Stephen M. Walt

On the Times Square terrorist

Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the country immediately afterwards (hmm…). If I were an attorney I wouldn’t look forward to defending him, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately for a jury to decide.

But let’s assume he did, which doesn’t seem to be a very daring assumption. Obviously, the good news here is that he was an incompetent bungler: he didn’t know how to build a workable bomb and he didn’t know how to cover his tracks. And this seems to be the case even though he says he received some training from jihadists in Waziristan. Unfortunately, we can’t assume that all like-minded individuals will be equally befuddled. Timothy McVeigh and his associates were hardly world-class master criminals, and look at what they managed to do in Oklahoma City.

And then there’s the question of why he tried to do this. Based on the still-sketchy information I’ve read so far, it seems likely that he wanted to kill Americans in New York City because he didn’t like our killing people in Central Asia. (Most of our victims are suspected terrorists, but we sometimes kill innocent civilians by mistake). Whether he was acting alone or in cahoots with Pakistani extremists, his abortive attack was probably a response to our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups in Pakistan via drone strikes and other special operations. In short, he decided to enlist in the "war on terror," but not on America’s side.

If this is correct (and I’m prepared to revise my views as we learn more about his alleged motives), it would remind us that illegitimate violence directed at innocent Americans is mostly about what we do and less about "who we are." (This was also true of the suicide bomber who killed a cadre of CIA agents in Afghanistan earlier this year). To say this is not to argue that what the US is doing is necessarily wrong, however, or to sign up for the "blame America first" crowd. Whether the current drone war in Pakistan is a good idea is a separate question that involves both cost-benefit analysis (i.e., on balance, is it weakening al Qaeda or not?) and moral judgment. And yes, even realists can worry about morality.  

Instead, recognizing "why they hate us" is critical to understanding the overall price tag associated with America’s global military presence and interventionist foreign policy. When the United States is waging war in some far corner of the world, some people aren’t going to like it and will try to make us pay. It’s a very good thing that this guy failed, but it would be naïve to believe that we can maintain our present global posture and be wholly immune from attacks here at home.

It also means that we should continue to analyze and debate whether our current counter-terror strategy is the right one. On the one hand, one could argue (as this BBC report does), that drone strikes are disrupting militant leadership and organization in places like Waziristan, and thus making these organizations less lethal or effective. The fact that Shahzad seems to have been poorly trained and forced to act more-or-less on his own could be seen as a sign that this aspect of our strategy is working.  

But on the other hand, our continuing military engagement there also reinforces the accusation that the United States is engaged in illegitimate interference in foreign (i.e., Muslim) lands, an argument that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly emphasized and that appears to resonate with people like Shahzad. Our ultimate goal, therefore, ought to be to lower our footprint (including the shadow cast by Predator and Reaper strikes) as soon as we possibly can.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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