Lessons from Faisal Shahzad

Faisal Shahzad was back in the headlines Tuesday afternoon. During a brief appearance in federal court, the man accused of trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was arraigned on five counts of terrorism-related charges. At the same time, more details were emerging about the roots of Shahzad’s radicalization and his suspected connections ...

Christine Cornell/Getty Images
Christine Cornell/Getty Images
Christine Cornell/Getty Images

Faisal Shahzad was back in the headlines Tuesday afternoon. During a brief appearance in federal court, the man accused of trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was arraigned on five counts of terrorism-related charges. At the same time, more details were emerging about the roots of Shahzad's radicalization and his suspected connections to individuals in Pakistan, including an army major and members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Nearly three weeks after Shahzad's failed car bomb, there are at least three important lessons about what it means for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Law enforcement is a necessary and invaluable component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. As policymakers sort out the case's international links -- in Pakistan, Yemen, and even Jamaica -- recall that federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials in the United States first defused the threat in Times Square (with help from a few alert New Yorkers) and later apprehended Shazhad, a man with no prior criminal record, within 54 hours of the incident. This sequence of events -- which included what NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly called "seamless" cooperation between his organization and the FBI's local Joint Terrorism Task Force -- demonstrated that the effective use of law enforcement tools is a critical component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Faisal Shahzad was back in the headlines Tuesday afternoon. During a brief appearance in federal court, the man accused of trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was arraigned on five counts of terrorism-related charges. At the same time, more details were emerging about the roots of Shahzad’s radicalization and his suspected connections to individuals in Pakistan, including an army major and members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Nearly three weeks after Shahzad’s failed car bomb, there are at least three important lessons about what it means for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Law enforcement is a necessary and invaluable component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. As policymakers sort out the case’s international links — in Pakistan, Yemen, and even Jamaica — recall that federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials in the United States first defused the threat in Times Square (with help from a few alert New Yorkers) and later apprehended Shazhad, a man with no prior criminal record, within 54 hours of the incident. This sequence of events — which included what NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly called "seamless" cooperation between his organization and the FBI’s local Joint Terrorism Task Force — demonstrated that the effective use of law enforcement tools is a critical component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Furthermore, a frequent criticism of the government’s response — that the administration was wrong to charge Shahzad in civilian courts because doing so would hamper intelligence-gathering efforts — ignores one key point: Shahzad has been cooperating with investigators. In doing so, he joins the numerous other alleged and convicted terrorists — including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, David Headley, and Bryant Neal Vinas — who have provided U.S. officials valuable intelligence when charged in civilian courts.   

"Homegrown extremism" is a limited, but still serious, problem. Why would a 30-year-old American citizen, middle-class homeowner, and MBA seemingly abandon his life in the United States for the danger and violence of global terrorism? Last weekend, a lengthy New York Times report provided some clues. Shahzad reportedly disdained U.S. foreign policy, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shahzad had also apparently embraced the rhetoric of radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

If true, these anecdotes support a thesis advanced in a March CSIS report: A small but significant number of typically young, predominantly male, Muslim U.S. legal residents and citizens seem to have become seduced by an al Qaeda-promulgated fringe narrative that the United States and West are at war with Islam. Some have used this narrative to justify traveling abroad to fight with foreign insurgencies or receive terrorist training. If well-trained, these individuals, especially those with overseas connections, may prove particularly dangerous because they possess a sort of "duality" that allows them to flow seamlessly between the United States and foreign countries.

Most of these individuals relied on some sort of intermediary — like an extremist cleric or terrorist recruiter — to catalyze their violent turn. Denying these connections requires timely intervention on several levels — capturing or killing figures like Awlaki, or preventing Internet radicalization. Policymakers need to puncture the narrative by, for instance, highlighting the fact that al Qaeda’s terrorism victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Pakistan, a central node of global terrorism, must remain a principal focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In the past year, the Pakistani military launched separate campaigns in Swat Valley and South Waziristan against the TTP. After years of cajoling Islamabad to crack down on militancy, U.S. officials were quick to praise these efforts. But recent allegations that the TTP was behind Shahzad’s alleged plot call into question the efficacy of Pakistan’s military campaigns.

Indeed, as a recent New America Foundation report noted, some TTP elements fled from South to North Waziristan, where they have grown closer to that region’s militant groups, including al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. This unification of once-disparate groups spells trouble for U.S. and Pakistani officials; as terrorism expert Bruce Riedel remarked, traditionally local outfits like the TTP act as a "force multiplier for al Qaeda" if they come to embrace global terrorism.

Administration officials readily point out that U.S. and Pakistani military pressure has degraded certain terrorist capabilities in areas like North Waziristan. Still, these efforts have been insufficient in truly rolling back militancy in Pakistan’s northwest. In addition to expanding military operations against these elements, Pakistan, with continued U.S. support, needs to undertake a more aggressive program of economic, political, and social development in its semigoverned tribal regions. As long as these areas remain outside the umbrella of the Pakistani state, they will continue to foster terrorism and pose a threat to Pakistan, the United States, and the rest of the world. 

Rick "Ozzie" Nelson is the director, and Ben Bodurian the research assistant, of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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