Though the car bomb in the New York’s Times Square failed to go off, it successfully exploded a myth that the United States has managed to thwart terror attacks on its homeland after Sept. 11, 2001. Despite having taken measures to boost homeland security, the U.S. has not been able to deter terrorists from trying to attack the country or its interests. On occasion, the country has been saved only by its good fortune.
Often it has been suggested that American Muslim immigrants are different from those in Europe in that they are mostly professionals who had migrated to the United States to seek freedom, advancement and progress for themselves and their families. On the other hand, the Muslim migrants of Europe are low-skilled workers who have migrated there, often illegally, to benefit from the various social welfare schemes provided by the state. The segment moving to Europe was supposed to be more vulnerable to influence of terror groups.
This notion, however, now seems to be misplaced as Islamist terror groups are intent on using American citizens. Last October, the FBI had arrested a Pakistani-American, David Coleman Headley, along with his Pakistani-Canadian associate, for plotting to attack the Copenhagen offices of a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Headley was also in league with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based terror group that carried out an attack on Mumbai. The picture looks more grim if we add to the list Nigerian bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day, and Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born army officer of Palestinian descent, who opened fire on his military colleagues. Times Square suspect Faisal Shahzad is only latest in this series.
The incident in Times Square has led many people to think that an American passport has become a weapon in the hands of terrorists. Faisal Shahzad had become a naturalized citizen only in 2009 after marrying an American citizen, Huma Mian, in October 2008. This American passport enabled him to fly in and out of the country several times. He also brought in a large amount of cash during these trips to Pakistan and got training in a camp in Waziristan.
Immediately after the foiled attempt to bomb Times Square, a Pakistani Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), claimed responsibility for it. The U.S. authorities who were initially dismissive now agree that Faisal Shahzad was not a “lone wolf” attacker but was supported by TTP. This shows that TTP has been able to penetrate immigrants of Pakistani origin living in the U.S.
It’s not surprising that TTP was interested in doing this. This is the group that has been hardest hit in recent Pakistan army operations and U.S. drone attacks. TTP has been unsympathetic toward the Pakistan state and has launched a number of suicide attacks on civilian and military targets. The Pakistan army has no great affection for TTP because of its largely Pashtun composition. This is one reason why the Pakistan army has been willing to undertake operations against the group.
On the other hand, the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have supported Punjabi terror groups like LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which claims to be fighting for the cause of Kashmir. In fact, groups like LeT have been given land and military training to carry out their activities. Although the U.S. has been trying to tell Pakistan that Punjabi and Kashmiri groups are not its friend, Pakistan has resisted every pressure to act against them.
However, it is naive to think that this kind of compartmentalization of terror groups can be accomplished. The United States is aware of growing capability and ambition of LeT and JeM. In fact, Pakistani authorities say that Faisal Shahzad is also close to JeM. LeT has been active in Europe for the last 10 years. The group has already declared that the West and America are its avowed enemies. Compared to the TTP, LeT and JeM have a greater ability to penetrate the Pakistani diaspora, which is mostly of Punjabi and Kashmiri origin.
A segment of American intelligence feels that Pakistani jihadi cells outside of Pakistan, especially in Britain, the U.S. and the Middle East, pose a greater threat to U.S. security than the operations of these terror groups in Pakistan. They want the tackling of these jihadi cells to be a priority. Here it is useful to remember that these Pakistani cells are operating under the influence of terror groups active within Pakistan. Once these groups are tackled, the cells operating outside Pakistan would automatically lose their momentum.
After the failed attempt on Times Square, the U.S. sent a tough message to Pakistan to crack down on Islamic militants. Even if the threat were carried out, it would be in the form of economic action. The economy of Pakistan is in bad shape. Its GDP has fallen from a growth rate of 8 percent in 2005 to less than 3 percent last year. Huge economic and military assistance from the U.S. is due. Pakistan’s failure to act could possibly delay this assistance.
The United States still seems to be willing to be patient with Pakistan. It is reasonably satisfied after the recent military action taken by Pakistan against extremist groups inside its western border. But this action is not sufficient given the magnitude of the threat. Moreover, there is little chance of Pakistan expanding its crackdown.
Because of the intricacies of Pakistani politics, the nation’s military strategy is geared more toward guarding its border with India than uprooting terror. As a result, the U.S. policy of wooing Pakistan and its military operations have not brought the desired outcome. After the Times Square incident, the U.S. has been putting pressure on Pakistan to go into North Waziristan. But if that is necessary for fighting terror, it is equally important to fight groups like LeT and JeM and dismantle their support infrastructure. Pakistan is hedging against Afghanistan’s Taliban and other Islamist militants, but if the U.S. wants any concrete progress, then it must ask Pakistan to go all-out against all terror groups.
The operation of Pakistani jihadis is spreading across the Atlantic. They are now recruiting Americans, just as British citizens were recruited a decade ago. In this effort, Punjabi and Kashmiri groups are likely to be more successful. Clearly, the compartmentalization of terror is not going to help. It is in everyone’s interest that action is taken against terror groups of all hues.
Anand Kumar is an associate fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in Delhi, India.