Pakistani Taliban must be dealt with

The attempted attack in New York City’s Times Square on May 1st illuminated a cluster of challenges confronting counterterrorism officials and policymakers. The quick arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistani-American, belied the fact that the threat to America has markedly increased as a result of the Pakistani Taliban’s decision to train operatives for attacks in the U.S., the increased sophistication of terrorist recruiting, the global influence of radical clerics who preach jihad online and the especially disquieting signs of attempts to radicalize America’s Muslim community.

The Pakistani Taliban’s involvement in the Times Square attack represents a dramatic shift for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had until then confined its attacks to government targets inside Pakistan itself and to U.S. and NATO forces operating in neighboring Afghanistan. However, as American and Pakistani efforts to decapitate and degrade the TTP have increased in tempo and success in recent months, the TTP has more closely aligned itself with al Qaeda. As White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told Fox News Sunday recently, “They train together, they plan together, they plot together. They are almost indistinguishable.”  In fact, on April 4, more than three weeks before the Times Square attack, TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who had been reportedly killed in a January missile strike, issued a videotape warning of attacks on American cities.

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While the successful Pakistani – U.S. effort against the TTP has motivated the Pakistani Taliban to seek to take the fight to America’s cities, the group still needs to find recruits who are willing to take the almost certain risk of being caught or killed and who are able to gain entry into the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took steps to make it more difficult for foreign nationals to obtain U.S. visas.  Al Qaeda understood it would have to develop more sophisticated recruiting methods in order to attract U.S. passport holders and citizens of western nations, who would be able to gain entry to the U.S. with relative ease.

Recently, al Qaeda and the TTP have demonstrated the ability to recruit, train and dispatch terrorists who are better able to penetrate U.S. security. The Christmas Day Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, came from a prominent Nigerian family and had been educated at Britain’s prestigious University College London. As a naturalized American, Shahzad was an even more prized recruit who, with his American passport, could come and go as he pleased.  Several dozens of American converts to Islam are now believed to have moved to Yemen. The whereabouts of these Americans is unknown, and it is a grave concern that they might be training in one of the al Qaeda camps in the country.

Al Qaeda’s success at recruiting a new generation of jihadis is due in large measure to the ability of radical clerics, and their followers to communicate over the Internet. According to a report on National Public Radio, Shahzad told American investigators he was inspired to act by “the only two clerics out there who have got it right.” 

One of the clerics, Anwar al-Awlaki is an American-born imam currently living in Yemen and well known to American authorities.  Three of the 9/11 hijackers attended al-Awlaki’s sermons, as did Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, who also engaged in extensive e-mail correspondence with the cleric.  According to public reports, Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, said that al-Awlaki helped to train him for his mission and provided religious justification for his attack. Even before the Times Square attack, the threat posed by al-Awlaki reportedly led President Obama to authorize the use of deadly force against him.

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The final and most worrisome factor in the emergence of this new generation of terrorists is the potential for increased radicalization of American Muslims. During much of the past decade, American officials and Muslim community leaders pointed to the fact that the alienation of Europe’s Muslim populations had not spread across the Atlantic. As the Fort Hood and Times Square incidents prove, that is not something that can be taken for granted. Press reports indicate increasing distrust between law enforcement and some Muslims – a trend that must be reversed and quickly. Our greatest asset in the fight against extremism is a stable American Muslim community that feels secure in cooperating with intelligence and law enforcement officials in confronting the scourge of radicalism.

The Times Square attack highlights both the improvements that have been made in counterterrorism since 9/11, especially in the area of inter-agency coordination, and also continued shortcomings in identifying and tracking potential recruits as soon as they enter the al Qaeda training “pipeline.” We need to do a better job at finding these people as soon as possible in their training so that we can watch them, develop other intelligence leads and prevent them from taking action against our nation.

Schiff is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on  Intelligence.