Pakistan factor looms large in New York terror probe

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington/New York : US investigators probing the aborted Times Square bombing attempt have shifted their focus to prime suspect Faisal Shahzad’s links in Pakistan with officials suggesting the Pakistan Taliban had very likely played a key role and even trained him.

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“A big part of that ongoing investigation is to evaluate where he was and what he was doing during his time in Pakistan,” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.

The justice department and investigating agencies are actively looking at the time which Shahzad spent in Pakistan, he said without going into details.

The New York Times also cited unnamed officials as saying that after two days of intense questioning Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistani origin, evidence was mounting that the Pakistani Taliban had helped inspire and train Shahzad in the months before he drove the car bomb to Times Square Saturday night.

Officials said Shahzad had discussed his contacts with the group, and investigators had accumulated other evidence that they would not disclose.

On Wednesday, Shahzad, the 30-year-old son of a retired senior Pakistani Air Force officer, waived his right to a speedy arraignment, a possible sign of his continuing cooperation with investigators, the Times said.

One senior Obama administration official cited by the Times cautioned that “there are no smoking guns yet” that the Pakistani Taliban had directed the Times Square bombing.

But others said that there were strong indications that Shahzad knew some members of the group and that they probably had a role in training him. American officials said it had become increasingly difficult to separate the operations of the militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The region, they said, has become a stew of like-minded organisations plotting attacks in Pakistani cities, across the border into Afghanistan, and on targets in Western Europe and the US.

Besides the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, groups operating in the tribal areas are the Haqqani Network and the Kashmiri groups Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the Mumbai terror attacks, and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told PBS that a team had been dispatched to talk to people in Karachi where several people have been arrested in connection with the Times Square case.

Noting that Shahzad has admitted about his bomb-making training in Waziristan, Kelly said: “There is a link to Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal said Shahzad possibly received instruction from the Pakistan Taliban’s suicide-bomb trainer.

If verified, the suspected links between Pakistan Taliban and Shahzad would mark a stark shift in how it and related jihadist groups, which have so far focused on attacks within Pakistan and in India, not the US, pursue their goals, it said.

Pakistani investigators are also probing Shahzad’s possible connections with Jaish-e-Muhammad, an outlawed Islamist militant group, after the arrest Tuesday of Tohaid Ahmed and Mohammed Rehan in Karachi, the Journal said.

The two men were believed to have links to Jaish, it said citing a senior Pakistani government official. Ahmed had been in email contact with Shahzad.

Rehan took Shahzad to South Waziristan, the official was quoted as saying. There, Shahzad received training in explosives in a camp run by Qari Hussain, a senior commander with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan who trains suicide bombers, the official was quoted as saying.

Hussain is also a cousin of Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan Taliban’s chief.

Hussain claimed responsibility for the attempted attack in a weekend audio message. His message followed a video of Mehsud, the Pakistan Taliban leader, in which he warned of a wave of attacks on the US. “Our fighters are already in the United States,” said Mehsud.

US and British intelligence officials estimate that about 100 Westerners have in recent years taken advantage of lengthy trips to the region to complete training at jihadi camps in Pakistan and returned to their home countries, the Journal said citing Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

That figure includes Najibullah Zazi and a key Mumbai attack plotter David Headley, who recently pleaded guilty in the US in terror cases, and numerous British terror plotters.

The size of American and British populations of Pakistani descent is so large that it makes detailed scrutiny of travel overseas difficult. There are more than 200,000 Pakistani-Americans and more than 400,000 Britons of Pakistani heritage.

In the light of the new evidence, the Pakistani army is likely to come under more pressure from its US allies to clamp down on Pakistan Taliban strongholds if strong links with Shahzad emerge, the Journal said citing analysts.