In Times Square Attempt, A Pattern May Be Emerging

Authorities are trying to piece together a portrait of Faisal Shahzad, the man who has allegedly admitted his involvement in the botched car-bomb plot in Times Square. His attempt has led to new questions about the evolution of terror tactics and America's ability to respond. Host Scott Simon talks with Professor Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, who has been studying terrorism for more than 30 years, about the evolving profile of terrorists.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Authorities are trying to piece a portrait together of Faisal Shahzad, the man who's allegedly admitted his involvement in the botched car bomb plot in Times Square. That SUV, filled with explosives, was parked in the middle of one of the country's symbolic cultural centers. And it's led to new questions about the evolution of terror tactics and America's ability to respond.

Joined now by Bruce Hoffman, who studied terrorism for more than three decades, a professor at Georgetown University and a public policy scholar at the Wilson International Center for Scholars. He joins from the Wilson Center.

Professor Hoffman, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: When you take a look at what we know now, the foiled Times Square bomb plot - or failed, perhaps, I should say - does it seem to fit in with other incidents?

Prof. HOFFMAN: It fits in, I would say, more with an emerging pattern than with other incidents, in that what we're seeing is something that began to percolate in recent years but has now gathered momentum, and that is foreign terrorist groups with hitherto local agendas and otherwise very parochial aims seem to be stretching their wings and seeking to operate on a broader, more ambitious scale - or even, indeed, a global canvas. And it seems here, we have an American citizen that is trained overseas, trained in Pakistan, and then dispatched back to the United States to carry out a terrorist operation.

SIMON: Given - again, we have to emphasize what we know now, which could obviously change over the next few weeks and months - do you find any particularly telling details in his background: well-educated, middle-class kid?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, he defies the stereotype, or the conventional wisdom, that terrorists are poor, uneducated, provincial loners. Rather, you have someone who has a bachelor of science degree...

SIMON: Can I interrupt for a moment?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Sure.

SIMON: Do we still have that stereotype, because that wasnt the profile of, I think, almost any of the 9/11 plotters or the Christmas Day bomber.

Prof. HOFFMAN: No, that's absolutely right - is that we have successive evidence that that isn't the case, but it's nonetheless still believed. After the Christmas Day bombing, for example, President Obama spoke of terrorism being generated by people who are poor, that dont have opportunities, who may be uneducated. So I think it's a stereotype that still exists but nonetheless, exactly as you point out, it's one that has been consistently and persistently challenged.

And in that sense, we see that Shahzad conforms to rather, an image of someone who may very well be like us - or at least may be living the archetypal successful American immigrant story. And that's, I think, what also makes it so shocking, that it could be - you know, when we think of terrorism and 9/11, we think of foreigners who speak a different language, who have a very different culture, who we dont really understand coming to the United States to kill Americans.

In this case, we have a person whos become a naturalized American citizen, who's married, who has a bachelor of science degree in computer science, who has a master's of business administration, who - at least until he quit - is gainfully employed, has a wife and a child, is living the American suburban dream, and yet has somehow pursued this path that seems to us, you know, incomprehensible. But it's one where he has been radicalized and then deployed on a terrorist attack.

SIMON: Are current U.S. counterterrorism methods, from surveillance to watch lists to the follow-up that law enforcement authorities try to do, are they sufficient to meet what might be a newly developing class of terrorist?

Prof. HOFFMAN: Well, that's exactly the point - a newly developing class of terrorist. I think many of the measures that we have in place, indeed the national security architecture that weve created, is really an inheritance from the 9/11 Commission and from the attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001 - in other words, nine years ago. We're talking about now, a very different threat and a very evolutionary and dynamic one.

What I see as one of the main challenges and indeed, one of the more salient gaps in our national security architecture is who in the U.S. government is responsible for identifying, for instance, a radicalization process, and then interdicting the recruitment of American citizens to become terrorists. And that seems to be something that we haven't both figured out how to do but even more worrisome, who in fact should do it.

SIMON: Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University. Thanks very much.

Prof. HOFFMAN: Youre very welcome.

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