Does TTP have the reach?
Pakistan has again been thrust into the limelight, particularly the Pakistani Taliban and Waziristan, following the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani-American accused of the failed New York car-bombing. The fallout of the Afghan conflict, coupled with Pakistan’s internal problems, has destabilised our country and the region and will continue to do so for an unforeseeable period.
The Faisal Shahzad case has taken twists and turns. He was first declared a “lone wolf” operating alone, but US attorney general Eric Holder is now claiming possession of evidence showing that Pakistani Taliban were behind the attempted bombing of New York’s busy Times Square on May 1. He said Shahzad was working at the behest of the Pakistani Taliban, who helped facilitate the attempted car-bombing and probably also financed it.
This is the official US line based on the interrogation of Shahzad, who is cooperating with the investigators, apparently in the hope of getting a lighter sentence. A more transparent picture could emerge if the accused was tried in a civilian court, but a trial may not take place, as the US attorney general hinted, if Shahzad pleads guilty. Life in prison is a likely fate now for the young man who spent the first 18 years of his life in relative comfort in Pakistan, as the son of Air Vice Marshal Baharul Haq.
Few were willing initially to give credit to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for the attempted New York bombing. In fact, US government officials, both civilian and military, had been categorical in dismissing the TTP claim that it had a hand in the failed bombing, or that it had sent its men to strike targets in American cities. The situation, however, has changed, though this change is primarily based on Shahzad’s confessions in US custody.
The TPP had originally claimed credit on May 2 for Shahzad’s bombing attempt, before retracting it on May 6. It was Qari Hussain, referred to by militants as “Ustad-e-Fidayeen” (Teacher of Fidayeen, or suicide bombers), who was first reported to have recorded an audiotape to claim responsibility for the attempted attack. His claim was corroborated in an indirect manner by a videotape of his cousin and TTP head Hakimullah Mahsud, until then presumed dead by Pakistani and US intelligence agencies in the Jan 14 CIA drone strike in South Waziristan. In the tape, Hakimullah doesn’t mention the New York bombing bid or Shahzad himself, but in a general statement threatens strikes in the US to avenge its drone attacks in Pakistan.
It isn’t a revelation that the TTP, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups want to harm the US and its allies. They have declared “jihad” against the US, Israel and their allies in the same way in which the latter are committed to destroy Al-Qaeda and likeminded militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. It is a fight to the death between powerful states and Muslim non-state elements. No doubt, it is an unequal battle, but Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the rest have found ingenious ways involving acts of terrorism to unnerve their enemy and damage its economy.
The TTP hasn’t demonstrated its capacity until now to strike in the US or any other country beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Al-Qaeda, despite being an older more resourceful global and organisation, has been unable to attack the US after 9/11, one cannot expect the TTP to successfully undertake such a mission in a far more secure America. Under the late Baitullah Mahsud, and then his successor Hakimullah, it has been able to strike anywhere in Pakistan and launch complex and often spectacular attacks against secure targets such as the General Headquarters of the army in Rawalpindi and ISI, FIA and police installations in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan. By joining hands with the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban also managed to strike difficult targets in Afghanistan. If it wants, the TTP could assist an allied jihadi group such as Jaish-e-Mohammad to strike in Indian Kashmir, or in India itself. There is no evidence, though, that it has done so yet. However, undertaking terrorist attacks in faraway America or Europe has been beyond the TTP’s capability.
Unlike the Afghan Taliban, who have largely restricted their activities to Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have at times proved to be reckless and boastful. One remembers Baitullah Mahsud claiming responsibility for an incident in the US in early 2009 in which an American of Vietnamese origin fired at and killed many innocent people. Also, the now detained TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar was prone to claiming responsibility for terrorist strike anywhere and anytime, including past ones in the US and Spain. Those claims were untrue and damaging for the TTP’s credibility. In fact, the false claims were one reason that the recent statements of Qari Hussain and Hakimullah regarding their attempts to launch attacks in the US weren’t taken seriously.
However, the TTP would not refuse to avail an opportunity if someone like Shahzad were to come along and offer his services to attack targets in the US. It cannot possibly infiltrate its men into the US, provide finances or execute a terrorist attack from afar. But Hakimullah, Qari Hussain or one of the several TTP chapters would be glad to provide inspiration, impart bomb-making training or record a farewell “fidayee” message if someone living in the West volunteered to do the job on their behalf. In particular, converts to Islam in Western countries are prized by groups like Al-Qaeda, as the converts could easily live and travel there without arousing much suspicion. The second prized category are Muslims living in Western societies, as many of them turn to religion and are generally better aware, and critical, of some of the unjust policies of the US and its Nato allies towards Islamic countries.
The case of the Jordanian suicide bomber Dr Humam al-Khalil al-Balawi well illustrates the readiness of the TTP to own anyone willing to work for a joint cause. He wasn’t recruited by the TTP in Jordan, but presented himself to Hakimullah and Qari Hussain in South Waziristan and offered to blow up the CIA station in Afghanistan’s Khost province after having gained the trust of his Jordanian and American handlers.
In his farewell video recorded in the company of Hakimullah, the Jordanian bomber says he was going to avenge Baitullah’s death in a US drone strike by attacking the CIA’s Khost station that oversaw the drones programme and gathered intelligence on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In the video, Hakimullah says that avenging Baitullah’s death had already been on his mind and then Allah sent the Jordanian Muslim brother to him to offer his services to take revenge from the American CIA agents.
Qari Hussain was the first to claim responsibility for the suicide attack in Khost that killed seven CIA and one Jordanian agent, along with some Afghan spies. Few believed him, as was the case when he first disclosed the TTP’s hand in the attempted New York bombing, but in the end Qari Hussain was proved right. Although, on two subsequent occasions, the official TTP spokesman, Azam Tariq, denied the organisation’s involvement and insisted that the Pakistani Taliban didn’t know Shahzad, Qari Hussain hasn’t spoken up again. However, one would like to think that if Shahzad had come into contact with Qari Hussain, he would have inspired him to become a suicide-bomber and provided him much better training in bomb-making.
The sloppy manner in which Shahzad tried to assemble the car-bomb and left evidence that led to his arrest makes one believe that he hadn’t received proper training. As media reports based on his interrogation suggest, he was fired by revenge due to the deaths of innocent people in US drone attacks in Pakistan. The path he chose to avenge those deaths was wrong. He also lacked the skills to accomplish his mission. The consequences of his misadventure will be harsh not only for him but also his family and his native country.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahim firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 11 May 2010