Why Shahzad's trip to Pakistan isn't important

So he picked up some useless training in Pakistan. That tells us next to nothing about how to prevent terrorism

Published May 5, 2010 12:45PM (EDT)

So it turns out that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, does indeed have some kind of connection to militant Islamic organizations from abroad -- based in Pakistan, in this case. Conservatives are plainly thrilled at the news. As a nonbeliever in the idea of a clash of civilizations, however, and something less than an avid fan of massive, indefinite military engagements, I have to wonder why exactly I'm supposed to care.

At the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn have an article called, "Not A One-Off Event." It’s Bill Kristol’s rag, so you get the idea: the Obama administration wants to downplay the massive threat embodied in Shahzad, and this would be a grave mistake.

Why does the Obama administration -- and its allies on the left -- go to such lengths to portray these kinds of attacks as the work of isolated extremists?

One possible explanation: an attack conducted by an "isolated extremist" would be almost impossible to stop. The more people involved in a plot, the easier it is to disrupt it.

And that’s one important area where the investigation should be focused now: on the other terrorists who assisted Shahzad.

There's plenty in this vein. At the Corner, the National Review blog, Victor Davis Hanson demands to know, "Is there a pattern here or what?" Hanson complains that "we are doing our darnedest to playact that radical Muslims who are trying to kill us are not trying to kill us."

Then we've got Commentary’s John Podhoretz, under the headline "It's not all under control":

A very nearly successful mass-murder plot arranged in Pakistan and carried out by an American citizen who bought a car for $1,200 cash off a website makes it clear just what kind of casual jeopardy we are in even now, nearly nine years after 9/11, and how fiendishly difficult it can be to prevent small-scale efforts that could bring about enormous pain and suffering and destruction.

In fact, it's not immediately obvious what we're even arguing about here, so pausing for a second to think about it seems wise. Conservatives insist that liberals are too eager to poo-poo international links among terrorists. So this raises a few questions: what is the relevance of the international connection? What does it tell us about the threat to American civilians from terrorism, in general? How should knowing about Shahzad's trip to Pakistan change our response to terrorism?

If you're, say, a writer at the Weekly Standard, the answer is that the Pakistani connection is evidence that terrorism is a vast and overwhelming menace, and we can only deal with it by meeting terrorists on their home turf with massive force. Thomas Joscelyn frets, "But what if Shahzad is simply lying and he was not a lone wolf? What if, as the press accounts are suggesting, there were more actors involved? What if this was yet another attack by the jihadists’ international terror network?" Hitting the nail rather more squarely on the head, Stephen Schwartz writes,

The rush to brush off foreign involvement in the Times Square bomb because of its crude technology, and dismissal of the declaration by the Pakistani Taliban of their responsibility for it, expose the slow learning curve and sluggish reflexes, almost nine years after 9/11, of Western governments in seriously facing global terrorism based in South Asia.

For these guys, it's great news that Shahzad is linked up in some way with radicals in Pakistan, because it’s an argument for why America needs to maintain an aggressive military posture in the Islamic world, and be generally hostile to Muslims everywhere. (Schwartz literally counsels us to look for danger "everywhere South Asian Muslims congregate.") You don't need, and can't use, an army to ferret out lone wolves. But an "international terror network" full of multiple actors -- that's getting much warmer.

But here’s the thing. Shahzad actually seems not to have gotten any valuable resources or training whatsoever in Pakistan. He was in contact with a couple guys there, now arrested, but preliminarily, it doesn't seem as though they actually rendered him much material assistance. Moreover, it's fairly apparent that Shahzad bungled the job. His bomb was poorly rigged, which is rather notable given that the one solid thing he supposedly picked up overseas was explosives training. (It might even turn out to be to the ironic benefit of the United States that he took the trip: he didn't become a very good terrorist, but he probably did become a more useful source of intelligence, once captured.)

Nor is it exactly clear what the trip to Pakistan tells us about how to deal with threats the U.S. faces, or what America's posture should be in, ahem, the Long War. After all, there's already an aggressive military campaign ongoing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a fat lot of good it seems to be doing. Maybe there are benefits that are invisible to us, but at the very least, it's safe to say, the American military presence didn't do anything to stop Shahzad -- nor could it have in any plausible scenario.

But it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to guess that America's aggressive military moves might have helped cause the attack. The one thing we really know about Shahzad’s political views, after all, is that he disliked President Bush and the invasion of Iraq. It's probably not a bad guess that he also disliked Predator drone strikes in Pakistan and a growing American army in Afghanistan.

Conservatives have also raised questions about why various bureaucratic checks didn't nab Shahzad. These aren't entirely silly -- it would be great if we had an intelligence bureaucracy that could do that. But they’re mostly silly. Shahzad's trip to Pakistan doesn't change the fact that he was, ultimately, one guy. He didn't rent a warehouse for training or buy up a ton of weapons. He wasn't sneaking around with a whole crew of likeminded militants.In other words, his "ties" to Pakistani militants don't actually suggest much in the way of a detectable conspiracy.

Instead, he went to Pakistan to learn things about bomb-making that anyone can figure out online. How that amounts to an argument for any kind of policy change eludes me: living with terrorism means living, inevitably, with a certain amount of risk from low-flying plots. That's what this was. We can blow out of proportion the sophistication of the threat, beat ourselves up in retrospect, and use the whole thing as a justification for the political preferences we already had (South Asian Muslims are not to be trusted!). Or we can not do those things, because we're mainly grown-ups.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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Faisal Shahzad Pakistan Terrorism Times Square Bomb Attempt War Room