The Obama administration confirmed the speculation that alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad is linked to the Pakistan Taliban, with two officials saying Sunday that the terrorist group was behind the attack.
President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is founded upon the notion that Al Qaeda is the primary terrorist threat to American security. If the Pakistan Taliban is behind the May 1 Times Square bombing attempt, however, it suggests that the lines are blurring among terrorist groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The concern is that groups like the Taliban, which previously had only local aims, are increasingly eyeing international terrorism, like Al Qaeda.
Yet the attack could also suggest something more hopeful to US antiterror efforts: a growing desperation among militants along the Pakistan-Afghan frontier. After nine years of stuttering offensives and ceasefires, the combined efforts of the US and Pakistan in the region might be beginning to have an effect.
The past year has brought major changes to the remote Pakistani tribal areas home to the leaders of Al Qaeda and the various Taliban factions. And no group has felt the brunt of these changes more than the Pakistan Taliban.
That is because of who they are.
Pakistan Taliban double teamed
Historically, most of the militant networks within Pakistan have secured either benign neglect or direct support from the Pakistan government by pursuing Pakistan’s own agenda. When Pakistan wanted to wield more influence in Afghanistan, it promoted the Afghan Taliban. When it wanted to strike at India over the smoldering issue of Kashmir, it has turned to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The Pakistan Taliban, however, has emerged only recently and with the express goal of attacking Pakistan itself for its perceived departure from Muslim values (for example, its alliance with the US). That means Pakistan has given it no quarter.
Unlike the largely superficial offensives that Pakistan has launched against militants in the past, it has undertaken repeated and sustained offensives against the Pakistan Taliban. Meanwhile, in an attempt to curry favor with the Pakistanis, the US has used its drones to target Pakistan Taliban leaders, too.
The drones have taken their toll, with a series of Pakistan Taliban leaders killed. Yet perhaps the failed Times Square bombing offers better insight into how severely the group has been battered by the combined efforts of the US and Pakistan.
Authorities have described Mr. Shahzad as poorly trained and the bomb as being so crude that was more of a pyrotechnic device than a true weapon. To some, this is evidence that the Pakistan Taliban is on the run, and is frantically seeking to strike out at the US in whatever way possible.
A new Pakistani nexus of terror?
Others worry that this could be the first spluttering attempt of a new nexus of Pakistani terrorism. The Pakistan Taliban is not alone in sustaining losses during the past year. Though Pakistan has largely ignored Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and its related networks, the US has pounded them hard with drone attacks.
Shahzad has reportedly told investigators that he was passed around among numerous terrorist outfits. While these groups have always been interrelated, the Times Square case suggests that perhaps their targets and goals are becoming similar, too.
When given ample time and space to operate largely as they pleased during the regime of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, they were at leisure to do as they chose, each maintaining its own identity and sphere of influence.
Now, it appears that they could be drawing closer out of necessity.