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Attacking Ambiguity

May 5, 2010

Steve Coll of The New Yorker offers an interesting perspective on the prospective relationship between the alleged Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban. Writing for the same magazine’s May 10 issue, Coll’s colleague, Malcolm Gladwell, offers an interesting and oddly congruent account of the ambiguities arising from espionage activities that could be said to apply equally to the relationship between terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Several media outlets quoting well-placed but anonymous intelligence or law enforcement sources have reported that Shahzad traveled to and from Pakistan frequently over the eleven years he lived in the United States legally since entering the country as a student in 1998. Within the past few months, Shahzad allegedly attended a terrorist training camp, where is he is said to have learned to assemble improvised explosive devices.

Soon after a smoking vehicle packed with a crude assortment of incendiaries was discovered, talking heads noted that the bomb’s construction bore striking similarities to the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) used to mount crude attacks on the Glasgow International Airport in June 2007. The next day, media reports carried news that the Pakistani Taliban were claimingcredit for mounting the failed attack. While not disavowing these claims, officials quickly indicated that they had no evidence to support them either. They would consider every possibility and pursue every lead we were repeatedly and reassuringly told on Sunday morning.

From the outset, officials noted the amateurish nature of the attack. Loadedwith liquefied petroleum gas containers, gasoline cans, consumer-grade fireworks, an alarm clock, crude wiring, and steel box containing fertilzer, the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder had little chance of actually exploding, although it would have produced a rather impressive and nonetheless dangerous fire.

It now seems the inadequacies of Shahzad’s plot did not end with the poor design and deployment of his weapon. Within a very short time, law enforcement officials identified the vehicle despite efforts to conceal its ownership and tracked down the former owner who provided details of the recent cash transaction that led to Shahzad taking possession of it. Shahzad arranged the transaction after scanning online classified ads. He made little effort to conceal his identity when making the transaction, corresponding with the former owner from an easily traceable email account. Although he used a prepaid cellphone to arrange the final meeting where he paid for and took possession of the Pathfinder, it too proved easy enough to trace.

These were not the only cyber-fingerprints Shahzad left. It seems he, like many others in his age cohort, liked to share his exploits using social media. A YouTube channel claiming credit for attacks on “Satan’s USA” was created by as yet unidentified individuals in Connecticut the day before the attack, but has now been removed.

The picture now emerging of Shahzad seems not altogether unlike others we have heard before. He was of upper-middle class status, reasonably well-educated in a technical discipline but certainly not a high-achiever. He had few connections with the broader community, and had encountered financial difficulties having defaulted on his mortgage. This may strike some as the perfect profile of a terrorist, but it is not so unlike the profile of many other criminals either, particularly those whose crimes are intended to attract attention.

Federal law enforcement officials took Shahzad into custody last night after he boarded an Emirates flight headed to Dubai. Soon after his arrest we learned he paid cash for a one-way ticket he reserved while en route to JFK International Airport, and paid cash at the ticket counter to secure his seat. The fact he was able to board the plane at all has raised more than a few eyebrows since his name was added to the no-fly list earlier in the day. It now seems Emirates had not updated its ticketing services to reflect recent changes in the list.

Shortly after taking Shahzad into custody, we are told, he admitted involvement in the incident and disclosed ties to terrorist training camps back in Pakistan. He continued to talk to investigators even after being read his Miranda rights as required when any  U.S. citizen is held under suspicion of committing a crime.

Officials acknowledge that claims of a Pakistani Taliban connection now appear more plausible. But as Steve Coll and Malcolm Gladwell’s pieces point out vividly, the terrorists in Pakistan may be not only be our enemies, but they may also turn out to be our best allies. When confronted by an eager young volunteer fresh from the United States, those building and controlling terrorist networks have to question whether the recruit can be trusted. “How do we know he is not a plant sent to infiltrate our organization and disrupt our activities?”,  they must ask themselves.

Presented with such ambiguities the terrorist handlers find themselves with little choice but to proceed cautiously. What better way to go forward than to provide only cursory training with little or no intelligence value. If the recruit turns out to be an agent under the control of a counter-terrorism agency, little is lost. If he turns out to be a valuable asset, all the better.

Taken together, Faisal Shahzad’s rather haphazard planning and execution coupled with his effort to return to his homeland and his willingness (even eagerness?) to admit his role seem to suggest a desire to demonstrate his value and earn the trust of others; if not the reluctant handlers from whom he obtained his initial training back in Pakistan, then the U.S. authorities who took him into custody. For all we know, this was something he considered possible if not plausible right from the start.

For our part, how do we know his pledge to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States in the oath of naturalization he took just over a year ago wasn’t genuine? Perhaps young Faisal Shahzad fancied himself a double-agent?

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