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NYC Bomb Plot Suspect Pleads Guilty With a Warning to U.S.

June 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed Times Square bombing plot, pleaded guilty to terrorism and weapons charges on Monday afternoon. Ailsa Chang of WNYC Radio describes the scene in the courtroom then Steve Coll of the New American Foundation speaks with Judy Woodruff about Shahzad's "puzzling case."

GWEN IFILL: A dramatic appearance in a New York courtroom late this afternoon and a guilty plea by a Pakistani-born American. Judy Woodruff starts our coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seven weeks after an SUV packed with crude explosives failed to blow up in the heart of Times Square, suspect Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty in federal court today for attempting to carry out the attack.

He told the judge that, unless the U.S. stops attacking Muslim countries — quote — “We will be attacking U.S.”

When asked if he wanted to plead guilty, he said he wanted — quote — “to plead guilty and 100 times more.”

The indictment against Shahzad, though, says he didn’t act alone, but received support from Islamic extremists thousands of miles away in Pakistan. The U.S. has combated these extremists on two fronts, giving aid to Pakistan’s army to flush the groups out, but also launching drone strikes, like one this weekend that killed a dozen.

U.S. officials blame those militants, not just for plotting attacks in the U.S. and Pakistan, but also for launching strikes across the border in Afghanistan. One such group, the Haqqani Network, believed to be based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, was linked most recently to a deadly suicide bombing in the Afghan capital, Kabul, last month.

Traveling in Pakistan this weekend, U.S. envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke said this Haqqani Network “moves with impunity across that border in a remote area in which the Pakistanis don’t have resources.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought to negotiate a peace settlement with some Taliban leaders in the region. But, this weekend, Ambassador Holbrooke said talking to the Haqqani Network was out of the question.

Shahzad, while not directly linked to the Haqqani Network, is accused of training with the Pakistani Taliban. He may now face life in prison.

Joining us now is Ailsa Chang. She’s a reporter for Public Radio WNYC FM in New York City. She was inside the courtroom this afternoon. And Steve Coll, he is president of the New America Foundation. He’s written extensively about the Taliban, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

To you first, Ailsa Chang.

Was the plea of guilty a surprise?

AILSA CHANG, WNYC-FM: I don’t know if you can call anything a surprise in this case. Remember, they had Shahzad, without even appearing in court, the first two weeks after his arrest, which is quite unconventional in these types of cases, even in terror cases.

So, nobody was really saying anything was a surprise at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What exactly did he plead guilty to?

AILSA CHANG: He pleaded guilty to all 10 federal counts against him, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, attempt to commit terrorism, transcending national boundaries, attempted use or use of a firearm during an attempt to commit violence. Every single charge that the federal prosecutors brought against him, he pleaded guilty to today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We just quoted, Ailsa Chang, two of his comments in the courtroom about the U.S. “Unless the U.S. stops attacking Muslim countries, we will be attacking the U.S.”

What more did he say? Give us a sense of him and his demeanor.

AILSA CHANG: He seemed quite eager to plead guilty today. In fact, at the beginning of today’s hearing, the judge actually had to slow him down. He even clarified at the outset. He said, wait, are we going to go through each of these counts separately, as if to say, let’s get this over with.

But the judge said, I want to make sure that whatever you say is voluntary today. And I want to make sure that you understand everything that is going on in this hearing.

At the end of the hearing today, Shahzad said that he basically is — he doesn’t view what he did today or what he has been charged with as a crime. He understands, he says, that it’s in violation of U.S. criminal law. But he said he doesn’t care for the United States’ laws.

Then the judge sort of countered and said — well, Shahzad first said, the U.S. is attacking Muslim countries. And the judge countered and said, well, what about the people that you could have hurt that night in Times Square? And Shahzad said, well, it’s the people that select their government.

The judge then said, well, what about the women and children in Times Square? The children, did they select the government?

And Shahzad said, it’s a time of war now, and the U.S. is also killing women and children in Muslim countries.

He didn’t seem the least bit apologetic for any of the counts that he was pleading guilty to today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did he appear physically?

AILSA CHANG: He appeared, as far as I could tell, healthy. He didn’t look any thinner than any of the photos that the media has been disseminating of him since his arrest.

He was wearing a white skull cap, an orange T-shirt underneath, a dark gray tunic and dark gray pants. But he looked relaxed, totally comfortable during the hearing. He spoke absolutely fluent English, very alert, and was nodding and saying yes throughout the hearing, as if trying to move the process along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you know if he had any family or friends in the courtroom?

AILSA CHANG: I couldn’t tell from where I was sitting. It didn’t look like it. It was hard enough just getting into the courtroom as a reporter. The only people I saw were other reporters and interns. But then again, I didn’t ask who everyone was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we reported, Ailsa Chang, that he faces potentially a sentence of life in prison. What more do we know about the sentence — sentence could be?

AILSA CHANG: Well, we — that’s exactly right. He faces a maximum of life. Of course, it’s ultimately up to the judge as to how many years in prison he will be spending. His sentencing hearing is going to be October 5. So, we will find out in a few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Ailsa Chang with WNYC joining us from New York, thanks very much.

AILSA CHANG: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we say, here in the studio is Steve Coll with the New America Foundation, who has written extensively about the Taliban.

Steve, just from listening to this, what does it tell you about Faisal Shahzad?

STEVE COLL, President & CEO, New America Foundation: Well, he’s a puzzling case. Initially, while he was carrying out his attack, he made a lot of mistake. He locked his keys in the car. He made himself easy to find. Then he immediately started cooperating after his arrest.

I think today he wanted to make clear, at least to his followers and perhaps to himself, that he saw himself as a warrior, not a bumbler and not a criminal, and that — and he does represent the latest in a disturbing series of cases of radicalization of individuals who had long lives in the United States.

Faisal Shahzad assimilated for many years that he lived in the U.S., and the number of these cases has picked up over the last 18 months. They — they have been around from time to time over the last 20 years, but there’s a new pattern that’s disturbing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and how concerned is the U.S. government about this?

STEVE COLL: I think significantly.

I think, for the first time since 9/11, over the last year or so, there’s discourse inside the government about how to prevent these sorts of cases and not just about how to detect them and bring people to justice. Immediately after 9/11, it obviously was a question as to whether domestic radicalization would be a problem in the United States.

There was some complacency, a sense that our Muslim population was well integrated and that we didn’t have the problem that you see in Europe. I think that complacency has — has now given way to concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this comes as there are renewed concerns, reports about what’s going on in Pakistan, the cooperation of the Pakistani government, officials in Pakistan with the Taliban. How seriously is the government taking those reports?

STEVE COLL: Well, the United States has been searching for a long time for a formula of engagement with Pakistan that will equip the Pakistani government to fight terrorism inside its borders, motivate it to see that the destruction of the Taliban is in its own interest, without appeasing those elements of the government that have had a pattern of cooperating with terrorists.

And the RAND Corporation report that you refer to is the latest intervention in that policy debate, essentially saying we have to be careful not to use only carrots, that it’s important to hold the Pakistani state to account for those elements within it that might be cooperating with radical groups.

And I think that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this does present a complicated set of questions for the U.S. government because, as you say, there — this new worrying information coming out. And yet the U.S. envoy to the region is saying as recently as this weekend that U.S. aid will continue to go and support will continue to go to Pakistan.

STEVE COLL: Well, there’s a lot at stake.

And to be fair to the Pakistani government, they are at war with an insurgency. They’re taking casualties day by day, week by week. The Taliban are attacking Pakistanis in many greater numbers than they’re attacking Americans.

They have even been hitting the army and the Pakistani intelligence service, which historically had collaborated with the Taliban. So, it’s a complicated picture in which the Pakistani intelligence service has lost control of some elements of its former clients among the Islamists, but at the same time seems to be maintaining contact or trying to maintain a detente other elements.

And to conduct U.S. policy in that atmosphere, you have to make a basic choice: Are you going to try to persuade the Pakistanis that you’re engaged with them, that you’re in this fight with them as partners, or are you going to be constantly scolding and penalizing them for every nuance of their behavior?

The U.S. has decided on engagement. The risk is that the Pakistani state pockets that engagement and then proceeds to maintain ties with militant groups that are determined to strike against the U.S. And the final danger of that is, if we do get another Times Square-like event, and it traces back to Pakistan, and Americans are dead, you can imagine that that will disrupt any policy of engagement that doesn’t hold the Pakistani state accountable for these ties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the risks being events, more events like back here, as well as events in the Middle — I mean, in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

STEVE COLL: He’s already part of a pattern of individuals in the United States traveling from the United States to Pakistan to connect with radical groups there for the purpose of equipping themselves to carry out acts of violence.

He came back and tried to do it spectacularly on a Saturday night in Times Square, but others have seemed to organize themselves to participate in similar violence. That’s the pattern that is dangerous. If one of those groups gets through and creates a significant event in the United States, it will put pressure, not just on American policy, but on the Pakistani government in a big way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Coll with the New America Foundation, thanks very much.

STEVE COLL: Thank you, Judy.