The unreluctant fundamentalist

Nadir Hassan May 15, 2010

In the days since Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad was arrested for his failed Times Square bombing attempt, the media has puzzled over how a Western-educated, upper-middle class man took to terrorism.

We have been subjected to a series of stories analysing Shahzad’s Facebook page, his wife’s Orkut profile and his family background to try and figure out his path from army brat to incompetent bomber. Quite apart from the peculiar propensity to use Shahzad’s pop culture interests to make grand pronouncements on his politics, the media is missing an important point. That a well-off Pakistani with a foreign passport might become an operative of a terrorist organisation is not all that novel — there are many previous examples of this supposedly shocking phenomenon already.

What needs to be analysed is how the Taliban and other extremist groups use a person’s background to their advantage. Would-be terrorists with a foreign passport, college education and personal wealth would be far more likely to be used in an attack in the West since logistical issues like visas would not be a problem. A study done by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey in 2005 found that in a random sampling of 75 terrorists involved in attacks against the West, 53 per cent held a college degree.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the profile of suicide bombers tends to match the stereotype: poor, illiterate madrassah students who have either been brainwashed or simply have no other options in life. Economics once again plays a part in this. While terrorist groups only launch the occasional attack in the West and always opt for high-value, maximum-publicity targets, in Pakistan such attacks have sadly become a dime-a-dozen and so there is a need for a constant supply of willing terrorists.

At first glance there is one nagging problem with this theory. Highly-educated terrorists should, in theory at least, be better at assembling bombs and carrying out attacks. And, at least in the case of 9/11, they were. Faisal Shahzad, though, proved to be a bumbling bomber at nearly every step. While the Taliban will always be looking for willing recruits, they would surely be worried about Shahzad being a double agent for the CIA and as such would only have given him the most basic explosives training and made sure he didn’t meet any high-up Taliban leader. If, by some miracle, he did succeed then the Taliban score a major coup; if he fails or turns out to be a spy then no harm done.

Recall last year, when five Pakistani-Americans were arrested on terrorism charges in Sargodha. At their trial they testified about their eagerness to join the Taliban and how they were rebuffed at every turn. It is now a given that young Muslims in the West are being radicalised. If their numbers swell we can expect many more attempted attacks like the one in Times Square. And the law of averages states that eventually one of them will be successful.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 16th, 2010.