Times Square Bomb Arrest Raises U.S. Security Questions

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Atlas Press

Faisal Shahzad, who was arrested in connection with the attempted Times Square terrorist attack

The Times Square car bomb failed to detonate, but it could yet cause political reverberations around two questions: Should the government have known about the plot and its alleged perpetrator? And does using the rules of the criminal-justice system against a man accused of plotting a terrorism attack against America leave the country more vulnerable? So far, the answers to both questions seem to be breaking in favor of the Obama Administration, but it's early days yet. And questions have been raised over how Faisal Shahzad managed to board the Dubai-bound flight on which he was arrested shortly before takeoff on Tuesday at JFK International Airport despite being under surveillance by the FBI.

The criminal complaint against Shahzad alleges that he received bombmaking training at a militant camp in western Pakistan. Still, the suspect appears not to have previously registered on the radar of the U.S. security bureaucracy through any known association with terrorist or radical groups.

Pakistani government officials told TIME on Tuesday that Shahzad is of Kashmiri descent and the son of a former top air force officer. On his most recent Pakistani passport application, he gave his nationality as Kashmiri — a fact that some analysts suspect might tie him to militant groups based in Pakistan that 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 said to have spent significant time in Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, where Islamabad 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 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 hotbed of militancy. 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.

But so far, the only indication that Shahzad had raised any suspicion among U.S. officials is the fact that he underwent secondary screening at the airport upon his return to the U.S. earlier this year. According to Congresswoman Jane Harman, chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Shahzad was pulled aside and gave "critical contact information that was entered into the system and used in his arrest yesterday."

At a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Shahzad was screened "because some of the targeting rules applied," but declined to elaborate. At the same press conference, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said, "There are a number of steps that are taken to identify potential terrorists, whether that's the country from which they originate, in terms of terrorist training camps, or the individuals they associate with." The fact that he appears to have briefly evaded surveillance to buy a ticket and board a flight out of the country also raised concern among legislators, although Attorney General Eric Holder insists there was never any danger of Shahzad slipping through the net.

Despite the allegation that he trained in Waziristan, Shahzad can't have been any jihadist professor's star student: the bomb contraption he is alleged to have built was so dysfunctional that it could have illustrated a "how not to build a bomb" manual. Perhaps the good news is that jihadist training may have deteriorated as networks based in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come under sustained attack from the U.S. and its allies.

More distressingly, the case could highlight a downside of the U.S.-led war against terrorism since 9/11: while wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and drone strikes in Pakistan — have killed hundreds of militants, those who survive tend to operate more independently, and there are plenty more willing to join them.

"We haven't bent their determination one bit, but these are smaller, lower-quality efforts," says Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. "We have managed to break up their capability to conduct large-scale, centrally directed operations. Clearly there's a quality-control problem. So they're exhorting violence by locals, to do whatever they can, wherever they are." Instead of 9/11-style attacks carried out under direct orders from Osama bin Laden and lieutenants, recent efforts have been attempted by more amateurish lone wolves.

Americans should not take too much comfort from the ineptitude of the Times Square bombmaker. "If Major [Nidal] Hasan had jumped up on the desk at Fort Hood and shouted 'Allahu akbar' and his guns jammed, he would have looked like a buffoon," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer who writes about terrorism. "But his guns didn't jam. This guy didn't get it right — he didn't know how to do bombs — but the next guy might know how to do bombs."

Coming after months of fierce debate between congressional Republicans and the Administration over the appropriate legal strategy for dealing with terrorism suspects, Shahzad's treatment after his arrest was always going to be controversial. At Tuesday's press conference, Pistole said that "Joint Terrorism Task Force agents and officers from NYPD interviewed Mr. Shahzad last night and early this morning under the public-safety exception to the Miranda rule. He was, as the Attorney General noted, cooperative, and provided valuable intelligence and evidence. He was eventually transported to another location, Mirandized and continued talking."

Before hearing that Shahzad had been read his rights, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said, "I don't believe [people like Shahzad] should be given Miranda rights ... [in case] he gets lawyered up and doesn't give any information. We need information to know how this thing happened." Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Attorney General should discuss reading Shahzad his rights with the intelligence community before doing so.

As details of the arrest began to emerge, legislators from both parties were effusive in their praise for the efforts of the U.S. law-enforcement community, though the GOP leadership has been more circumspect on the issue of Shahzad's handling. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday, "Hopefully the appropriate officials are using this opportunity to exploit as much intelligence as he may have about his overseas connections and any other plots against Americans either here or abroad."

But the controversy over reading Miranda rights to terrorism suspects is unlikely to go away: Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman announced on Tuesday that he plans to propose a bill stripping the citizenship of those Americans deemed by the U.S. intelligence community to have joined foreign terrorism networks. Presumably the Shahzad case, as it unfolds, will feature in that debate on Capitol Hill.

— With reporting by Katy Steinmetz / Washington; Omar Waraich / Islamabad