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Faisal Shahzad case intensifies scrutiny of links between Pakistan militant groups

Officials aren't saying which militants, if any, Faisal Shahzad may have met in Pakistan, but focus is intensifying on how interlinked Pakistan militants groups may be. Pakistan and US officials differ in their assessments.

By Staff writer / May 7, 2010

Supporters of the youth wing of Pakistani religious party Jamat-e-Islami rally to support the New York City's Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad in Karachi, Pakistan Thursday.

Shakil Adil/AP

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New Delhi

How connected are the slew of militants groups inside Pakistan? That question is poised to shape Washington's demands and Islamabad's response to the Times Square bomb plot once the investigation finishes.

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Already, some US officials appear to be shaping the debate by emphasizing the idea that these groups are interlinked. That formulation would put pressure on Islamabad to move not just against any one or two groups found to have helped Faisal Shahzad, but against the entire constellation of jihadi organizations in Pakistan.

Pakistan's security establishment, however, has differentiated between these militant groups in its engagements. Some factions are doggedly pursued; others are left alone, trusted with truces, or clandestinely encouraged. Such an approach assumes the groups are more independent than intertwined.

That's how retired Pakistani generals who have been down in the pit snake-handling these groups still portray the situation today. But younger researchers argue that, increasingly, the connections are growing.

"It doesn't mean there aren't varying degrees of hierarchy, command-and-control, and distinctions between these guys. But they are all more interconnected than they were in the past," says Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Investigators are not saying officially which militants, if any, Mr. Shahzad may have met with in Pakistan. Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), two groups originally focused on the Kashmir conflict, and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have all been mentioned by unnamed sources in media reports. Doubt that Shahzad met with anyone – or at least anyone he is rattling off – are also surfacing in reports.

If Shahzad indeed bounced around Pakistan's militant underworld of handlers, trainers, and financiers, getting fixated on which group "deployed" him back to the US may ignore the danger posed by the loose system of affiliation and cooperation.

"Whether or not LeT is going to deploy its own operatives to attack America tomorrow, it's still a threat to the West because it's still a gateway to other organizations, and it will still provide training to people who wish to do the West harm," says Mr. Tankel. "To say only the guys who sent [Shahzad] back out are the threat is wrong. It's also the guys who received him."

Militants move between groups

Manzar Zaidi, the director of research and analysis at the National Counterterrorism Authority, a new government body in Islamabad, says militants move between groups, break away, and start new ones regularly. Sometimes commanders jump, bringing the fighters under them along. Splinters and spin offs emerge after leadership disputes or government crackdowns. Individual veterans from the Afghan wars drift in and out of groups.

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