What Was Faisal Shahzad's Relationship to the Pakistani Taliban?

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It was the Pakistani Taliban!

Yes, yes, of course. They sat in their evil lair and activated one of their top sleeper agents to infiltrate American territory with a devilish plan to thwack hundreds of unsuspecting victims. And they monitored it all from their giant TV screens in real time, having tapped into NYPD's closed-circuit television. Should visual monitoring fail, robo-operative Faisal Shahzad would simply activate the GPS tracking system linked to the Pakistani Taliban's satellite via the computer chip inserted behind his ear.

Or not.

As Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton all took to the Sunday shows this past weekend to proclaim Faisal Shahzad's "connection" to the Pakistani Taliban, it struck me that such rhetoric often conveys, falsely, the sense of an ironclad connection between the operative and his terrorist mentors.

Secretary Clinton deserves credit for her answer on 60 Minutes, when she said, "There are connections. Exactly what they are, how deep they are, how long they've lasted, whether this was an operation encouraged or directed ... those are questions still in the process of being sorted out."

She's right, of course. But my worry is that people stop paying attention after the "There are connections" sentence.

I think I have a pretty good idea of Faisal Shahzad's relationship to the Pakistani Taliban. My inkling is based on not a single piece of intelligence reporting as it pertains to this case, but rather my experience investigating the bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Both those operations featured "home-grown" operatives -- locals who were "clean" (i.e., had all the proper paperwork to access the target country) and who had explicit or nebulous associations with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Madrid bomber's connection to AQ has always been slightly murkier, but the London bombers were known to have traveled to Pakistan on prior occasions.

The Metamorphosis

Based on London and Madrid, here's an attempted reconstruction of how Faisal Shahzad went from being a nice young father in the Connecticut 'burbs to an attempted mass murderer:

First, the part we don't exactly know: What made him travel to Pakistan with the intent to hook up with the Taliban? While a lot of bad stuff had happened to Shahzad over the course of the previous months -- quitting his job and losing his house among them -- we don't know what mechanism drove him from "depressed" to "seeking revenge." It could have been a chat room; it could have been secret meetings at a mosque; it could have been one influential mentor, as was the case with the first London cell in the north of England (the cell met regularly with an Islamic extremist in the backroom of a bookstore before traveling to Pakistan).

However, we do know that it was one of these (or something like it). Faisal went from having a bad run in life to actively seeking revenge. We know that someone -- whom we'll call his "mentor" -- got him to translate his frustration into action and was well-connected enough to link up Shahzad with Taliban elements in Pakistan.

Next, as he'd done several times, Shahzad traveled to Pakistan. Most of his previous trips were likely family-related. This one might have been, as well. But at some point, Shahzad's mentor told his contacts in the Pakistani Taliban that he had an American passport-holding recruit who was open to learning more. What's more, Shahzad's mentor must have been highly trusted in Pakistan because Taliban elements view U.S.-based operative as spies. That the mentor could vouch for Shahzad's legitimacy would have been critical.

The mentor would have given Shahzad contact information in Pakistan, but it would have likely been up to Shahzad to initiate contact with Pakistani Taliban.

Upon traveling to Pakistan, Shahzad obviously decided that he was interested in learning more. He got in touch with his mentor's network, and agreed to spend a certain period of time -- as few as a couple weeks, but up to several months -- in the Pakistani wilderness with Taliban members. Travel records indicate that Faisal went to Karachi and then Peshawar, the Taliban hotbed where Shahzad likely jumped off the grid.

During his time in the Taliban camp, Faisal would have gone through Terrorism 101. He'd have been given physical training, religious indoctrination (which is critical to sustaining his commitment), bomb-making classes and likely small-arms instruction. If there was a group of students, they would have bonded and shored up their commitment to jihad in small group sessions where they solidified their hatred of America.

A Freelance Terrorist

Faisal would have received all of this training, but would likely not have been given a specific plan of attack. This is the changing model of terrorism today. No longer do al Qaeda masterminds sit deep in caves and dream up logistically complex plots akin to 9/11 (well, they might, but such plots are much, much harder to execute in today's security climate). Instead, it's more likely that the Taliban would have provided him training, possibly some cash, and given Shahzad the autonomy to imagine and execute his own plot. That's right -- the Pakistani Taliban likely would have taught him, paid him, and told him, "Good luck with whatever you end up doing. Just do something."

In today's world of increasing counterterrorism capabilities, this model stands a significantly higher degree of success. By not weighing Faisal down with the who's, what's and when's of an operation, logistics are simplified dramatically, thus decreasing the chances of intercepted communications or arrested operatives that could scuttle the whole shebang. Cost drops, too. And since the Taliban has been isolated, they wouldn't have on-the-spot access to scout a potential attack site, and are therefore almost forced to cede control to local operatives.

Of course many of these operatives, Shahzad and the Underwear Bomber included, aren't "professional terrorists" with years and years of extensive training and indoctrination. But the Pakistani Taliban now seems willing to give up operational control and experience in order to increase the chances of a successful attack, even if that attack is significantly smaller than before. And since politicians are ready to use terrorism to score political points, a small attack could potentially carry as great a weight as another 9/11.

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