Determining the Enemy: Examining a Potential Operational Link between Times Square Attack and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

May 5, 2010

(Times Square, photo by Michael McDonough, available at Flickr)

  

Introduction

An operational link between the Times Square attack and the TTP has been murky following the May 1 bomb attempt. New evidence has emerged and clarified the relationship. The manner in which the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) videos were posted, the criminal complaint against Shahzad, and the relationships between militant groups in Waziristan increase the likelihood that the TTP has an operational connection to the Times Square attack.

It is often difficult to determine exact responsibility for specific terror attacks, not least because militant Islamist groups maintain relationships, interactions, and overlapping interests in ways that make it difficult to dissect and focus on individual groups. Policymakers should avoid focusing solely on counter-terrorism efforts to target individual organizations at the exclusion of examining networks of groups that may encompass a broader and more complex threat environment. All violent militant Islamist groups within the broader violent Islamist network led by al Qaeda threaten American interests, regardless of their specific ties to attacks on Americans or American soil. Any policy response to the Times Square attack must keep this conception of enemy forces in mind.

 

Posting of TTP-Linked Videos

Questions surrounding the possible involvement of Pakistan’s TTP emerged immediately after the attack. On May 2, a video attributed to the TTP’s Qari Hussain Mehsud claimed credit for the attack. The following day, however, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq, said, “As far as I know, none of our people have posted the [Hussain video].[1] (Tariq did acknowledge the legitimacy of a Hakimullah Mehsud video that contained threats against American cities; such TTP statements reveal important lessons, discussed here, regardless of operational linkage.)

How the TTP made the claim for the attack reveals a premeditated and coordinated effort to take credit, despite Tariq’s denial. According to a Newsweek report and investigation conducted by Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group, an unknown person created a YouTube channel called “Taliban News” on the Friday before the attack; the Qari Hussain video was uploaded to that channel immediately after the first news conference on Saturday night discussing the bomb. The video and channel were taken down later on Sunday, only to be replaced later in the day by a new YouTube channel that featured the Hussain video along with the Hakimullah Mehsud video and a third video, attributed to Hakimullah Mehsud, that repeated the TTP threat to strike American cities. The individual posting the videos also posted them to several militant Islamist websites; according to Katz, the person had a history of posting Taliban videos.[2]

The poster’s history and the rapid posting and sequencing of the TTP videos immediately following the attack indicate that the videos had some link to the TTP, regardless of Azam Tariq’s comments.

 

Criminal Complaint against Shahzad and Relationships among Militant Groups in Waziristan

Tuesday’s revelation of the criminal complaint against bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad provided additional evidence of a potential TTP operational connection. The complaint states Shahzad received bomb-making training in Waziristan, a tribal area close to Afghanistan that is home to a myriad of militant groups.[3]

Terrorists and insurgent groups have long found a safe haven in Waziristan, which consists of two agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) area of Pakistan: North and South Waziristan. Rashid Rauf, a key al Qaeda operative believed to have played a role in the 2006 plot to bring down airliners over the Atlantic, lived in Waziristan; a drone strike may have killed him there in November 2008.[4] Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to target the New York City subway in September 2009, also received training in Waziristan, reportedly meeting with Rauf and Saleh al Somali, a key al Qaeda facilitator of the movement of personnel between countries.[5] On March 17, CIA Director Leon Panetta listed North Waziristan as one of the areas where Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri may be hiding.[6]

In North Waziristan, Shahzad could have connected with an individual al Qaeda operator such as Rauf or a representative from a number of other terror groups. Pakistani extremist groups such as Jaish-e Muhammad (JeM), Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and Lashkar-e Taiba are all believed to maintain presences in North Waziristan.[7] The Afghan Taliban-linked Haqqani network, which routinely undertakes terrorist operations against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, is also based in North Waziristan.

Indeed, Shahzad may have connected directly with JeM: on Tuesday, Pakistani security forces on Tuesday arrested Mohammad Rehan, reportedly the Peshawar chief for JeM and an acquaintance of Shahzad.[8]  Rehan allegedly traveled with Shahzad to Peshawar on a trip Shahzad took to Pakistan prior to the attack. The arrest of Rehan does not preclude TTP involvement in the Times Square attack, however, as JeM has been known to work jointly with the TTP on operations, especially during the wave of attacks in Islamabad and Punjab in October 2009.[9]  Rehan may have served as an intermediary and introduced Shahzad to TTP-linked individuals, who in turn may have brought Shahzad to Waziristan, as mentioned in the criminal complaint.

Reports sourced to Pakistani intelligence officials have introduced an alternative narrative to Shahzad’s Waziristan training: unnamed sources have claimed Shahzad received training in a camp near Kohat, roughly 50 miles northeast of Waziristan. It is unclear if this report is accurate, and Shahzad could have fabricated the Waziristan claim. If Shahzad did train near Kohat, the report claims that the camp also trained militants linked to militant commanders Tariq Afridi and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.[10] Afridi has ties to both JeM and the TTP and was believed responsible for a wave of terror attacks in Peshawar last fall.[11] Bahadur, based in North Waziristan, has links with the TTP (indeed, he served as deputy head of the TTP in December 2007)[12] but sat on the sidelines of the Pakistani military incursion into South Waziristan due to a ceasefire he negotiated with the government. Again, if accurate, this report does not preclude TTP involvement due to cooperation between the TTP and elements of the Bahadur and Afridi’s organizations.

It is unlikely that these groups are tied to the attack because none of them have claimed credit for the attack while the TTP has, either through the Qari Hussain video or by releasing and verifying the Hakimullah Mehsud videos making threats against U.S. cities. Attack claims provide groups with cachet that can win recruits, fundraising dollars, and general favor within the violent militant Islamist network. It is unlikely that a group that conducted an attack would not take credit for it or allow a competitor group to do so, even when the attack failed to create casualties, as in the case of the Times Square bombing attempt.  The mere placement of a bomb on the American homeland – or over it, as in the case of Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – signifies success for a terror group, distinguishing it from the terror groups or extremists that have been unable to reach America or advance beyond the plotting stage in attempts to attack targets within the U.S.

 

Lack of Sophistication in Times Square Bomb

The lack of sophistication in the construction of the Times Square bomb has led some to argue that Shahzad did not receive significant training from the TTP, and thus that TTP may have not been linked to the attack. However, as Steve Coll suggests here, if the TTP did meet with Shahzad, it may have decided to limit Shahzad’s exposure to significant training to reduce its risk. If the TTP provided significant training to a newcomer like Shahzad, it would have risked exposing its trainers’ identities and locations to Pakistani or American intelligence.[13] Militants have lost significant numbers of individuals to drone strikes and thus may have become more cautious to avoid intelligence exposures. Reports have indicated that drone strikes have forced militants to avoid large groups and train in small, mobile groups.[14] An outsider could easily compromise the identities of such group members after weeks in close quarters.

The TTP may also have been unable to provide facilities that were previously available to it in South Waziristan. In October 2009, the Pakistani military conducted an unprecedented operation into South Waziristan, clearing the TTP stronghold in a successful campaign. Qari Hussain Mehsud, to whom the video claiming credit for the Times Square attack is attributed, hails from Kotkai in South Waziristan and reportedly ran suicide bombing schools in the area. [15] He may have been unable to quickly replicate such infrastructure in North Waziristan – indeed, significant TTP-linked bombings have not occurred in recent months in North Waziristan (bombings in Orakzai or other areas of the FATA and NWFP likely rely upon local bomber training networks). Even if Hussain has been able to replicate such training infrastructure and chose to give Shahzad full access to it, the materials available to him in Pakistan – where one can buy guns and arms at one of the world’s largest arms markets in Darra Adam Khel – would be much more difficult to acquire in, or transfer to, the U.S.

 

Conclusion

How the TTP videos were posted, the Waziristan link cited in the complaint against Shahzad, and the ties between militant groups in Waziristan provide probable support for an operational link between the TTP and the Times Square attack. If accurate, this would be the first TTP-sponsored attack in the U.S. and reveal that the TTP has decided to move, at least partially, beyond the “near enemy” of the Pakistani government and directly target the “far enemy” of the United Sates. As noted above, however, policymakers should consider the difficulty of determining the true sponsor of a terrorist attack in an environment, such as Pakistan, where violent militant Islamist groups often shift identities and blend into one another. Any policy response must take this into account, recognizing that such groups, no matter the target of their direct operations, threaten U.S. interests by providing assistance to fellow travelers and participating in the broader violent Islamist network led by al Qaeda.

 

 

 

[1] “Pak Taliban denies involvement in Times Square car bomb plot,” Times of India, May 3, 2010, available: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/World/Pakistan/Pak-Taliban-denies-involvement-in-Times-Square-car-bomb-plot/articleshow/5887345.cms.
[2] Mark Hosenball, “Possible Tie Between Hakimullah Video and Pakistani Taliban Claim of Responsibility for Attack,” Newsweek, May 3, 2010, available:http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/declassified/archive/2010/05/03/possible-tie-seen-between-new-hakimullah-video-and-pakistani-claim-of-responsibility-for-times-square-attack.aspx
[4] Mark Hosenball, “A Dead Man Scheming?” Newsweek, April 11, 2009, available: http://www.newsweek.com/id/193524.
[5] Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, “Al Qaeda 'Leaders' Plotted NYC Subway Attacks,” Newsweek, April 23, 2010, available: http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/declassified/archive/2010/04/23/al-qaeda-leaders-plotted-nyc-subway-attacks.aspx.
[6] Joby Warrick and Peter Finn, “CIA director says secret attacks in Pakistan have hobbled al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, March 18, 2010, available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/17/AR2010031702558_pf.html.
[7] “Six soldiers, 15 militants perish in Waziristan attacks,” Pajhwok Afghan News,
December 12, 2007, accessed via Lexis-Nexis; “Two ‘would-be suicide bombers’ held in Karachi: Pakistan police,” Agence France Presse – English, May 21, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis; Paul Cruickshank, “Al Qaeda’s Ground Zero,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2010, available: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/04/01/al_qaedas_ground_zero .
[8] Jerry Markon, Spencer S. Hsu and Anne E. Kornblut, “U.S. tightens no-fly rules after suspect in failed Times Square attack succeeds in boarding plane,” Washington Post, May 5, 2010, available:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/05/AR2010050501536.html
[9] Jane Perlez, “Militants make show of strength; Pakistan attacks suggest an alliance among insurgents,” The Boston Globe, October 16, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis
[10] Ben Arnoldy, Behroz Khan, and Issam Ahmed, “Where in Pakistan did Faisal Shahzad learn bomb-making skills?,” Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2010, available: http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/content/view/print/299114
[11] “TTP names new head for Khyber Agency,” The News, November 10, 2009, available: http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=25486.
[12] Charlie Szrom, “The Survivalist of North Waziristan: Hafiz Gul Bahadur Biography and Analysis,” Critical Threats Project, August 6, 2009, available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/survivalist-north-waziristan-hafiz-gul-bahadur-biography-and-analysis.
[13] Steve Coll, “The Case of Faisal Shahzad,” New Yorker, May 4, 2010, available: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/stevecoll/2010/05/the-case-of-faisal-shahzad.html.
[14] “Al Qaeda Training Camps Go Local, Mobile,” Associated Press, November 9, 2009, available: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/11/09/world/main5584584.shtml.
[15] Declan Walsh, “Taliban’s stronghold falls to Pakistani army,” The Guardian, October 24, 2009, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/24/pakistan-captures-taliban-kotkai; Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, “Day of Suicide Attacks Displays Strength of Pakistani Taliban,” New York Times, April 5, 2009, available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/world/asia/06pstan.html.