Times Square Bombing Attempt: Analysis, Context, and Importance of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Claims

 

UPDATE: TTP spokesman Azam Tariq has denied TTP responsibility for the video that featured Qari Hussain Mehsud and claimed responsibility for the Times Square attack. Tariq did, however, verify the legitimacy of one of the Hakimullah Mehsud videos threatening strikes in U.S. cities, thus corroborating the TTP’s efforts to increasingly target the U.S. and increase its international profile, as discussed below. The Critical Threats Project will continue to monitor developments.    

 

Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has linked itself to the failed May 1 attack in New York City’s Times Square through a full-fledged media campaign over the last two days. The group’s propaganda efforts reveal several important points, all of which are significant irrespective of whether the TTP had operational links to the attack:

  • First, the TTP seeks credit for the attack due to its need for a high-profile success to show its strength.

  • Second, the TTP may be attempting to weaken international support and Pakistani will for any incursion into North Waziristan.

  • Third, the TTP clearly views itself as a member of the global violent Islamist network led by al Qaeda.

  • Fourth, the TTP has again identified the U.S. homeland as a primary target, a threat that should be taken seriously regardless of the group’s role in the Times Square attempt.

 

On May 2, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the failed May 1 vehicle bombing in New York City’s Times Square in an audio message. [1]  The TTP issued a video that same day showing its nominal leader Hakimullah Mehsud, [2] previously believed to have died in late January until reports began to emerge of his survival last week.[3]  Hakimullah Mehsud specifically mentions targets in the U.S. in this second video, allegedly produced on April 4, saying “The time is very near when our Fidaeen will attack the American states in their major cities.” [4]  In a third video, allegedly recorded on April 19 but released on May 2, Hakimullah Mehsud goes into further detail on his threat, stating that, “From now on, the main targest of our Fidaeen are American cities. The good news will be heard within some days or weeks. Today on-wards, the direction of our Jehad [sic] is American states and cities.” This third video displayed these statements over a backdrop showing explosions imprinted on a satellite image of the continental United States. [5]

The TTP, by releasing the two videos immediately after taking credit for the Times Square attack, has sent several messages: first, that it should receive credit for the Times Square attack; second, that it follows through on its threats; third, that Americans should now recognize the threat posed by the TTP; and fourth, that the TTP remains a strong and active member of the international violent Islamist network led by al Qaeda.

The TTP may or may not bear responsibility for the Times Square attack. Reportage on May 3 indicates that U.S. officials are examining international connections, perhaps involving the TTP, to the attack, but it could take days or weeks to corroborate or dismiss the group’s self-proclaimed role.[6]

The TTP has a history of taking credit for terrorist plots and making threats without clear confirmation of its involvement or follow-through. Former TTP leader Beitullah Mehsud stated in a January 2008 interview, for instance, “…we want to defeat America and Britain, and to break the arrogance and the despotism of the infidel.” [7] No TTP-directed attacks in America occurred afterwards. Beitullah Mehsud also took credit in April 2009 for a shooting rampage at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York, an improbable claim given that the perpetrator of the attacks did not appear to have a connection to violent Islamists. [8]   

The TTP’s attempt to take credit for the attack signifies its focus on the U.S. and underscores its role in the broader Islamist struggle led by al Qaeda; the results of the investigation into whether the TTP actually masterminded the Times Square attack will not fundamentally alter these conclusions.

 

OPERATIONAL CONTEXT

Shortly after Beitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility for the Binghamton shooting, the Pakistani military waged a significant campaign across Pakistan’s tribal region – in Swat, Waziristan, and Orakzai, among other areas – that has seized militant territory and significantly weakened the TTP organization. Beitullah Mehsud founded the TTP in December 2007 explicitly to combat the Pakistani state, following the July 2007 Red Mosque siege. Yet, the TTP has shifted at least some resources from targeting primarily Pakistani interests to focusing on American targets; the December 30, 2009 attack on the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, and the April 5, 2010 attack on the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, in part, demonstrate the results of such shifts. The TTP has often selected high-profile targets when it faces imminent threats on the ground, in an effort to show continued strength, as argued here. The group conducted a number of attacks in December 2009 across Punjab and Islamabad, some of the core population centers in Pakistan, shortly following the Waziristan campaign. [9] Yet, it has been unable to generate worldwide headlines this spring, aside from the U.S. consulate attack.

 

RHETORIC AND PLACE WITHIN GLOBAL MILITANT ISLAMIST NETWORK

TTP rhetoric has reinforced its choice of the U.S. as a target. The video allegedly produced on April 19 mentioned the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan. [10]  Hakimullah Mehsud specifically mentions “mujahideen” in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen in the video allegedly produced on April 4.[11]  The TTP and Hakimullah Mehsud see America as their enemy in all of these conflicts, often portraying the Pakistani government as a tool of the U.S. in its propaganda.

The TTP claim of credit for the Times Square attack also sheds light on the group’s ideology and place within the global militant Islamist movement led by al Qaeda.  The group has focused primarily on attacking targets in Pakistan, but it views itself as part of a much greater struggle.  The TTP stated that the motive for the attack was to avenge the deaths of martyred mujahideen leaders, naming explicitly Beitullah Mehsud and Abu Omar al Baghdadi and his companions in Iraq.  A TTP attack avenging the death of its former Pakistani leader Beitullah Mehsud would be expected.  Specifically mentioning Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a the Islamic State of Iraq) killed by US and Iraqi forces on April 18,[12] reveals the group’s solidarity with the global movement and reverence for al Baghdadi. 

Al Baghdadi served as the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and came the closest to achieving a status sought by all factions of the global militant Islamist movement but attained only by the founder and current leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar: the establishment of an Islamic state governed by the movement’s Salafist interpretation of Islamic law.  The ISI never achieved the actual governance structure and independence that Omar’s Islamist government in Afghanistan did.  But the use of the word “state” – a word lacking in the names of the two other official al Qaeda franchises franchises, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – clearly shows the importance the ISI had within the greater movement. The ISI had an elevated role within the global movement because al Qaeda’s central leadership singled out Iraq as the future seat of an Islamic caliphate.

Al Baghdadi’s death fomented a passionate response among al Qaeda franchises and associated groups around the world.  Al Shabaab, a terror group in Somalia that has pledged allegiance to bin Laden, conducted a suicide attack in Mogadishu for the stated purpose of avenging the death of al Baghdadi and fellow ISI leader Abu Ayyub al Masri.[13]  An al Qaeda affiliate group in the Levant, Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, offered its condolences for the deaths of al Baghdadi and al Masri and vowed to avenge them.[14]  AQIM and the al Qaeda-affiliated, though not officially franchised, Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus also expressed their condolences for the two slain ISI leaders.[15] 

The TTP’s statement reflects its solidarity with the other groups in the global militant Islamist movement and highlights its position as part of the movement.  Moreover, the TTP’s intention to conduct an attack (or claim to conduct an attack) in revenge for the death of an al Qaeda leader in Iraq, shows the group’s view that Iraq is a key front in the same overall struggle in which the TTP is engaged.  

 

CONCLUSION

The TTP has attempted to use its operations and rhetoric to weaken Pakistani and American efforts targeting the organization. Reports have emerged in recent days suggesting that the Pakistani military and government may consider conducting an operation in North Waziristan, a suspected haven for al Qaeda and Taliban elements.[16] This operation would follow a successful military campaign in South Waziristan, formerly the primary TTP stronghold, and a series of drone strikes that have targeted TTP operatives and other militants with increased intensity in North Waziristan.

The flurry of Hakimullah Mehsud and TTP claims over the past two days may represent another TTP effort intended to deter military action, just as Beitullah Mehsud’s April 2009 claim of involvement in attacks in the U.S. preceded an intensive anti-TTP military campaign. The TTP is also attempting to exploit the Times Square incident to prove its vitality as a member of the global violent Islamist network. Highlighting al Baghdadi’s death as a motive for conducting an attacks shows that the group views itself as a key player in that network. The TTP likely desires a perceived success to attract recruits and fundraising dollars, lacking other high-profile successes and facing continued defeat upon its home turf.

A TTP attack attempt on the American homeland – regardless of its success – would signify a hitherto unknown capability of the TTP.  Whether or not the TTP conducted the attack, observers should recognize the group’s propaganda campaign as an effort to weaken international support and Pakistani will for any North Waziristan incursion and prove its strength. The U.S. should also take all necessary precautions to defeat and defend against the TTP, recognizing that whatever its operational capacity in the U.S., the group has clearly identified the U.S. as a target and itself as a member of the global network led by al Qaeda.

 

 

[1]“Video from Allegedly from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan Claims Times Square Attack,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 2, 2010.
[2] Hakimullah’s leadership of the TTP remains in question, as recent reports have emerged citing Wali ur-Rehman as TTP leader; Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell has also stated that he does not believe Hakimullah Mehsud is in operational control of the TTP.
[3] Munir Ahmed and Ishtiaq Mahsud, “Intel: Pakistan Taliban chief now believed alive,” Washington Post, April 29, 2010.
[4] ”Hakimullah Mehsud Appears in New Video from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Promises Attacks in America,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 3, 2010.
[5] ”Hakimullah Mehsud Issues Follow-Up Audio Message, States TTP's Main Targets Are Now American Cities,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 3, 2010.
[6] Spencer S. Hsu, Anne E. Kornblut and Ellen Nakashima, “Officials increasingly see international link in Times Square bomb attempt,” Washington Post, May 3, 2010, available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/03/AR2010050300847.html?hpid=topnews&sub=AR&sid=ST2010050201717.
[7] “Al-Jazeera Interview with Bay’atullah Mahsoud, Emir of the Taliban Movement in Pakistan,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 29, 2008.
[8] “Gunman kills 13, commits suicide in N.Y. state,” MSNBC, April 4, 2009, available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30030756/.
[9] See data on militant attacks in Pakistan here:  http://www.criticalthreats.org/militant-attacks-pakistan-database.
[10] ”Hakimullah Mehsud Issues Follow-Up Audio Message, States TTP's Main Targets Are Now American Cities,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 3, 2010.
[11] ”Hakimullah Mehsud Appears in New Video from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Promises Attacks in America,” SITE Intelligence Group, May 3, 2010.
[12] James Rupert, “Pakistani Taliban Chief Vows Attacks on U.S. in Video,” Business Week, May 3, 2010. Available: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-05-03/pakistani-taliban-chief-vows-attacks-on-u-s-in-video-update1-.html
[13] “Shabaab Suicide Bombing as Revenge for Slain ISI Leaders,” SITE Intelligence Group, April 28, 2010. 
[14] “Brigades of Abdullah Azzam Mourns Slain ISI Leaders,” SITE Intelligence  Group, April 30, 2010. 
[15] “AQIM Mourns Slain ISI Leaders,” SITE Intelligence  Group, April 29, 2010. ID=26398. See also:
[16] Sabrina Tavernise, Carlotta Gall, and Ismail Khan, “Pakistan, in Shift, Weighs Attack on Militant Lair,” New York Times, April 29, 2010, available: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/world/asia/30pstan.html?ref=asia.