The Magazine

Don’t Mention the War

Why does the Obama administration find it so hard to utter the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic extremism’?

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Shahzad arrived in the United States in 1999. Even in pre-9/11 America, he provoked suspicion. According to CBS News, Shahzad carried $80,000 in “cash or cash instruments” with him into the United States on his trips from Pakistan beginning in 1999, and his name was entered into the U.S. government’s Traveler Enforcement Compliance System—a database “designed to identify individuals suspected of or involved in violation of federal law” in CBS’s description. It stayed on the list through 2008. Shahzad comes from a prominent Pakistani family, so perhaps the cash was merely intended to help him start his new life abroad. Still, it was enough to draw the interest of American authorities more than a decade ago.

Shahzad’s activities again warranted scrutiny by federal authorities in 2004, when he sold his Norwalk, Connecticut, condominium for $261,000. According to the New York Times, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) interviewed the buyer “asking for details of the transaction and for information about” Shahzad. The authorities told the buyer they were merely “checking everything out.” Why they thought Shahzad deserved checking out is not yet clear as the JTTF doesn’t typically knock on the door every time a condo is sold.

It is not clear when Shahzad became radicalized, but by early 2009, he was certainly a committed jihadist. On April 17 of that year, he became a naturalized American citizen. In June, he quit his job as a financial analyst at a Connecticut firm and returned to Pakistan, where he would receive bombmaking training at a terrorist camp.

In Pakistan, according to multiple press accounts, he was met by Mohammed Rehan, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (the “Army of Muhammad”)—a known al Qaeda ally. Jaish-e-Mohammed was originally created by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency as part of the Pakistani government’s proxy war in Kashmir. Over time, it became more tightly integrated with al Qaeda—partly as a result of their shared safe haven in northern Pakistan.

New recruits do not just happen to meet a terrorist of Rehan’s standing. Rehan must already have had good reasons to trust Shahzad. According to some accounts, Rehan even personally escorted Shahzad to the training camp in Waziristan. Pakistani officials have reportedly arrested Rehan in connection with the bombing.

It wasn’t just the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Leaders of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or “Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan”) claimed responsibility for “the recent attack in the USA” in a series of videos. Such claims are hard to prove, of course, and terrorist groups often claim responsibility for attacks in which they had no role to project an aura of power and boost recruitment. But these claims were interesting not only because of their contents but because of the timing of their posting. The first video was posted a day before the attack on an Internet video channel created that same day.

In that video, Qari Hussain Mehsud, a trainer of suicide bombers and senior member of the Pakistani Taliban leadership, explained that the attack was meant to avenge the deaths of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban until his death last summer in a Predator strike.

Shahzad is reported to have family contacts among the Pakistani Taliban. In interrogations with U.S. officials after he was captured, he acknowledged attending a training camp in Taliban-dominated Waziristan and, like Qari Hussain, said that his motive was revenge for the drone attacks. The attack that killed Baitullah Mehsud took place while Shahzad was likely at the training camp in Waziristan.

With increasing specificity, news reports last week highlighted Shahzad’s ties to jihadists. 

On Friday, May 7, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, had described Shahzad as a “lone wolf.” Supporters of the administration quickly pointed to those comments as confirming the initial views of Obama administration officials that Shahzad did not have terrorist connections.

Contacted by The Weekly Standard on Friday about the comments, a public affairs officer for the general, Colonel Erik Gunhus, said that Petraeus “was talking in general terms about what he had seen as of 0800 on Thursday” and was “not making a definitive statement or prediction.”

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. officials say evidence points to the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban, a predominantly Pashtun group based in the Afghan border region whose anti-state agenda traditionally did not overlap with that of Kashmir-focused organizations.” The paper also cited Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, who said Thursday that Shahzad did not act alone.

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