Officials doubt Pakistani Taliban behind New York bomb attempt

McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2010 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — U.S. counterterrorism officials and South Asian analysts said Monday they doubted the Pakistani Taliban's claims of responsibility for Saturday's attempted bombing in Midtown Manhattan, but the claims nonetheless underscored the group's soaring ambitions as a flag-bearer for al Qaida.

Three Internet videos released Sunday and early Monday show the group's commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, thought by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence to have been killed in a January airstrike, very much alive. The Pakistani Taliban also claimed to have been behind the botched Times Square car bombing, while Mehsud threatened more attacks.

U.S. officials, requesting anonymity to speak about an ongoing investigation, said there was no evidence to support the claim. "People are pretty skeptical" about it, one official said. Experts in Islamabad also said the Pakistani Taliban don't have the logistical capability to stage an operation of this sort in the U.S.

The White House Monday characterized the failed plot as an act of terrorism. "I would say that that was intended to terrorize. Absolutely," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "Whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist."

Two U.S. officials said the device in a parked vehicle, containing propane tanks, gasoline and fireworks, bore a strong resemblance to two car bombs discovered and disabled in central London in June 2007.

A day later, there was a vehicle attack against the airport in Glasgow, Scotland. One attacker died in the blaze while a second assailant was captured, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

U.S. investigators haven't named any suspects in the attempted New York bombing.

The claim of responsibility by the main faction of Pakistan's Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, focused renewed attention on the group and its hideout in the country's North Waziristan tribal region.

Pakistan, Afghan, Arab and Central Asian extremists have taken refuge in North Waziristan, on the border of Afghanistan. Pakistan's military so far has resisted intense U.S. pressure for a full-fledged military operation there, although it launched offensives in other tribal areas.

The Pakistani group and its close allies have claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks in Pakistan that have killed hundreds of civilians. The group's members, including the leadership, have little experience in the wider world.

"The (Pakistani) Taliban could provide the training, not the logistics, for attacks in the West," said Muhammed Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent research organization in Islamabad. "I don't think al Qaida would allow them to have an international reach. The Taliban are their local partner."

In one video, Mehsud said that American cities would from now on be the target. The Pakistani Taliban is incensed at the campaign of U.S. missile attacks on them, launched from unmanned drone aircraft, in the tribal belt.

The video states it was made April 4. It's possible the group released it now in an attempt to gain publicity from the New York bombing attempt.

In another video, Qari Hussain, a close associate of Hakimullah Mehsud, said that the "recent attack in the USA ... is revenge for the great and valuable martyred leaders of the mujahedeen (holy warriors)". He listed not only Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani group's founder who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in August 2009, but also the more recently killed leader of al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Omar al Baghdadi.

The Pakistani Taliban has previously asserted responsibility for international attacks with which it appeared to have no connection. In April 2009, it bizarrely tried to claim credit for a shooting spree at a Binghamton, N.Y., immigrant community center by a Vietnamese man in which 13 died.

However, the movement did demonstrate some international links earlier this year. Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in a video released in January with Jordanian triple agent Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, who killed seven people working for the CIA when he blew himself up at agency's outpost in Khost, Afghanistan.

There are growing concerns that militant groups in Pakistan's tribal areas are becoming more extreme.

One such indication is the killing last week of a well-known retired officer for the ISI, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency, Khalid Khawaja, who was known for his support for the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

The group that claimed Khawaja's execution, the previously unknown Asian Tigers, lashed out at not only the ISI — which once had close ties to Pakistani extremist groups — but also two of the best-known militant groups, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, for being stooges of the spy agency.

The Asian Tigers are thought to be extremists from Pakistan's heartland Punjab province who relocated to the safety of the tribal belt, which is populated by Pashtuns, the ethnic group that makes up the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"This (killing of Khawaja) is a harbinger of a very dangerous trend. It shows a very fractured situation, polarization in Waziristan," said Mahmood Shah, an analyst based in Peshawar, Pakistan, who was formerly the top security official for the tribal area.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Strobel reported from Washington.)

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