As noted by the New York Times early this morning, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin named Faisal Shahzad, aged 30, was arrested by federal authorities in the attempted car-bombing in Times Square, thwarted on May 1. Shahzad was apprehended on a flight to Dubai that was about to take off from Kennedy Airport. The Los Angeles Times reported that more arrests are to come.
Shahzad was caught by tracing the purchase of the SUV filled with explosives and left on a Manhattan street. He had recently visited his country of birth, and his arrest lends credibility to the claim by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the branch of the Afghan terrorist movement operating there, that they planted the unsuccessful car-bomb. TTP has threatened a campaign of attacks in American cities.
The Pakistani Taliban boast of involvement in the Times Square plot had been discounted in mainstream media. New York’s Democratic Senator Charles Schumer suggested, early on, “The odds are quite high that this was a lone wolf.” The Obama administration’s homeland security czarina, Janet Napolitano, downplayed the incident as a “one-off,” whatever that means. Of course, 9/11 could also be described as a “one-off,” though it is doubtful any federal official would say so.
The more intrepid and dedicated Republican Congressman Peter T. King of New York pointed out that the truck was parked near the headquarters of Viacom, owner of Comedy Central and distributor of South Park, the most recent example of media censored for caricaturing, or trying to caricature, Muhammad. But even as federal investigators were tracking down Shahzad, Napolitano and attorney general Eric Holder, through most of Monday, stood by their ameliorative posture. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “Holder resisted labeling the attempt a ‘terrorist incident.’” As in the Christmas plot by Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit by igniting explosives in his trousers, administration officials were well behind the terror-prevention curve.
Nobody who knows the situation of Pakistan and its large diaspora in the West, especially in Britain and the U.S., could join Napolitano, Holder, and Schumer in seeking to wish away the connection between a terror attempt and South Asian Islamist radicals. As noted following the arrest of five young men from Arlington, Va. for jihad enlistment in Pakistan at the end of last year, extremism suffuses these Muslim communities. The same Pakistani pattern was visible in the involvement of Chicago resident Daood Gilani, who changed his name to David Headley, in the Bombay terror raid of 2008, as well as in the 2006 Heathrow airport conspiracy that led to the often-derided restrictions on liquids carried by air passengers.
South Asians comprise a third of Muslims born in the U.S. and an overwhelming majority of those in Britain. Radicals have gained control of Islamic institutions in India, where local Muslim leaders, who are religious conservatives but do not embrace violence, are attempting to dislodge them. Islamist infiltration is also growing in Bangladesh, which is typically ignored by commentators focused on “Af-Pak.” The South Asian Islamist offensive has even penetrated the small Muslim community in Burma.
But for the radicals, mobilization of the South Asian diaspora in the West--led by educated professionals with social standing and money--is as important as agitation in the theatres of direct conflict. The most powerful jihadist movement in the region aside from the Taliban itself, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), commands a large following in the U.S., grouped in the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). ICNA, which controls the mosque attended by the Arlington suspects, operates in a paramilitary fashion. Since the Arlington case, ICNA has attempted to clean up its image by publishing denunciations of radicalism in its bimonthly periodical, The Message International.
Pakistani reality cannot be evaded. The jihadist domination seen in the Pakistani army and intelligence services (ISI) is visible everywhere South Asian Muslims congregate. It explains the reluctance of the Pakistani government to fulfill its commitment to fighting the Taliban. And it equally accounts for conspiracies like that foiled in Times Square. South Asian communities abroad also shelter al Qaeda supporters in clandestine networks affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), or Army of the Righteous. LET cadres are still active in the U.S. LET planned the Bombay atrocities and was charged with the Heathrow airport terror conspiracy.
The rush to brush off foreign involvement in the Times Square bomb because of its crude technology, and dismissal of the declaration by the Pakistani Taliban of their responsibility for it, expose the slow learning curve and sluggish reflexes, almost nine years after 9/11, of Western governments in seriously facing global terrorism based in South Asia. Pakistan has become, like Saudi Arabia before it, an alleged ally in the war against terror, about which nothing negative, it seems, may be publicly admitted.