Faisal Shahzad: The Broadway Bomber

College, job, suburban house: Faisal Shahzad seemed to be pursuing the American Dream. But the feds allege that he somehow got swept up in the ambitions of Pakistani militant groups

  • Matthew McDermott / Polaris

    An alarm clock that was part of the failed Times Square bomb plot.

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    The itinerary of Shahzad's life opened him to a host of potentially dangerous influences. Government sources in Pakistan say Faisal Shahzad was born in 1979 near Peshawar, the capital of the region where Islamabad has waged a ferocious war with the local version of the Taliban. Indeed, shortly after the incident in Times Square, Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed it was behind the plot — a boast Pakistani intelligence sources consider bluster. Islamabad appeared more concerned with contacts Shahzad may have had when he lived in Karachi, Pakistan's dangerous port city, among them Jaish-e-Muhammad, a militant organization that played a role in the 2001 attack on India's Parliament, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group accused of staging the 2008 siege of Mumbai. Both groups are deeply involved in the fate of Kashmir, a region contested by Pakistan and India.

    Yet for all the links to his troubled homeland, Shahzad's journey could have been that of any other immigrant in search of the American Dream. Shahzad received a student visa to the U.S. in December 1998 and, shortly after, arrived to get a computer-science degree at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He then got an M.B.A. and worked for a financial company in nearby Stamford. Shahzad and his wife Huma, an American citizen, bought a one-family house for $273,000 in Shelton, Conn., an almost picture-book American suburb with white picket fences, colonials with front porches, kids trotting off to school buses and golden retrievers prancing on perfectly trimmed front yards. One neighbor, Helen Cavallaro, remembers how Shahzad's wife would wear "traditional clothes" but says that "didn't bother us at all." In April 2009, Shahzad became an American citizen.

    Then something happened. The couple apparently could not keep up with mortgage payments and other loans. In June, Shahzad quit his job, and their house went into foreclosure. The couple, who had two children, moved to Sheridan Street in Bridgeport, a neighborhood surrounded by factories and occupied, as Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch says, by "working-class, working-poor people." The homes have metal, not picket, fences; several have graffiti sprayed on them. People keep to themselves. Even after his arrest, barely any of his neighbors could remember who Shahzad was.

    Last summer, Shahzad traveled to Pakistan with his wife and children. There, the U.S. government says, he attended a militant training camp. His family apparently remained in Pakistan after he flew back to the U.S. in February. The record of his return on a one-way ticket provides the only indication that American officials were suspicious of Shahzad's activities: he was pulled aside at the airport for secondary screening and made to answer questions about where he had been while abroad. Representative Jane Harman, chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, said information gathered then was "critical" and eventually was "used in his arrest." But it was not conclusive enough to keep him from re-entering the U.S. and, a little more than two months later, carrying out his plot.

    Inept as it turned out to be, Shahzad's assault on Times Square illustrates a downside of the U.S. war on terrorism. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and drones in Pakistan — have killed many would-be terrorists, those who continue to operate do so more independently. "These are primarily one-offs," says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., describing recent attacks in the U.S., including the one by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan in Fort Hood, Texas, and the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a flight as it approached Detroit in December 2009. "That means there's no warning."

    Nevertheless, law enforcement recently has managed to foil some of these individual actors, including the plot by Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant to the U.S., to blow up New York City subway lines; Zazi was arrested in September 2009. There were also FBI stings in Texas and Illinois last year that led to the arrests of men who believed themselves part of al-Qaeda operations. "We haven't bent their determination one bit, but these are smaller, lower-quality efforts," says Jenkins. "We have managed to break up their capability to conduct large-scale, centrally directed operations." By using so-called lone wolves, says Jenkins, terrorist groups lose the "opportunity to learn lessons and refine their skills." Of the current crop of terrorists uncovered in the U.S., he says, "Clearly, there's a quality-control problem."

    Yet that's no more than a small mercy. New York came desperately close on May 1 to suffering an attack that could easily have claimed the lives of scores of people. As images of the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center recede into memory, New Yorkers could be forgiven for thinking — and hoping — that the long war against extremist Islamic terrorism is somehow drawing to a close. They have just relearned an old lesson: it's not.

    —Reported by Christina Crapanzano/Bridgeport, Omar Waraich and Rania Abouzeid/Islamabad, Laura Fitzpatrick and Bobby Ghosh/New York and Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson/Washington

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