US officials divided on Shahzad’s ‘TTP links’

Agencies May 12, 2010

WASHINGTON: Senior officials in the US appear to be divided about Faisal Shahzad’s alleged links with the Taliban in Pakistan. Kit Bond, a Republican Senator on the US Senate Intelligence Committee, cast doubt on the Obama administration’s claims that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) helped Shahzad plan his attempted bombing in New York on May 1.

After a briefing by US counterterrorism and law enforcement officials on Tuesday, Bond said it was not confirmed that Shahzad was working with the terror group. “I am not convinced by the information that I’ve seen so far that there was adequate, confirmable intelligence to corroborate the statements that were made on Sunday television shows,” Bond told reporters after the classified briefing. “We’ve heard lots of suspicions and tenuous connections, but as far as I’m concerned you can’t make statements prior to getting the intelligence.” On Sunday, US Attorney- General Eric Holder said: “The evidence we’ve now developed shows that the Pakistani Taliban has directed this plot.”

Holder told US television network NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ that he suspected that investigators would soon come up with evidence to show that the TTP helped finance the attempted bombing. However, chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein emerged from the same briefing disagreeing with Bond. She said there was a ‘high likelihood’ of Shahzad having interacted with the TTP. Feinstein expressed concern that Shahzad had been “completely under the radar” of law enforcement authorities. “It’s clear we’re facing a new kind of attacker, who’s already here and able to hide in plain sight, and we need to think about new defenses,” she said.

She also informed the press that Shahzad had waived his right to a speedy court appearance, which she said suggested that he was continuing to provide investigators with valuable information. Shahzad was arrested on May 3, two days after the failed bombing attempt, but is yet to appear in a court. Feinstein raised the issue of whether the TTP should be designated a ‘terror outfit.’ “I also believe that the Pakistani Taliban ought to be on the designated terrorist list, as well as the Haqqani network,” she told reporters.

The US State Department, meanwhile, said it was being “intentionally deliberate” in studying whether or not to place the TTP on its list of foreign terrorist organisations. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley told reporters that “any group that is to be designated must meet very specific legal criteria, but it is something that we are considering.” Adding the TTP to the list allows prosecutors to use an anti-terror statute to criminally charge those who provide support to such groups.

This has helped the US crack down on people in the US who send terrorists equipment, money or recruits. Five Democrat Senators led by Charles Schumer urged the administration on Tuesday to add the TTP to this list, saying the TTP had ‘declared war on the US.’ Rounding up all the rumours that had been circulating in Washington, however, an article published in The Washington Post (WP) on Tuesday criticised US authorities for insisting that the TTP was behind the botched Times Square bombing. In the WP article, author Jeff Stein says Holders statements on Sunday ‘smack of politics.’ Stein claims that “for any administration, dealing with [the ‘lone wolf’ theory] is much, much harder than placing Shahzad in a terrorist conspiracy.”

On May 8 General David Petraeus, who oversees America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had told reporters that Shahzad most likely had no direct links with the TTP and was possibly a ‘lone wolf.’ Stein quotes former CIA Middle East counterterrorism operative Robert Baer as saying: “The TTP knows how to make car bombs, set off explosions. So why didn’t they teach him [better]? And why didn’t they give him some scratch to pull this off?” Petraeus seems to be the only one these days feeling secure enough to tell the truth.”

Published in the Express Tribune, May 13th, 2010.

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