The Radical Lure of Pakistan's Jihad Tourism

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Mohammad Sajjad / AP

A Pakistani police officer stands outside a house owned by the family of New York City's Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad in Peshawar, Pakistan, on May 5, 2010

The ease with which Times Square bomb-plot accused Faisal Shahzad was allegedly able to undergo bombmaking instruction during a visit to Pakistan has once again highlighted the country's enduring reputation as the destination of choice for jihadist tourism. The claim by Pakistani government sources that Shahzad trained at a camp in North Waziristan will ratchet up pressure on Islamabad to crack down on militant groups that operate in zones of lawlessness on its soil, and to dismantle the infrastructure that continues to attract aspiring terrorists seeking to attack the West.

Although details of Shahzad's ideological journey remain murky, Pakistanis who knew him say Shahzad came from a quietly religious family, and may only have become radicalized recently. "Last time when I met him," retired schoolteacher Nazirullah Khan told Reuters, "he didn't have a beard. I attended his wedding." Shahzad's possible links to Pakistani militant groups are under investigation, but some officials suspect that he may have had ties to Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a banned terror group that began its life as a proxy of Pakistan's intelligence services deployed to fight India in Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai massacre, is also being investigated as a possibility, a senior Pakistani government source told TIME.

If suspicions of such links prove true, Shahzad's case would hardly be the first time a Western walk-in has turned up in the midst of Pakistani jihadist groups. Last October, David Headley, another U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, was arrested and later charged with helping plan the November 2008 Mumbai massacre. According to a plea agreement issued by the Justice Department in March, Headley made contact with al-Qaeda operatives during two trips to North Waziristan — the tribal area under limited central government authority, where Shahzad is also said to have received his training. North Waziristan is the only tribal area untouched thus far by Pakistan's military offensives against its domestic Taliban insurgency, and the region is home to an assortment of jihadist groups that have working relationships with one another (including al-Qaeda). The Pakistani Army has deferred any offensive in the area, claiming limits on its capacity to take on such a mission right now, but the Times Square plot is likely to revive U.S. pressure for an offensive there.

Shahzad and similar volunteers who arrive from the West are believed by Pakistani analysts to have begun their radicalization before making contact with local militant groups. "Somehow, in Canada, Britain and the U.S., people get self-radicalized, then they try and get in touch with radical organizations, depending on their background," says Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. "If they are Pakistanis, they come here." And the Internet has proved to be a powerful tool for both radicalization and recruitment. "There's so much available in cyberspace, it would scare you to death," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security analyst in Islamabad.

Any aspiring jihadist arriving in Pakistan is spoiled for choice when it comes to finding a militant group with which to sign up. Banned organizations such as LeT operate openly under different names, and it's not very difficult for the determined volunteer militant to find his way to such groups. "It's like a drug addict arriving in a new town," adds Siddiqa. "They always figure out where to get their fix."

Recruits bearing Western citizenship are prized by terror groups, because their passports, education, facility with language and relative comfort with life in Western cities are largely absent among the young, impressionable madrasah students often chosen to carry out vicious bombings in Pakistan, Afghanistan or even India. The potential of these more cosmopolitan recruits to strike in the heart of the West further fuels jihadist fantasies. As Michael Chertoff, the former head of Homeland Security, told MSNBC on Wednesday, "Unfortunately this is the kind of perfect mole for the terrorists. And this is why they're recruiting people who ... have clean records, are American citizens, have lived in America, because they want to take advantage of that cleanliness as a way of evading our defenses."

Britain has had to deal with this problem since the July 2005 bombings of the London commuter system. Given the vast number of Britons of Pakistani origin who move back and forth between the two countries, policing the traffic has severely tested authorities. The U.S. is not immune: Headley was able to move undetected between America, India and Pakistan for nearly seven years. Clearly, a problem also exists with respect to the extent of coordination between Western intelligence agencies and their Pakistani counterparts.

Shahzad, had he been seeking to join up with militants in Pakistan, would have had two distinct advantages over other Western-based volunteers. Having spent the first 18 years of his life in Pakistan, he was at ease in the country. His family's background in the northwest meant that he likely spoke Pashto, a rare asset. And the status of his father, retired senior air-force officer Bahar ul-Haq, is the sort of connection known to avert a suspicious gaze from law-enforcement agencies in Pakistan. Siddiqa goes further: "If you are traveling in Waziristan, and you are stopped, the fact that you are an air-force vice marshal's son can offer you protection," she says.

But whatever training Shahzad may have received in Waziristan must have been mercifully poor, judging by the multiple mistakes in the botched bombing attempt to which U.S. officials say he has confessed. Yet he's unlikely to have been the only Western wannabe to have passed through these camps and then returned to the West to put his militant education to work.