Updated: May 4, 2010, 5:30 p.m. E.T.
Investigators are poring over every facet of Faisal Shahzad's life to see if the Pakistani-American man, who was charged on Tuesday afternoon connection with the Times Square car-bomb plot, was a lone wolf or part of a terrorism cell. Shahzad reportedly told U.S. law-enforcement officers that he acted alone, in statements allegedly implicating himself in the failed attack following his arrest at JFK International Airport on a Dubai-bound flight. It's still not known if Shahzad is a member of the Pakistani Taliban or any other militant group. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, May 4, that the suspect was cooperating and providing valuable intelligence, although he declined to specify what the authorities had learned about the plot thus far, so as not to compromise the ongoing investigation.
Shahzad had reportedly returned to the U.S. in February after spending a number of months in Pakistan, where he traveled after becoming a naturalized American in April 2009. Pakistani officials say Shahzad is of Kashmiri descent and the son of a former top Pakistani air-force officer. On his latest Pakistani passport application, he had given his nationality as Kashmiri a fact that some analysts suspect might tie him to those militant groups based in Pakistan that were originally formed to fight Indian control of the divided territory. An official in Islamabad said Pakistani authorities are investigating whether he had ties to any Kashmiri jihadist groups. During his latest spell in Pakistan, Shahzad was also said to have spent significant time in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, where the government has waged a fierce war against Taliban militants. A Pakistani government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME on Tuesday that the suspect had had ties with militants while in Pakistan. "He was here at a training camp," the source said. The legal complaint against Shahzad, which charged him with terrorism and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, said he admitted to receiving bombmaking training in Waziristan, the lawless tribal region where the Pakistani Taliban operates with near impunity.
Pakistani officials claim that there have been a number of arrests in Karachi of people suspected by authorities of having a connection with the suspect. "There will be more arrests before the night is out," a senior government source told TIME. Other reports suggest that one man held in Pakistan allegedly spent time with Shahzad during his stay there and was said to have hired a pickup truck and driven with the suspect from Karachi to Peshawar, long a hotbed of militancy.
The attempted terrorism attack using a crude, homemade car bomb in Times Square on Saturday night was certainly clumsy. It lacked the ruthless organization and lethality of the London and Madrid bombings, which were carried out by professional al-Qaeda terrorists. Although Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban movement in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the botched bid in a poor-quality audio message released shortly after the attempt was uncovered, some security analysts doubt they're the real culprits. After all, if the TTP wanted to blow something up, the group has had plenty of practice and knows how to do it. "They would like to take credit for anything and just release a video," says Talat Masood, a former Pakistani army general. However, Masood adds, the TTP is "desperate" to inflict pain on the U.S. and is looking for ways to do so. "They'd like to harm America wherever and however they can."
Indeed, the Pakistani Taliban's messages gave indications of the group's broadening aims. Among them was a video that showed TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud (who had been presumed killed in a U.S. drone strike in January) threatening imminent strikes on unspecified U.S. targets. It's unclear if the group is even capable of extending its reach overseas beyond the Afghanistan and Pakistan arena or why it would want to, given that it is facing a punishing Pakistani military offensive in its tribal sanctuaries north of the capital, Islamabad. It has also been handicapped by U.S. drone strikes that have effectively crippled its communications capability and maneuverability.
The videos, which were recorded in April, provided the first proof that Mehsud survived the drone attack aimed at killing him and, as such, delivered the message to other militants that he's back and in control. There has been much talk of leadership struggles within the TTP, and it is not known what Mehsud's role is, if he has one, according to Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban. "A lot of this is for show. This is part of the internal squabbles and rivalries that are playing within the Taliban movement," Rashid says. Mehsud "wants to impress people that he's back and to make a big statement when he comes back and to also regain some kind of legitimacy."
Rashid doubts that the TTP has the capability to launch attacks overseas. However, other Pakistani groups do, he says, like Lashkar e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The TTP's global goals are aimed at a domestic audience, he says, and are a bid to latch onto seething anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban "are desperately trying to regain some kind of legitimacy for the killing and mayhem they're doing," Rashid says. "They're not waging a jihad against foreign occupation. They're killing their own countrymen."
Still, in an age of globalized and decentralized terrorism, it doesn't take much to launch an attack, just one ideologically driven zealot with homemade bombs. Shahzad was apprehended on a Dubai-bound flight and is believed to have intended to travel back to Pakistan. The Pakistani government has said it will cooperate with the U.S. investigation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.