills to organize terrorist training in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan for himself and a band of British jihadists. Two from this band would bomb the London Underground in 2005. Babar was arrested after his return to New York in 2004 and pleaded guilty to assisting Al Qaeda.
Three years later, in September 2007, a Pashtun from Denmark got involved in a serious international terrorist conspiracy when police broke up a Qaeda-linked plot to bomb targets in Europe using a high explosive called TATP, which the cell had been secretly filmed making. One of those subsequently convicted was Abdoulghani Tokhi, an Afghan refugee born in Kandahar who moved to Denmark at the age of 7.
Terrorist groups based in Pashtun areas may also recently have "parachuted in" operatives to Western countries. In January 2008, Spanish authorities accused the Pakistani Taliban of having sent a team of suicide bombers to launch attacks on the Barcelona Metro. Later that year, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the plot "because of Spain's military presence in Afghanistan." A trial for 11 suspected plotters is expected to start soon in Spain.
Finally, in April 2009, British police claimed to have broken up a plot against a shopping center in Manchester involving 10 Pakistani nationals who had recently come to the U.K. on student visas. Almost all were Pashtuns from towns in northwestern Pakistan. In a striking similarity to the Najibullah Zazi case, e-mails were intercepted from the Manchester plotters talking about planned dates for a wedding, which the British domestic-intelligence agency MI5 believed was a code for the attack date. Because of insufficient evidence, British authorities didn't slam the suspects with terrorism charges, but they're adamant that they thwarted a serious plot.
This trend has led almost inexorably to Zazi, whose intentions and motives are still unknown. But his story is much like the others: he moved to the United States with his Pashtun family 10 years ago and has been there since, except (as he admitted) for terrorist training he received in a Qaeda facility in Pakistan in 2008. Shortly before his arrest, Zazi had alarmed U.S. investigators by texting a message that said "the wedding cake is ready," a possible go signal for an attack. Between his arrest and an ongoing investigation to identify other plotters, the United States may now be witnessing its own blowback from the war in Afghanistan.
This isn't cause for panic just yet. For one thing, the total number of Pashtuns involved in acts of international terrorism is still very small, compared with those from other ethnic groups like Kashmiris and Punjabis. For another, a majority of Afghans continue to support the U.S. military presence, according to a recent BBC/ABC poll, with only 15 percent strongly in opposition. (The numbers are not broken down by ethnicity.) What's more, anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of the Pashtun community in the United States has little sympathy with the militants in their homeland. (In May 2009, some 200 Pashtun immigrants took to the streets of Brooklyn to protest Taliban atrocities in the Swat Valley. As an organizer told a reporter, "We are gathered here today to let the world know that Pashtuns are not terrorists, they are not Taliban.") But Zazi's arrest is still cause for worry: his upbringing in the United States and his training in Pakistan would have made him an especially dangerous operative. It wouldn't take many like him to bring the Afghan war home.