Terror In New York: Q & A


Q. There has been some criticism in the US media of the handling of the case relating to the attempt to cause an incendiary explosion in Times Square, New York, on the evening of May 1, 2010, by Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen of Pakistani origin. To what extent is the criticism justified?

A.The intervention and forensic procedures worked very well from the moment a T-shirt vendor alerted a policeman that smoke was coming out of the Nissan Pathfinder vehicle. The people in the area were evacuated in an orderly manner. The area was sealed. The explosives expert of the NY Police defused the explosive device in the car. The forensic experts, who took over at this stage, did a quick job in establishing that the car had recently changed ownership, tracing the previous owner and with her help establishing Faisal Shahzad as the present owner. There was a slip-up in the follow-up thereafter. A police surveillance team, which was tailing Faisal, lost him. The Emirates Airlines at the JFK airport failed to notice that there was an alert from the US authorities to all airlines issued on the forenoon of May 3 not to let Faisal board any flight. However, the US Customs noticed his name in the passenger manifest sent to them after all passengers had boarded, the doors of the aircraft had closed and it had started moving away from the departure gate. They brought the aircraft back and the police arrested Faisal. Thus, the only slip-up by US officials was in missing him during the surveillance. Such slip-ups do occur during surveillance unless it was a bumper-to-bumper surveillance, which would be meaningless.

Q. Why did the police keep him under surveillance instead of arresting him immediately after he was identified?

A. They probably wanted to identify his associates, if he had any.

Q. Why did Faisal stay on in the US for 48 hours instead of fleeing immediately after parking the car with the incendiary device in Times Square?

A. It is intriguing why he did not flee immediately. Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani who killed two CIA officers in Washington DC in January 1993, and Ramzi Yousef, another Pakistani, who was involved in the attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre in NY in February,1993, flew out of the  US immediately after  committing the crime. Faisal stayed on for 48 hours. If he had gone to the airport after leaving the vehicle in Times Square and left the US, he would have escaped for the time being. He did not do so.  Instead, he went back to Connecticut, his city of residence, by train and tried to flee only after coming to know that the police had identified him. He appears to have been not a very well trained jihadi. He left a trail everywhere. He entered into e-Mail correspondence with the previous owner of the vehicle. He gave her the number of his disposable mobile telephone. He left in the Nissan vehicle a key bunch containing the key of his apartment and of another car which he owned. He lingered on in the US for  48 hours after making the attempt to cause an incendiary attack.This dos not speak highly of  his security consciousness.

Q. Was he a self-motivated or an externally-motivated jihadi?

A. He appears to have been a self-motivated jihadi—-a volunteer for jihad and not a recruit. This is apparent from the preparations made by him for leaving the US once for all. He had stopped making the mortgage payments on an apartment which he had bought with a bank loan, taken his wife and two children to Pakistan and left them there and left his job as a financial  analyst with a local company.

Q. What does the incident speak of the quality of his motivation?

A. Not very high. He was angry against the US, but not angry enough to volunteer for an act of suicide terrorism. He was attached to his wife and children. He wanted to commit an act of terrorism against the US. At the same time, he did not want to “martyr” himself. He wanted to live. Being an educated person, he did not apparently believe in the jihadi brain-washing stuff that suicide bombers will go direct to heaven where many virgins would be waiting for them. Whoever trained him could not succeed in converting him into a do or die jihadi. He was totally different from the three Pakistani suicide bombers, who carried out the suicide bombings in London in July 2005. They had been trained by Al Qaeda, which had made a good job of the training by converting them into highly-motivated suicide bombers.

Q. Why did the incendiary device fail?

A. It was noticed promptly by a vendor. The Police intervened promptly. The connections were loose. The detonation took a longer time to take place than it does normally. This gave the police time to defuse it. The alertness of the vendor, the professionalism of the police and luck contributed to the failure.

Q. It has been reported by some sections of the US media that the fertiliser which Faisal had used was a harmless type which would not have caused an explosion?

A. Ever since the jihadi terrorists started using nitrogenous fertilisers as an explosive material, the authorities in Western countries have been persuading fertiliser manufacturers to change the chemical composition of the fertiliser produced by them to ensure that they cannot be used as an explosive material. Most of the fertilisers now being sold in the West do not explode. Faisal and his trainers were probably not aware of this. He bought a fertiliser without knowing it would not explode.

Q. It has been reported  that the car owner who sold the Nissan to Faisal did not know his name. She gave a physical description of him. After that, the police showed her some pics. One of them was of Faisal and she identified him as the person who bought her car. How did the police zero in on him so fast?

A. This is an intriguing aspect of the case. This creates a suspicion in one’s mind that the FBI knew Faisal before in some connection. He was probably not a stranger to them. I would not be surprised if like David Coleman Headley  of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) Faisal had also been in touch with the FBI.

Q. Was Faisal acting alone or did he have accomplices?

A. It has been reported that he has been claiming that he acted alone. His accomplices were probably in Pakistan and not in the US. It would seem that almost all the phone calls made by him in the days before the attempt were to numbers in Pakistan and not to numbers in the US.

Q. He is reported to have admitted that he received training in bomb-making in the Waziristan area of Pakistan. Who might have trained him?

A. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the incident, but the quality of the training given to him appears rather low, but the TTP’s training is of high quality like the training imparted by Al Qaeda to the London suicide bombers.

Q.  The Pakistani jihadis of the diaspora in the UK seem to have had more successes in carrying out acts of terrorism than those of the US? How to explain it?

A. Most of the migration from Pakistan to the UK took place from the uneducated or ill-educated rural milieu—–landless workers, poor peasants, manual workers and others.  Even though they were the more moderate Barelvis when they migrated, many of them have become fierce Deobandis/Wahabis. Their motivation is strong and they are easily impressed by the brain-washing of the Pakistani Mullas.Most of the migration to the US came from the big cities and medium and small towns. They have remained Barelvis even after migrating to the US. The Deobandi-Barelvi impact on the Pakistani diaspora in the US is still weak. Fundamentalist Mullas do not have the same influence on the Pakistani diaspora in the US as they have in the UK.

Q. What is the ethnic background of Faisal?

A. Some Pakistani sources have described him as a Kashmiri from Nowshera. Others have described him as a Pashtun. It is interesting to note that when news of his arrest by the FBI broke in the Khyber-Pakhtunkwa (Old NWFP) province, many described it as a US conspiracy against the Pashtuns.

Q. What is the lesson for the US from this episode?

A. The importance of action against the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan—-consisting of extremist madrasas and the training camps of various jihadi organisations whether located in the tribal belt or Punjab or elsewhere. The equal importance of action against terrorist sanctuaries. Pervez Musharraf took millions of dollars of governmental and non-governmental funds from the US promising to stop the use of the madrasas as jihad factories, but did nothing. The present Government has been taking billions of dollars and military equipment from the US without any action against the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistani territory. The Pakistani rulers—whether civilian or military—- have learnt the art of making an ass of the  US by promising to act against terrorism from Pakistani territory without doing anything. The second lesson is that jihadi terrorists—whether Arabs or Pakistanis or others—- are determined to have another successful act of terrorism in the US homeland. They have been unlucky twice, but they will continue trying.

Q. Any other interesting aspect of the case?

A. It has been reported that some of the messages pertaining to reprisal attacks against the US purporting to be from the TTP were uploaded from Connecticut? Who did so? Faisal himself or somebody else?

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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