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New York City Bombing Plot Highlights Domestic Terrorism Concerns

May 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Attorney General Eric Holder said the weekend attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was aimed at murdering innocent Americans. Jeffrey Brown talks to a counterterrorism expert about the security implications in the U.S. and abroad.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And now we turn — we broaden this out a bit with Brian Fishman. He’s a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and former director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Welcome to you.

BRIAN FISHMAN, counterterrorism research fellow, New America Foundation: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we are — we are learning more about the man today, and we just heard some more about his ties to Pakistan. What jumps out at you?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think what jumps out at me is — is — are these claims of responsibility that we have heard from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is an umbrella group for Pakistani militant groups that, in the past, have prioritized their operations against the Pakistani state.

It’s a group — the TTP was founded in December of 2007 with the explicit focus of attacking Pakistan. And now what we have seen is not only a claim of responsibility for — for an attack on the United States, but also a statement by Hakimullah Mehsud, who was believed to have been killed in January of 2010 by an American drone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. And explain who he is. He was one of the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban.

BRIAN FISHMAN: That’s right. Yes. Hakimullah Mehsud was the emir of the Pakistani Taliban, believed to have been killed in January of this year, but has now appeared in a video released online, and claims that his focus now is no longer attacking the Pakistani state, but is to organize and implement attacks in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to be clear, now, this is the group that claimed responsibility early on and was largely brushed aside rather quickly.

BRIAN FISHMAN: That’s right. And I think there still is some question about whether or not they actually were involved here.

Certainly, the — the fact that Faisal Shahzad seemed so poorly trained suggests that he didn’t get a lot of in-depth training when he was in Waziristan, but it may be that he’s just incompetent. And that — that’s part of this, too. It’s hard to put those pieces together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what — explain a little bit more about Waziristan and what kind of training goes on. Is that a — is that one group? Are there many groups there?


JEFFREY BROWN: Who might he be working with or even talking to?


JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t know at this point.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, Waziristan actually refers to South and North Waziristan. These are agencies in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is a — is sort of the Wild West in a lot of ways. It’s very mountainous, not — poorly governed, tribal.

And what’s happened there is that a — a variety of tribal militant groups have integrated themselves very so with al-Qaida. And the TTP, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, that claimed credit here has worked very closely with al-Qaida for years now, but especially since 2007.

And what we see is that, since that time, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida have agreed on one thing, one thing most importantly, which is the need to attack Pakistan and kill Pakistanis. And now we see the possibility that they agree on something else, which is the need and the prioritization of attacking in the West. And that’s — that’s concerning.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is still possible, though, that he is a kind of — what would you call it, a wannabe, I mean, he — acting largely on his own, wanting to be connected or to be thought better of by some of these groups?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Absolutely. I mean, there are some things that are very suspicious about the Pakistani Taliban claim of responsibility.

For example, the original Urdu audio of the statement doesn’t mention Times Square specifically. It just mentions — mentions an attack in the U.S. It’s sort of vague. It doesn’t have an official logo, which these sorts of statements usually have. So, there is reason to be suspicious of this claim of responsibility, not to mention the fact that — that Shahzad did such a poor job actually implementing this attack.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, that’s what I was going to ask you, I mean, much talk about the crudeness of the bomb, the unsophisticated nature of the operation.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Yes. But this — you know, this shouldn’t be surprising. Attacks in the West by jihadis often fail because of technical mistakes. We saw that with Abdulmutallab and Flight 253, the Christmas Day would-be bombing over Detroit.

We have seen that Najibullah Zazi apparently was — who was the guy in Colorado that was planning an attack in New York City, was having trouble cooking up explosives. The same thing has happened in — in the U.K. several times, where these — these folks, even those that have had training in Pakistan by established, organized militant groups, have trouble actually implementing that training and putting it all together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you look at — you just cited a few other examples.


JEFFREY BROWN: When you look at that, you look at this, what does that tell us about our ability to prevent things like this? You know, there has been a lot of conjecture for a long time about car bombs. They’re used around the world.


JEFFREY BROWN: Why not more here?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think, you know, there’s a limit to what we can do. We should look at what NYPD and the FBI have done. From an investigation standpoint, I think they have done a great job.

I mean, they arrested this guy 48 hours after the attack took place. It’s very difficult to monitor everyone. And what I think is valuable and a lesson for us is that citizens have to be vigilant and be aware of what’s going on. It was the hot dog vendors, right, that alerted the police after — when they saw this truck smoking.

What we need to make sure is that — is that people in communities around the country, when somebody is doing something untoward, they feel comfortable coming forward and speaking to the authorities. And that’s a difficult thing to do, especially if communities feel like they are unduly — unduly pressured by law enforcement. And, so, law enforcement and sort of our national security apparatus have a very fine line that they have to walk.

JEFFREY BROWN: And last thing, back to Pakistan…


JEFFREY BROWN: … as the investigation moves over there. To what degree do we — do we — are — the cooperation level of the Pakistanis? How much is there coordination between the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence or military?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think it’s very hard to know with any precision on this particular case. But I imagine that the Pakistanis are doing everything they can after an attempted attack in a major U.S. city to show that they are good allies.

If the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban, were involved in this attack, it’s interesting, because this is the group that the Pakistani government has targeted most aggressively in Pakistan. There’s a lot of militant groups operating there, but this is one that they have actually been aggressive going after because of its history attacking the Pakistani state.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Brian Fishman, thanks so much.