A version of this article was initially published in the print edition of The Times of India on May 7. Also see “US Urges Swift Action in Pakistan After Failed Bombing,” at The New York Times, for more information.
The failed Times Square bombing that was hatched in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan has forced the US to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan to take out the terror sanctuaries dotted throughout the tribal areas. US military and intelligence officials who have long warned of the terror threat posed from Pakistan’s tribal agencies, with North Waziristan at the top of the list, are pushing for Pakistan to clear the region of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the multitude of Pakistani jihadist groups.
The Pakistani military has been reluctant to move into North Waziristan, citing concerns about its forces being overstretched due to offensives in neighboring tribal agencies, including South Waziristan, Arakzai, and Bajaur. But the real reason, US officials say, is that Pakistan is reluctant to move against the so-called “good Taliban” groups – those who wage war against NATO in Afghanistan and serve as jihadist depth against arch-enemy India.
“It is time for Pakistan to go in there [North Waziristan] and gut the Taliban and al Qaeda once and for all,” a top US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “They are hitting us in Afghanistan and are trying to hit us at home, and this has to be stopped. Airstrikes alone won’t solve this problem,” the source said, referring to the attacks carried out by unmanned Predators against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and camps in North Waziristan.
Pressure from the Obama administration to get the Pakistani government to take on the Taliban and al Qaeda directly in North Waziristan will mount over the next several days, as the reality of the connection between the Times Square bomb plot and the lawless tribal agency sinks in. It has been apparent over the past several days that senior administration officials have been reluctant to link the failed car bombing back to Pakistan.
But the US’ options to entice or cajole Pakistan to strike in North Waziristan remain limited. The US relies on Pakistan to help move the vast majority of NATO supplies into Afghanistan, and a heavy-handed approach could put that cooperation in jeopardy. The US signaled it may not hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire on North Waziristan when, just two days after the failed Times Square attack, the US transferred $468 million in funds to Pakistani’s military that it was owed for past operations against the Taliban. The move has angered some in the US military and intelligence community.
“Every time we send Pakistan money or weapons, we lose leverage,” one senior military officer told The Long War Journal. “We are telling the Pakistani military that business as usual – a half hearted fight against one faction of the Taliban – is acceptable.”
The Obama administration’s transferral of the funds to Pakistan just days after the failed attack in New York also highlights the administration’s unwillingness to recognize the distinct possibility that the Times Square bomb plot was hatched by the Taliban. Within 24 hours of the attack on the evening of May 1, top officials downplayed the very clear signs that the Taliban was likely involved.
The first indication came just eight hours after the attack. On the morning of May 2, a person who claimed to be from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel contacted me to inform me that an audiotape of Taliban commander and master trainer of suicide bombers Qari Hussain Mehsud had been posted on a YouTube site. The email was titled “Qari Hussain Mehsud from Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan accepts the responsibility of recent Attack on Times Square Newyork USA.”
In the brief, 1:21-long tape, Qari Hussain said the attack was launched to avenge the deaths of top terrorist leaders, punish the US for conducting Predator airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and avenge the arrest and detention of al Qaeda-linked Pakistani scientist Aifa Siddique.
“This attack is a revenge for the great & valuable martyred leaders of mujahideen,” Qari clearly said.
YouTube, apparently pressured by the FBI, pulled the video and shut down the Taliban YouTube site.
Although the news of the tape’s release was quickly published at The Long War Journal, the appearance of the tape was apparently dismissed by most observers as a Taliban stunt designed to garner credit for the attack. Moreover, top officials described the attack as a “one off” likely carried out by domestic terrorists. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even bet that the failed bombing was carried out by “somebody who’s homegrown, maybe a mentally deranged person or someone with a political agenda that doesn’t like the health care bill or something.”
But the timing of the creation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel website and the upload of Qari’s video pointed to a coordinated effort by the Taliban to promote its first strike in the US. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel YouTube site was created on April 30, just one day before the attack. The video of Qari Hussain taking credit for the Times Square attack was pre-recorded, and was also uploaded on April 30.
On the evening of May 2, I received a second email from the same person. The email contained the location of a new YouTube site on which two tapes had been posted: one an audiotape by Pakistani Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, and the other a longer videotape of Hakeemullah. The email was titled “Hakeemullah Mehsud is Alive and Healthy and Delivering news about Attacks on USA.” On the audiotape, an image of Hakeemullah is superimposed on a Google Earth map of North America. At one point, animated explosions cascade across the US.
“The time is very near when our fedayeen will attack the American states in their major cities,” Hakeemullah said on the longer videotape. “And Inshallah (god willing) we will give extremely painful blows to the fanatic America.”
Within days, the links between the Pakistani Taliban and the Taliban became impossible to ignore. The arrest of Faisal Shahzad provided the definitive proof that he worked with the Taliban when he admitted to the FBI that he had trained in a terror camp in Waziristan. Shahzad, who is a naturalized US citizen originally from Pakistan, returned from Pakistan on Feb. 3, after a five-month trip there.
Intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that Shahzad trained in North Waziristan, likely somewhere in the region between Mir Ali and Miramshah, two Taliban strongholds. The officials also stated that he may have had direct contact with Qari Hussain himself.
Pakistani security forces then arrested two of Shahzad’s friends who are said to have close links to the Taliban and the al Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Mohammed Rehan, one of Shahzad’s longtime friends, was detained at a Jaish-e-Mohammed mosque in Karachi and is said to have introduced Shahzad to the Taliban during a trip to Peshawar. Most of those detained, including known members of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have since been released.
Shahzad, like others who sought to strike against the US and India, followed a well-traveled path to jihad. That path ultimately takes the jihadist to North Waziristan. Three recent notables who traveled to North Waziristan for training and indoctrination include Bryant Neal Vinas, David Coleman Headley, and Najibullah Zazi.
Vinas is a convert to Islam who is also known as Bashir al Ameriki. He trained in al Qaeda camps in North Waziristan in 2007 and helped the group plot an attack on a train inside Penn Station in New York City. He was detained by Pakistani troops in November 2008 and pled guilty in January 2009 to the charge of providing material support to al Qaeda. He has since cooperated with the FBI by divulging information on al Qaeda’s activities.
Headley is a Pakistani American who worked closely with al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He had direct contact with Ilyas Kashmiri while visiting North Waziristan. Kashmiri is the operational commander of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and the top leader of al Qaeda’s military wing. Headley acted as a scout for the 2008 terror assault in Mumbai, which resulted in the deaths of 165 Indians and foreigners while the city was under siege for 62 hours. Headley also plotted to kill a Danish cartoonist who had drawn an image of the Prophet Mohammed.
Zazi traveled to Pakistan in August 2008 to join the Taliban, but was recruited by al Qaeda in Peshawar. After spending nearly four months in an al Qaeda camp in Miramshah in North Waziristan, Zazi returned to the US to carry out suicide bombings on New York City trains with two accomplices in September 2009. Zazi was arrested and pled guilty to plotting to carry out attacks in the US and aiding a terror group.
With the al Qaeda and Taliban nexus in North Waziristan painfully clear, and multiple plots having been launched from the region, the US can no longer afford to wait for Pakistan to address the problem on its own timetable.
“It is a matter of time before one of these plots succeeds,” a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “If Shahzad built that bomb just a little better, we wouldn’t be talking in theoreticals right now, we’d be cleaning up a mess at Times Square. As things stand, we have be 100% effective in stopping each attack, but they only have to be right once. We have to hit them where they are, and not try to stop them here. If we don’t figure out North Waziristan, one day, one of these attacks will get through.”
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.