U.S. Weighs Official 'Terrorist Organization' Status for the Pakistani Taliban

In light of evidence that the group known as the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attempted May 1 Times Square bombing, the Obama administration is "actively considering" designating it as a "foreign terrorist organization" in the next few weeks—a move that would allow the U.S. government to freeze any assets belonging to the group and make it a federal crime to assist it, officials said Tuesday. But the disclosure, first made by State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley, immediately raised questions among some counterterrorism experts as to why Washington didn't act sooner. "I'm pretty surprised that it has taken the U.S. government such a long time to do this," says Hassan Abbas, a Columbia University professor and former Pakistani police officer who is considered the leading academic expert on the Pakistani Taliban. "This is certainly one of the most lethal [terrorist] groups in South Asia, and I would rank it in the top five of all international terror groups."

The Pakistani Taliban—actually a coalition of militant groups known collectively as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—didn't even exist until December 2007, when it was launched in response to the bloody siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque. The siege ended when Pakistani troops stormed the building, killing more than 100 Islamic radicals. Abbas says the TTP has grown rapidly since then, with a core of as many as 3,000 members and roughly 15,000 fighters belonging to tribal militias who can be called on at short notice. That makes the TTP far larger and arguably more dangerous at this point than Al Qaeda, with which it is loosely allied, Abbas adds. The group's attacks have grown in brazenness and sophistication, resulting in the deaths of more than 4,000 Pakistani military and law-enforcement officers, according to Abbas.

Until relatively recently, the TTP was thought to be targeting the Pakistani government exclusively—not the United States—and State Department officials were reluctant to intrude on what was largely regarded as an internal Pakistani problem, according to one senior counterterrorism official, asking not to be identified talking about internal deliberations. In recent months, however, as the CIA has intensified its drone campaign against militant strongholds in northwest Pakistan, targeting the TTP leaders, the group's aims and reach seem to have expanded. Last June it launched a suicide truck bombing against a five-star hotel in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, amid rumors that the U.S. government was considering buying the property. And just last month the TTP mounted a suicide attack using rocket-propelled grenades on the heavily guarded U.S. Consulate in Peshawar.

But the real game changer in the terrorist-designation decision was fresh evidence in recent days showing that the Pakistani Taliban had trained and financed the accused Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, according to the counterterrorism official. "They now have an agenda not just to attack our interests, but to attack us directly," says the official. Another factor was growing evidence that the TTP may be working closely with other terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, and that the lines that distinguish the groups may be "getting blurry," the official says.

Still, it's another question just how much use there is in designating the TTP as a "foreign terrorist organization"— or FTO, as the bureaucrats say. So far the U.S. government has formally designated 45 groups as FTOs. The designation enables the Justice Department to prosecute anyone found to be providing "material support" to an FTO—loosely defined as virtually any assistance of any kind. And the U.S. Treasury Department can freeze any assets such a group might have in the United States—if they can be found. But as Abbas points out, in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, "there are no bank accounts they are managing. They have no accounts in their name."