Thursday, May 06, 2010
Evidence Mounts for Taliban Role in Car Bomb Plot
By MARK MAZZETTI and SCOTT SHANE New York Times WASHINGTON — American officials said Wednesday that it was very likely that a radical group once thought unable to attack the United States had played a role in the bombing attempt in Times Square, elevating concerns about whether other militant groups could deliver at least a glancing blow on American soil. Officials said that after two days of intense questioning of the bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, evidence was mounting that the group, the Pakistani Taliban, had helped inspire and train Mr. Shahzad in the months before he is alleged to have parked an explosives-filled sport utility vehicle in a busy Manhattan intersection on Saturday night. Officials said Mr. Shahzad had discussed his contacts with the group, and investigators had accumulated other evidence that they would not disclose. On Thursday, interrogators from the United States and Pakistan were questioning four members the banned militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in connection with the Times Square plot, according to a Pakistani security official. The official did not identify the militants. On Wednesday, Mr. Shahzad, the 30-year-old son of a retired senior Pakistani Air Force officer, waived his right to a speedy arraignment, a possible sign of his continuing cooperation with investigators. As his interrogation continued, Department of Homeland Security officials directed airlines to speed up their checks of new names added to the no-fly list, a requirement that might have prevented Mr. Shahzad from boarding a flight to Dubai on Monday night before his arrest at Kennedy International Airport. The failed attack has produced a flurry of other proposals to tighten security procedures, including calls by members of Congress to more closely scrutinize passengers who buy tickets with cash, as Mr. Shahzad did. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, proposed stripping terrorism suspects of American citizenship, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg asked Congress to block the sale of firearms and explosives to those on terrorist watch lists. American officials, speaking about the continuing inquiry only on condition of anonymity, gave few details about what Mr. Shahzad had told investigators, and said their understanding of the plot would evolve as a dragnet spanning two continents gathered more evidence. One senior Obama administration official cautioned that “there are no smoking guns yet” that the Pakistani Taliban had directed the Times Square bombing. But others said that there were strong indications that Mr. Shahzad knew some members of the group and that they probably had a role in training him. In a video on Sunday, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing. One issue that investigators are vigorously pursuing is who provided Mr. Shahzad cash to buy the S.U.V. and his plane ticket to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. “Somebody’s financially sponsoring him, and that’s the link we’re pursuing,” one official said. “And that would take you on the logic train back to Pak-Taliban authorizations,” the official said, referring to the group. American officials said it had become increasingly difficult to separate the operations of the militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The region, they said, has become a stew of like-minded organizations plotting attacks in Pakistani cities, across the border into Afghanistan, and on targets in Western Europe and the United States. Besides the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, groups operating in the tribal areas are the Haqqani Network and the Kashmiri groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed. There is no doubt among intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by C.I.A. drones over the past year has made Pakistan’s Taliban, which goes by the name Tehrik-i-Taliban, increasingly determined to seek revenge by finding any way possible to strike at the United States. The C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan, which was accelerated in 2008 and expanded by President Obama last year, has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington in part because it was perceived as eliminating dangerous militants while keeping Americans safe. But the attack in December on a C.I.A. base in Afghanistan, and now possibly the failed S.U.V. attack in Manhattan, are reminders that the drones’ very success may be provoking a costly response. Last March, when the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud boasted that his group was planning an attack on Washington that would “amaze everyone in the world,” many American officials dismissed his claims as empty bravado. His network, they said, had neither the resources nor the reach to pull off an attack far beyond its base in the mountains of western Pakistan. But the attempted attack on Saturday has forced something of a reassessment, especially as American officials see militant groups determined to score a propaganda victory by pulling off even the crudest of attacks. If the Pakistani Taliban was involved in the Times Square bombing plot, the organization is only the latest militant group to expand beyond a local political agenda and strike the United States. The Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner, for instance, was traced to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose primary targets had previously been the Saudi and Yemeni governments. But for such a group, trying for the biggest prize in the jihadist universe — a successful attack on American soil — could have significant payoffs, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. The message may be, “ ‘The U.S. is pounding us with drone attacks, but we’re powerful enough to strike back’; it’s certainly enough to attract ever more recruits to replace those they’re losing,” Mr. Hoffman said. The Pakistani Taliban has used a relentless campaign of violence to undermine Pakistan’s secular government. The group has been blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as well as bombings in Islamabad, Lahore and elsewhere. As casualties from the Taliban mounted in Pakistan in 2008, officials there pleaded with Washington to begin striking the group with C.I.A. drones. American counterterrorism officials had never considered the group to be a top priority, but last year the Obama administration approved targeted attacks on Pakistani Taliban leaders, in part to win Islamabad’s tacit approval for drone strikes elsewhere in the tribal areas. Mr. Mehsud himself was killed in a C.I.A. drone attack in August. Some American officials bristled at the idea that the United States had not taken the Pakistani Taliban threat seriously. “We’ve been pounding their leadership, including figures like Baitullah Mehsud, and their training camps and other facilities,” one American counterterrorism official said. “Those actions have probably taken other people like Shahzad off the board.” Denis McDonough, the chief of staff for the National Security Council, said the Times Square attempted bombing showed that Pakistan and the United States faced a common enemy, calling it “a pretty stark reminder that the same collection of terrorists that are threatening them are threatening us.” The administration has been in intensive contact with the Pakistani government, delivering the message that “there are clear links to Pakistan and that we would fully expect them to do what they should do,” the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said. Pakistani officials have arrested about a dozen people they believe may be linked to the plot, the authorities have said. On Wednesday, the American ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, met with Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and spoke by phone with the interior minister, A. Rehman Malik. The administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, also spoke by phone with Mr. Qureshi. “The key here is that we’re touching the right bases politically, and we’re getting the right signals back,” a senior official said. The tracking of Mr. Shahzad and his links to Pakistan began with a fortunate match of phone numbers, a law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said Wednesday. One number that he had provided when he last entered the United States, in February, was stored in a Customs and Border Protection database. It turned out to match a number on the list of calls to and from a prepaid cellphone that investigators knew belonged to the purchaser of the S.U.V. found on Times Square. Only when they matched the phone numbers did investigators learn “that that was the guy we were looking for,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the investigation. The name match allowed security officials to discover Mr. Shahzad aboard the flight to Dubai minutes before takeoff on Monday night. He had been added to the no-fly list at 12:30 p.m. that day, when airlines were directed to check the list for updates. But Emirates airline did not look at the updated list, and sold Mr. Shahzad a ticket for cash at 7:35 p.m. on Monday. Airlines had been required to check the no-fly list for updates only every 24 hours. The new rule requires that they check within two hours of receiving notification that a high-priority name has been added to the list, Homeland Security officials said.