Times Square Taliban?

Jihadists are debating Saturday's "amateurish" attack: Is it smart to take credit for a failure?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Did Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) try to blow up Times Square? That’s what a video released following the failed car bombing in Times Square on May 1 would have us believe. Another, recorded by the TTP’s emir Hakimullah Mehsud (who was said to have been killed by a U.S. drone in January), promises a series of strikes against American cities. There’s no hard evidence to date that the militant group, which is blamed for a host of deadly attacks against the Pakistani military and state and is under assault in its tribal stronghold, has extended its reach to New York (though the group was blamed for a 2008 plot against the Barcelona subway). Law enforcement officials did, however, arrest an American citizen of Pakistani descent late in the evening on May 3, 2010, at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and concede that the attack might be tied to groups in Pakistan.

But from a strategic communications standpoint, it may not matter who is responsible. Jihadi Web forums are abuzz with the news that Mehsud is alive and that the TTP aims to strike in the United States. Not all the chatter is positive, however. Dissenters complain that the Times Square attack failed to produce much fear among Americans and has even been called "amateurish." That consternation is a reminder that a terrorist’s greatest weapon is fear, not car bombs, and offers interesting lessons for local and federal leaders planning to communicate in the wake of a terrorist attack.

The two films, one featuring audio from Qari Hussain, the TTP’s premier trainer of suicide bombers, and the other audio from Hakimullah, are structured very similarly. They are both about one minute long, have generally poor audio quality, and present that audio over animated graphics, including many images and motifs that are common to both videos. Hussain claims credit for the Times Square attack, but the video does not have a jihadi media unit logo, which has raised some questions about its authenticity. Hakimullah’s audio clip claims that the TTP’s operational focus is now American cities and uses the logo of Umar Studios, the TTP’s in-house media production unit. Both films were released first on YouTube and have English subtitles. The graphical similarities between the two audio productions suggests they were produced quickly and likely by the same people, though the poor audio quality may indicate that the voice recordings were made over the telephone.

The third film is more technically sophisticated. It features actual video of Hakimullah, who claims to have recorded it on April 4 and cites specific aspects of reports about his death, apparently to prove that the video was filmed after they were made. If Hakimullah’s video was made in early April, it predates the audio files used in the other films. Mehsud claims his audio clip was made on April 19, and Hussain references the death of Islamic State of Iraq emir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, which took place on April 19 as well. All this suggests that Hussain’s film — the first to be released — was the last to be produced.

Mehsud is pictured seated with his legs obscured, raising the possibility that they were injured in the January drone strike that was believed to have killed him. His voice is strong, but his presentation shows some weaknesses. He repeatedly looks at someone to the camera’s left, and the video has been cut and edited many times, which is notable because many videos of senior jihadi leaders are long, single shots. The explanation could be that Mehsud stumbled over words, but the bottom line is that editors in postproduction had a major impact on the product released to the world.

Hussain and Mehsud use similar arguments to justify attacks on the United States. They both condemn the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Iraq and specifically mention Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of attempted murder by a U.S. court and suspected of working on an unconventional weapons program for al Qaeda. The reference is not boilerplate in jihadi condemnations of the United States, but it has become more popular among both violent and non violent Islamist groups in Pakistan eager to position themselves as the defenders of Muslim women’s honor.

Both Mehsud and Hussain mention jihad fronts outside Pakistan, but they differ in focus somewhat. The Hussain film mentions Iraq and al-Baghdadi by name, whereas Mehsud emphasizes Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Gaza — geographic regions that recently have been more prominent in al Qaeda Central’s propaganda than Iraq. Hussain’s reference to al-Baghdadi is important because it emphasizes the message of unity between the TTP and al Qaeda. Hussain — a Pashtun tribesman from South Waziristan — has no connection to al-Baghdadi, except for an ideological bond forged by al Qaeda.

The response on jihadi forums to the Times Square attack and these films has been generally positive. Jihadi posters accept Hussain’s claim of responsibility for the Times Square attack, though Western officials have not confirmed an operational link. Posters are likewise gleeful that Mehsud is alive. But there is worry among some jihadi supporters that the failed Times Square attack makes jihadists look weak. They hope the bombing scares Americans, but are dismayed that it has already been called "amateurish" in the media. Jihadists want to see fear, and they are not getting enough of it in this case.

The bomb in Times Square has been defused, but its political impact and importance have not yet been decided. The communications battle around an attack is just as significant as the incident itself — and in this case the TTP and its supporters want to claim victory despite the bomb’s failure and even its still-ambiguous origin. But their message is vulnerable precisely because the attack was such a dud. Terrorists use violence to seize political initiative by frightening their enemies, but it only works when the victims of an attack allow themselves to be frightened. One response to the attempted bombing in Times Square should be a renewed call for vigilance by citizens and first responders, but regardless of who ultimately proves responsible, it is also an opportunity for the United States to challenge the jihadists’ claims of strength and power, one of many areas where they are vulnerable.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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