Suspect Faisal Shahzad, A Changed Man
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
We're learning more details from the investigation into the attempted bombing in New York City last weekend. Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the Times Square bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, is cooperating with investigators and giving useful information. As clues in Pakistan, Connecticut and New York start adding up, officials say evidence shows Shahzad may have a possible link to the Pakistani Taliban. But until recently, Shahzad's background shows little evidence of extremism.
NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has reported this story since it's broke and joins us with the latest on the investigation and new details of Shahzad's radicalization. If you have questions about the investigation, our number is 800-989-8255, our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Dina Temple-Raston joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi. How are you?
ROBERTS: So what do we know about how Faisal Shahzad went from, you know, a young family man in Connecticut to being the Times Square attempted bomber?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's very unclear. But I think what's starting to become, with all the evidence, more clear is that the radicalization process for him was very quick. You know, in the old days when people were radicalized, it would takes years. There would be ideological sort of components to it, religious components to it and lifestyle changes to it. And it seems what happened here was that it went, you know, from pop to bang very, very quickly.
And we're going to see, I suspect, a lot of more of that in the U.S. We're starting to follow what they call the British model, you know, where South Asians from Britain would go to Pakistan to train and come back and in some cases not do anything, in another cases launch attacks in the UK. We always thought we were immune to this because we were such a melting pot here in the United States, and now maybe that's not so true.
ROBERTS: So what do you attribute the speed of - the speeding up of extremism?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Part of it's certainly the Internet and the fact that you can get back and forth and meet with people sort of in the ethernet, if you will, or in the ether and meet with like-minded people, and so there are lots of people out there who believe the same things you do and it sort of feeds on itself. The other part of it is that al-Qaida is fundamentally changing. It's under a great deal of pressure in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where all these drone attacks are taking place.
And last year it looks like what they did is they asked franchise groups, groups that shared some of their beliefs but maybe weren't, you know, with the al-Qaida brand name and said do whatever attack you can, train whoever you can; while we are here in this border region under attack, we need your help. And that seems to be exactly what we're seeing unfold from Abdulmutallab, the Detroit underwear bomber, who was trained by an al-Qaida group in Yemen, which was a franchise, to this young man, Faisal Shahzad, who - it's a little unclear who trained him but he certainly had a number of different, it looks like, affiliations with different organizations in Pakistan. And then he came back here and allegedly launched this attack.
ROBERTS: The other case that seems to have some parallels with are the young Somalis that were recruited from Minneapolis last year.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. We did, I think, something in the neighborhood of 25 stories on that particular episode. And what was different about that is there were about two dozen young Somali Americans who just went missing from the Minneapolis area. There's a huge Somali community in Minneapolis, about 70,000 Somalis live there. And when they first went missing, the FBI thought what was going on is maybe they were going back to the homeland to sort of visit uncles and become, you know, more Somali, because they had lived in America for so long.
And then they started showing up as recruits in an organization called al-Shabab, which is a group that is fighting the transitional government in Somalia and also has al-Qaida links. And that was the first sort of instance of what we call a jihadi pipeline, a way to go back and forth to a particular terrorist organization here in the United States. And it's something the UK has been dealing with a really long time. And what we didn't realize when this happened, which was sort of a year ago January, was that this was the first sign of the radicalization and recruitment process in the U.S. is really changing.
ROBERTS: And so what does that mean for people who are trying to investigate and combat it?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It makes it very hard. One FBI official said to me that it was like whack-a-mole, that, you know, once you hit one group, there are like three other groups that sort of pop up. And when you have a core group, like core al-Qaida, at least you know what you're fighting and you know more or less where they are and who the leadership is. But these groups are popping up with such regularity and so quickly in places we hadn't expected that it's very, very hard to fight.
ROBERTS: In this specific circumstance of Faisal Shahzad, we have heard from Attorney General Eric Holder that he is cooperating, that he is giving some information. How significant is that?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's pretty huge, actually. But we're seeing more and more of that. You know, because the radicalization process is so fast now, you end up getting sort of jihadi-lite in a sense, people who have embraced the idea of jihad, but they have not completely changed their lives and their mindsets over a number of years to sort of internalize it. And as a result of that, you get people who are much less committed to the movement.
I mean, it's very interesting, the thing about Shahzad is he parked the car in Times Square with all these - or he allegedly parked his car in Times Square with all these explosives inside of it, but he didn't stay in the car. He got out. He wasn't a suicide bomber. To have a suicide bomber, you need intense amount of commitment. And this is sort of indicative, I think, of what we're going to be seeing in the months and years ahead.
ROBERTS: My guest is NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. You can join us with your questions about the latest in the investigation into the Times Square attempted car bombing. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Or send email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's hear from John(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me.
JOHN: I have kind of a tangential question. I read a report, I think, on Sunday about a mysterious 911 call that authorities were investigating, where the caller told the dispatcher that the failed car bomb was a diversion from or a prelude to a much larger attack. And I was wondering if and how that has been resolved and if you knew about that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I do know about it. And I'm trying to remember how it was either resolved as being a 911 call that was trying to blame someone else, sort of like a poison pen letter, and saying somebody was responsible for it and they weren't, or it was a 911 call that they had established was a hoax. But I can't remember exactly the details of how they resolved it, but it was definitely resolved.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Ted(ph) in Phoenix. Ted, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TED (Caller): Thank you. My question is whether or not there were any warning signs or indicators that an attack was imminent, similar to the Christmas Day bombing where we knew a Nigerian was coming to potentially attack us.
TEMPLE-RASTON: To the best of my knowledge, there was not. And, in fact, this young man, Faisal Shahzad, wasn't even on the radar screen in terms of being on a watch list. He had been secondarily screened when he came back from Pakistan earlier this year, but that was mostly because the Detroit bomber had sort of put up the defenses of the U.S. so they were secondarily screening lots of people who were coming back into the U.S. And they didn't find anything untoward in this case and they let him go in his way.
ROBERTS: You know, you've been covering this since it happened and we've been getting sort of incremental details. But you wrote a piece about how the media has sort of played a role in the investigation, that media coverage may have affected it. Would you like to elaborate on that here?
TEMPLE-RASTON: In a negative way, yes.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I mean, it was a piece that aired this morning. And it took a look at how the media - basically, there's a little bit of tension between two very large law enforcement agencies here in New York - the New York Police Department and the FBI office here. And as a result, when things happen here, there tend to be lots of leaks. And it's sort of a - it's their rivalry to a certain extent. It probably is reporters playing one off the other to a certain extent.
But in the Zazi case, which was the New York subway bombing plot that happened back in September, the same thing happened. There was a great deal of leaking. But in this case, you know, Zazi had been arrested before things were leaked, before. And in this case, the man who they were zeroing in on, the suspect, hadn't been arrested yet. And there were things that we, as a news organization, knew about the investigation that we hadn't reported.
Because as a general matter, if I have a piece of information that is going to ruin the investigation or change the tenor of the investigation, if they haven't done anything wrong, it's just a piece of information that I've gotten, then I hang on to it. And I knew that they were zeroing in on a Connecticut man of Pakistani descent who had bought this SUV, but I didn't report it. And a news organization did report it and went even further. What they said was that he was a man from Shelton, Connecticut, of Pakistani-American descent. I mean, pretty much that almost exactly who he was without his name. And he actually saw that report and he told arresting officers later that that's when he knew that they were on to him and he started to make a plan to try and get away.
ROBERTS: Why did you choose not to report it?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I thought it was irresponsible to do so, frankly. I - they had arrested this man. Let's say I had reported it and he had gotten away, let's say I was the only news organization to have reported it and he got away. I'd be sort of responsible for helping a suspect flee the scene of a crime. And I'm trying to understand how actually saying that on the air would be any real -would help our listeners in any way. Why would it be important for them to know that they were focusing their investigation on a man they hadn't quite found yet and where he was? Why would that serve listeners? I just didn't see that it did. We had a long conversation, my editor and I, about this and we just didn't see what the use was to do that, except to sort of show off that I have good sources.
ROBERTS: My guest is Dina Temple-Raston. She is a reporter here at NPR. We are talking about the attempted car bombing in Times Square this past weekend and the subsequent investigation.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's hear from Sufyan(ph) in Memphis, Tennessee. Sufyan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Are you there from Memphis? I'm afraid we've lost that call. Let's hear from Martin(ph) in Santa Clara.
MARTIN (Caller): Hi. This is a great program, certainly like the topic. First thing is, I'm surprised by your comment where you're saying you're surprised at how quickly this radicalization is taking place just because - I mean, you look at where we are in the world, number of people that are feeling like they're -even though they're living in the U.S., they're living in a third world country, a lot of frustration, you know, just around the planet. So I don't necessarily see that this instant radicalization is new news.
But really to - my question is, do you feel that there's enough or there's adequate methods of monitoring communication between anybody in terms of identifying where these cells spring up so rapidly, as you've commented several times that these cells spring up so rapidly, it's almost impossible to catch them. But do we have enough, you know, methods in place to really identify cells when they start to arise?
TEMPLE-RASTON: The short answer is no. But the truth is that when you find these people, it generally is one of three ways. Either they contact someone that law enforcement already has on their radar screen. So essentially, you're contacting someone that they know is an al-Qaida operative or an al-Qaida recruiter. The second way is that you happen to be spotted in one of these camps in Pakistan by either foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani intelligence sources or by the U.S. in some way. And then the third way is that you are - end up being sort of caught up in some sort of domestic surveillance here.
And that leaves a lot of gaps between those three. They've been quite lucky in the way they've picked up people. But remember, this latest incident, Shahzad, he wasn't even on their radar screen. And he was a frequent traveler to Pakistan. He had clearly gone to the camps and he came back here and started buying things that were, you know, problematic at best, you know, propane tanks, gasoline. The fertilizer he bought was something you could just buy anywhere. But, you know, these are things that - these are dots you have to connect, but someone has to sort of put them on your radar screen first. And that's very hard to do.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Dan(ph) in Pacifica, California. Dan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Dan (Caller): Yes, indeed. I also was very surprised to - that anyone might be surprised about the rapid radicalization of people. We've been sending cowardly drone attacks on neighborhoods throughout the Middle East, even spreading spent uranium throughout the Middle East, which will kill people for generations to come. And I'm not surprised somebody might have an opinion about that. And I think the cure for terrorism is we got to stop doing it and it might go away.
ROBERTS: Dan, thanks for your call.
Dina, what do you make of the connection between, for instance, drone attacks in Pakistan and radicalization here in the U.S.?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, people have been making that connection in this particular case. And I think we have to wait and see if that is actually the fact. I think people just assume because the drone attacks are unpopular and because of the timing of this that those two things are connected. They may well be, but we don't know that yet. I think what the drone attacks do, without commenting on policy and whether you're for it or against it, is that in the past, when there was a call for people to come and train and perhaps attack Western targets, the call came from sort of an ideological place and from a religious place. And we want a Muslim homeland and the Western crusaders are trying to keep down Muslims. It was sort of a little bit more nebulous. I think - and what it attracted were people who were not necessarily the brightest bulbs on the porch or people who were giving a lot of thought to current events.
What's different now is that reasonable people can disagree about policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the drone policy in Pakistan. You don't need to be sort of a nut to be on one side or the other of this debate. And because of that, I think it expands the pool of people who possibly could go and train for jihad, that there could be perfectly reasonable people who feel the - who feel so strongly about the predator drone attacks that they feel they have to do something about it. And I think that is the new sort of wrinkle in this as well.
ROBERTS: And you describe the investigation side as kind of whack-a-mole. What sorts of changes or emphases do you think might come out of the information gained from this investigation?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I think it's too early to tell. I think it's way too early to tell. I mean, they're - certainly, they know that their last line of defense shouldn't just be a no-fly list. And I think there'll be other things like that that they look at. Where were the holes and how do you plug them up?
ROBERTS: Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. She joined us from NPR's New York Bureau. Thank you so much.
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