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Failed Bomb Plot Tests US-Pakistan Ties

The failed Times Square bombing attempt has highlighted the challenges in pressuring Pakistan on anti-terror efforts.

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Inter Press Service

Amid mounting evidence that the failed car-bombing in New York’s Times Square was linked to violent Islamist groups in Pakistan, observers here are expressing concern that recently enhanced cooperation between Washington and Islamabad could be negatively affected.

Thus far, the two governments appear to be cooperating well in investigating the activities of the alleged terrorist suspect, 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad, who was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after boarding an Emirates Air flight bound for Dubai Monday evening at the JFK International Airport.

U.S. officials have reportedly been permitted to interrogate several men who were detained by Pakistani authorities in the port city of Karachi Tuesday.

Washington is also preparing a list of other individuals they hope to interview in Pakistan where Shahzad, a naturalised U.S. citizen, spent five months last year, according to U.S. officials.

Investigators here have said that Shahzad, who reportedly claimed to have been given explosives and other training from militant groups in “Waziristan”, has been providing information about his various contacts in Pakistan since his arrest.

“We are directly looking at who did he have contact with while in Pakistan, what did he do, who is supporting him and why,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley Thursday. “…We are informing Pakistan of what we are learning in this investigation, and then there are steps that Pakistan can take. I think this is a dialogue between the two countries.”

Already, however, hawkish voices here have expressed scepticism about the degree to which the Pakistani authorities are willing to cooperate fully in investigating the case, especially if it leads to groups with close ties to the Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). They note that Washington has long pressed in vain for a major counterinsurgency offensive in North Waziristan, a redoubt for both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces and increasingly for militant Punjabi Islamist groups, as well.

“North Waziristan is the hub of so many terrorist groups and so much terrorist plotting and planning that neither the (Central Intelligence Agency) nor the ISI seems to have much clue about what is going on there,” wrote Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid, who enjoys considerable influence in policy-making circles here, in the Washington Post last Wednesday.

“If action by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan is not forthcoming, the Obama administration should consider other steps – such as renewed screening of airline passengers from Pakistan,” editorialised the Post itself last Thursday, noting that such a step elicited strong protests by Islamabad when it was instituted for several weeks after the attempted bombing by a Nigerian national of a Northwest Airline flight last Christmas.

Similarly, the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal, while praising recent army offensives in the tribal territories along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, called for stronger military action in the region.

Islamabad “still has an obligation to ensure that none of its territory be a safe haven in which the Shahzads of the world can be trained in the use of improvised explosive devices,” it wrote, adding that the authorities should also arrest Afghan Taliban leaders based in Quetta in order to restore U.S. confidence in “Pakistani seriousness”.

With some of the same demands echoing in Congress, however, some analysts here warned that too much public pressure risked undermining what many observers believe has been unprecedented progress achieved over the last months – especially in counter-terrorism – in fostering U.S.-Pakistani cooperation on a range of fronts, including the disbursement of economic aid and facilitating the flow of support to Pakistan from international financial institutions.

“Such pressure could be disastrous,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre here. “It would harken back to the days of (former Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf, and you don’t want to put Pakistan in that position.”

Nawaz insisted that, contrary to published reports here, the army had already quietly expanded its counterinsurgency efforts from elsewhere in the Federally Administered Territorial Areas (FATA) well into North Waziristan and may now have more troops in that region than in South Waziristan.

“If anything, the (Times Square) attempt should yield much closer cooperation (between both countries) on keeping track of (militant) groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and may well convince (Pakistani forces) to shut off the routes used by these Punjabi groups to move into FATA,” he said.

It remains unclear precisely which group or groups may have been behind Shahzad’s actions.

According to unnamed U.S. officials quoted in the press, he has told the FBI that he was trained by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The attack also followed the release of a video last week of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud – who was believed to have been killed by a U.S. missile strike earlier this year – that warned that an attack on the U.S. by his group was imminent.

But the TTP’s main spokesman denied in an interview with AFP Thursday that the group had anything to do with Shahzad, and the round-ups by Pakistani authorities of suspects linked to Punjabi groups earlier this week suggested that they may have instigated the plot.

At the same time, terrorism analysts here insisted that the Punjabi groups, who were historically more active in Kashmir, and the TTP, as well as a number of other radical movements linked to al Qaeda, are increasingly coordinating their operations as their targets and aspirations – which used to be strictly local or national – have become more global.

Indeed, Shahzad himself has reportedly told interrogators that his motivation for the attempted bombing was to avenge U.S. drone missile strikes against targets in FATA, especially North Waziristan, that have sharply increased over the past year and killed more than 500 people, the vast majority suspected militants, according to the U.S. officials.

Indeed, the intensified drone campaign, which, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, is set to expand further in the coming months, creates a growing risk of blowback of precisely the kind that is being attributed to Shahzad, some analysts have long warned.

“In case after case, when you look at these kinds of terrorist groups – and not just in Pakistan – they realise that fighting on the battleground where they are limits their ability to affect the political decision-making of the people that they’re fighting against,” said Zia Mian, director of the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University, who cited the decision by the Irish Republican Army to take their fight to England as one example.

“They understand the politics of what they’re trying to do. If they’re trying to make the U.S., or Dehli, or Islamabad change their political decision-making, they take the fight there,” he added.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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