EXCLUSIVE: The man who trained the Times Square bomber

A Pakistani extremist on Faisal Shahzad's desire for fame

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One week following the attempted bombing of New York’s Times Square, a Maclean’s investigation has learned that the man allegedly behind the latest plot to attack the U.S. had been searching for a militant group in Pakistan to back him for years. Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Connecticut resident, was captured by U.S. authorities while on a flight about to depart for Dubai, after leaving a crude but powerful bomb in an SUV in the heart of Manhattan’s iconic tourist district. But he had visited Pakistan in mid-June 2006 to receive training at a camp belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir, according to one of its senior commanders.

The LeT, a banned militant outfit set up in the late 1980s with the help of Pakistan’s largest spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, was blamed for a vicious attack on Mumbai in November 2008 in which more than 160 Indians were killed and scores more injured. According to the commander at the LeT’s main base of operations in Dulai, a village 25 km south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Shahzad was brought to the LeT camp by another member of the organization. “He was an eager recruit,” he recalls. “Very intelligent but also very intense, and driven to make his mark for the sake of Islam.”

The revelation adds much needed background to a person who many in Pakistan believed incapable of militant involvement. The focus of the U.S. investigation has so far been on trying to determine how an educated, westernized Muslim from a wealthy background could turn to extremism. A three-person team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrived in Pakistan to determine just that: which groups Shahzad was involved with and how they may have contributed to the planning and execution of the failed attack.

The LeT commander denies his group had anything to do with the attack itself. “Shahzad came to us for training,” he says. “He stayed with us for three months and we provided him with the basics. Then he went back to the U.S.”

The LeT continues to operate a series of camps in the remote mountains of Pakistani Kashmir, where recruits receive small arms, tactical and survival training. The camp at Dulai, the group’s headquarters, was built a little over a year and a half ago after the previous headquarters were closed by the Pakistani army. According to the LeT commander, Shahzad came to the old headquarters, and from there was taken to a camp further into the mountains for his basic training. When that was complete, he was instructed to return to the U.S. and told not to make contact with the LeT for the next six months, as he would likely be monitored by U.S. authorities. “After six months, we tried to contact him,” says the commander, “but we received no response, not from emails or by telephone. We thought, well, okay, so maybe he’s had a change of heart. Maybe he’s returned to the affairs of the world and the desire for jihad has left him. We have thousands of recruits who come to us for training. It doesn’t affect us if one of them is lost.”

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That, however, was not the case with Shahzad. Over the next few years, the accused bomber—who is co-operating with authorities—began listening to sermons by the American preacher-turned-jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki, and became his devoted follower. What appealed to him most, the LeT commander speculates, is Awlaki’s determination to strike the U.S. “We saw this in Shahzad from the beginning,” he says. “We told him we wanted to send him to Kashmir to fight the Indian occupation. But he refused. He said he wanted to fight Americans and that Afghanistan is where he wanted to go. We were hesitant. At that time, we had only loose connections in Afghanistan; our focus was still Kashmir. But we told him, okay, do your training and we’ll see after that.”

While the picture painted by the LeT commander of Shahzad is of a young man looking for a chance to strike at the U.S., his motivation appears to be more than just anger at the American-led war on terror. The LeT commander adds that one of the character traits that worried him about the then-26-year-old was his desire for glory. “He wanted to do something big,” he recalls, “not just die an anonymous martyr alongside hundreds of other martyrs. He wanted something international. He wanted to be famous. For us, that was dangerous. We don’t want attention brought to us, and we were worried that Shahzad’s personal agenda would get him captured and bring the spotlight on us.”

Their fears proved well placed. But in the end, Shahzad apparently found his backers in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). According to U.S. authorities, it was this group, now led by Hakimullah Mehsud, that further trained the virgin jihadi and facilitated his mission to attack Times Square. The attack ultimately failed, likely because both Shahzad and the TTP were new to the high-risk game of international terrorism. What’s striking, though, about the LeT account is that for years Shahzad was apparently travelling back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan, searching for the right group to back his career path to jihadi glory, without anyone catching on. The failure in intelligence in both Pakistan and the U.S. that allowed that to happen will undoubtedly raise many questions.

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Commentators in Pakistan are also questioning their own security services’ ability to monitor the militant groups in the country. “If a connection to the Pakistani Taliban is established, it would constitute a major security breach for Pakistan’s intelligence services,” says Iqbal Khattak, Peshawar bureau chief for Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper. “How could they not know the TTP was expanding its operations overseas?”

Indeed, Pakistani authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to the global consequences of jihadi beliefs gaining a foothold in Pakistan, focusing their attention instead on the threat militant groups pose to the country itself. Military operations along the northwestern border with Afghanistan have targeted only those groups that have attacked targets inside Pakistan itself. Others, like the LeT and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), both with proven global ambitions, have been left largely untouched.

According to U.S. officials and media reports, a suspected activist for the JeM allegedly helped Shahzad travel from Karachi to Peshawar and then on to North Waziristan, where investigators claim he met with the Pakistani Taliban to receive bomb-making training. Immediately after the Times Square incident, the TTP’s Mehsud warned in a video, apparently recorded in April, that the group was preparing attacks on U.S. soil. Shortly after the Manhattan plot was foiled, one TTP spokesman took credit for the attack but another spokesman later denied the group’s involvement.

Last Sunday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder disputed the Taliban denial, saying, “The evidence that we’ve now developed shows that the Pakistani Taliban has directed this plot.” Nonetheless, questions remain whether an outfit like the TTP could muster the resources to carry out an overseas operation. According to some analysts, the issue goes far deeper than any one group broadening its jihadist agenda. Local elders in North Waziristan, speaking to Maclean’s by telephone, said North Waziristan has become such a broad amalgamation of jihadi groups that it’s impossible to tell who is who. “There are so many different groups here,” says one elder who has fled the region and taken shelter in a bordering town. “No one knows who is Taliban or al-Qaeda or Jaish or Lashkar or just a simple criminal. They all work together now.”

For a budding global jihadist searching for a home, North Waziristan would be the place to go. And most observers agree that with proximity has come ideological integration. “There’s a bit of a false distinction being made between these groups,” one senior U.S. official told the New York Times last week. “The Pakistani Taliban is connected to al-Qaeda, which is connected to the Haqqani network . . . I don’t think you can put team jerseys on them.”
Increasingly, it appears these groups are now adhering to the al-Qaeda playbook: global jihad is part of the agenda.

What’s worrying for both U.S. and Pakistani authorities is the initiation of the Pakistani Taliban into global operations, adding another element to the growing web of groups looking to strike targets in the West.

For Shahzad, Pakistan was the ideal place to find the right extremist fit for his ambitions. Despite the LeT’s claim that it did nothing to help Shahzad’s attempt to attack the U.S., their involvement in grooming him for a mission ultimately makes them culpable as well. Connecting the dots from 2006 to the attempted attack in New York last week confirms what many analysts have feared: Pakistan has become the mega-mart for global jihad.