US-born cleric inspired Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad

The influence of US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki looms again as new evidence strengthens the notion that Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was inspired by a global extremist network stretching from Yemen to Pakistan.

In this undated file photo from the social networking site, a man who was identified by neighbors in Connecticut as Faisal Shahzad, is shown.
Muhammad ud-Deen/AP/File
There is new evidence that strengthens the notion that Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was inspired by US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, shown in this Oct. 2008 file photo in Yemen.

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The ideological thrust may have come from an American cleric now on the CIA hit list. The bombmaking expertise and funding possibly came from the Pakistani Taliban or other extremist groups in Pakistan.

New evidence is deepening a notion, albeit still unverified, that the failed car bombing in Times Square was not the work of one disgruntled young man, but inspired by a global extremist network stretching from Yemen to Pakistan, united by the Internet and a common radical vision of faith.

As a result, the United States is likely to push Pakistan to press harder against militant enclaves in that country’s North Waziristan region, deemed the epicenter of the network behind the failed bombing.

But that is likely to strain an already threadbare relationship between Washington and Islamabad, experts warn.

IN PICTURES: Top 10 American jihadis

Internet fuels extremism

As investigators sift through clues from the failed attack, one pressing question is how and why Faisal Shahzad – an MBA with a wife and children – suddenly drifted toward extremism.

The answer may be the Internet. Shahzad has reportedly told investigators that he was inspired to violence by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni cleric whom the CIA recently put on a hit list, reports the New York Times. Awlaki, on the run in Yemen, is also linked to the Fort Hood shooter and the alleged Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

According to one account, Shahzad told investigators that he actually met with Awlaki – as well as Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and even Abdulmutallah, who tried to blow up a Northwest airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas Day. Investigators are skeptical, reports the New York Daily News, saying Shahzad claims to know most of the biggest players in the world of radical Islam. They have yet to verify his statements.

If true, Shahzad’s apparent susceptibility to Awlaki’s sermons, coupled with an ability to travel to Pakistan for training, and then back to the US with an American passport, offers a disturbing portrait of a virtual jihadi highway, linking mentality to means and money.

Investigators are not yet sure where that money came from. They are looking to question a courier who allegedly funneled money to Shahzad to pay for the SUV used in the attack, as well as the improvised explosives. But the source country remains unknown, the Associated Press reports.

Taliban deny involvement

The Pakistani Taliban deny responsibility. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, a Taliban spokesman denied knowledge of a video – purportedly put out by the group – claiming responsibility for the Times Square car bomb attempt, though he praised suspect Faisal Shahzad’s ‘noble job.’

While The New York Times on May 5 cited unnamed American officials saying it was "very likely" the Pakistani Taliban was involved, the Monitor on May 7 cited a former top official at the National Security Council questioning why, if the Pakistan Taliban is in fact training individuals like Mr. Shahzad, the bombing wasn’t successful.

“I still think it’s odd that he wasn’t well-trained by a group that is very good at blowing things up and killing people,” Juan Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, told the Monitor. “The level of direction is still in question here.”

But as the evidence mounts for some type of involvement between Shahzad and Pakistani militants, the pressure on Islamabad is building to move against known militant enclaves in North Waziristan. It is there that Shahzad allegedly received his bomb training. But it is there that the Pakistan army has so far vowed not to go.

Pushing Pakistan’s army won’t be easy. And it could backfire if they are pushed to rush in too quickly, warns an editorial in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper:

Our troops are overstretched as it is and not yet ready for an operation of that magnitude. It probably will come eventually but rushing into the theatre of battle without adequate planning and logistical back-up will not serve the desired purpose.


IN PICTURES: Top 10 American jihadis

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