Early Sunday morning, May 2, I awoke and followed my usual routine: Grabbed a cup of coffee, logged onto my computer, scanned the news for major developments in the war, and checked my email. It was no ordinary morning, though, as the evening before someone had attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in New York City.
Normally I have a couple of dozen messages in my inbox: notes from readers, an occasional tip or link to a news story, and some spam. But something I found sitting in my inbox that morning made me catch my breath: an email from someone claiming to be a representative of the Pakistani Taliban, who was notifying me that one of their top leaders had released a tape claiming responsibility for the attempt to murder U.S. citizens in Times Square.
The email had been sent at 2:37 a.m., just eight hours after the bomb was discovered. The emailer’s handle was Taliban News and the subject line read: “Qari Hussain Mehsud from Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan accepts the responsibility of recent Attack on Times Square Newyork USA.”
“You’re the first one to know” the cryptic email stated.
The email included a link to a 1:21-length video posted on a YouTube site called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (“the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan”) is an al Qaeda-linked group waging war against the Pakistani state and against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“We Tehreek-e-Taliban with all the Pride and Bravery, TAKE full responsibility for the RECENT ATTACK IN THE USA,” Qari Hussain states at the beginning of the tape, which was accompanied by English subtitles.
“This attack is a revenge for the great & valuable martyred leaders of mujahideen,” he goes on, while images of recently slain Taliban and al Qaeda leaders appear. He listed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who was killed in a Predator strike in August 2009 and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq who was killed by Iraqi forces in mid-April of this year. An image of Abu Ayyub al Masri, Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, who was killed with Baghdadi in April, also flashed on the screen.
In the tape, Qari Hussain threatens further attacks in the United States. He warns U.S. allies “to oppose the evil US policies” and apologize for actions in the Middle East and South Asia, or “otherwise be prepared for the worst ever destruction and devastation in their regions.”
My first thought was that it was a hoax. Yet it certainly looked authentic. The tape was produced by Umar Studio, the propaganda arm of the Pakistani Taliban. There were no reports of the Taliban claiming credit for the failed attack anywhere in the news, and so I immediately contacted law enforcement authorities and provided the emails. But I also contacted sources in an attempt to confirm the video and was told it was authentic—the speaker was indeed Qari Hussain Mehsud, the Taliban’s master trainer of child suicide bombers.
During the 12 hours following the failed bombing, officials had been downplaying or denying the possibility of foreign links and speculating that the plot had been carried out by a domestic group or a deranged individual. At 10:24 a.m. eastern time, an article about the email, accompanied by the embedded video, was up at my website, the Long War Journal.
Within two hours, YouTube had pulled the video down and shuttered the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel, presumably at the request of the U.S. government.
At 8:33 p.m., that night, I received another email, this one from a person identifying himself as a Taliban representative. He said he had two tapes of Hakeemullah Mehsud that proved he was alive and showed him threatening further attacks in the United States.
The email address was different from the previous one; the handle this time was Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The subject header read: “Hakeemullah Mehsud is Alive and Healthy and Delivering news about Attacks on USA.” Yet it was clear that the same person was emailing me, as he referred to the prior email in the text: “you’re again the first one to see it. share it with as many as you can. I appreciate your site, only few things are confusing to you, rest is clear.”
The email contained links to video and audio recordings of Hakeemullah, the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban. They were posted to a YouTube site called TehreekeTaliban. The email also contained a link to the same video of Qari Hussain that had been removed by YouTube earlier in the day and was now re-posted—it has since been removed again.
The Taliban member had sent me the email even as he was uploading the files. His message read: “this last file is still in process, youtube will take some minutes to finish it.” I received the email quickly enough to notice that the last file, which was the longer 8:42 video of Hakeemullah, was not yet available.
The fact that this was a video of Hakeemullah was news. Most students of the Taliban thought he was dead. Hakeemullah had been the target of a Predator strike in North Waziristan on January 14, and top Pakistani and U.S. officials had written him off as dead. I’ve been one of the few voices disputing that claim, noting the major inconsistencies in the reports of Hakeemullah’s death. (He was reported dead on three separate occasions after the January 14 strike, and the accounts all conflict.)
So, here was audio and video of Hakeemullah proving he was alive (he mentions dates in April and specific events that had occurred, including reports of his death). And not only that, he is threatening further attacks just 18 hours after his top lieutenant took credit for the Times Square bombing attempt.
Since Hakeemullah mentions specific dates and events, I was confident about the authenticity of the tapes. My sources confirmed that the tapes were legit, and I again published the news.
The events of the day could best be described as surreal. After the first email arrived and throughout the day, I kept asking myself: Why did they contact me to break the news? What risks am I running by publicizing the tapes? What exactly did this Taliban propagandist “appreciate” about the Long War Journal? And there was, of course, a feeling of disgust in communicating with the likes of the Taliban and being a chosen recipient of their propaganda.
Nonetheless while one hates in any way publicizing the voice of the Taliban, there is value in having the world see exactly what they are about. Propaganda cuts both ways. While they want to thump their chest, instill fear among their enemies, and recruit, the tapes also serve to remind us that we are engaged with a real enemy, an enemy that wants to kill us and revels in it. An enemy, moreover, trying to strike us on our own soil. Such points outweigh any Taliban gain in publicizing the tapes.
In the days following, government officials attempted to deflect speculation that the attack could have been launched by the Taliban. Within hours of the attack, officials dismissed the possibility that al Qaeda or an allied Islamist terror group might have been involved, saying instead that the attack was likely carried out by domestic terrorists.
The most egregious statement was made by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said he thought that domestic political extremists were involved. “If I had to guess 25 cents, this would be exactly that, somebody who’s homegrown, maybe a mentally deranged person or someone with a political agenda that doesn’t like the health care bill or something, it could be anything,” Bloomberg told CBS News.
While it would have been perfectly acceptable for officials to have said in those early days that it was too soon to draw conclusions as to who carried out the attack, they chose the other route. They dismissed the possibility that a foreign terrorist group might be involved and promoted the theory that phantom domestic actors were to blame.
This rush to judgment was irresponsible. And ultimately it was wrong. Fifty-three hours after the failed car bombing in Times Square, a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad was arrested in the act of fleeing the country. When questioned by the FBI, he admitted to having trained in a camp in Waziristan, the base of Hakeemullah Mehsud and the Pakistani Taliban. Shahzad is said to have been introduced to the Taliban by a friend with close links to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (“Army of Muhammad”), an al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization. Shahzad’s family is also said to have had close ties to slain Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
What’s more the tapes themselves demand exploration—including an explanation of the extraordinary timing of their release.
First, as mentioned, the website on which the Qari Hussain tape appeared and referred to the Times Square attack was created the day prior to the attack. And the tape was itself uploaded on April 30. This is either a staggering coincidence, or, as my sources believe, the Taliban set up the website and uploaded the video as part of the preparations for the attack.
Second, the tapes address the mystery of Hakeemullah, which has dragged on for months. While numerous Taliban commanders have maintained that he is alive, U.S. and Pakistani officials have insisted he is dead. The media sided with the latter, and the Taliban refused to release a tape of Hakeemullah, citing operational security concerns. Yet, within 24 hours after an attempted car bombing in New York City that was claimed by his top lieutenant, Hakeemullah himself appears on two tapes. And on both, he threatens to carry out more attacks in the United States. Again, either this is a remarkable coincidence, or this propaganda campaign was staged to promote the attack.
And third, the Taliban normally keeps a tight lid on its propaganda. Audio- and videotapes of Hakeemullah and Qari Hussain produced by Umar studios aren’t run-of-the-mill items. Whoever released these tapes had access to the highest level of the Taliban’s propaganda arm and did so with the leadership’s approval.
The known facts point to a direct link between the Times Square car bomb and the Pakistani Taliban. Yet, as of this writing, government officials are denying any evidence of links.
Bill Roggio is managing editor of the website Long War Journal and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.