Would-be New York bomber's Pakistan neighbors in disbelief

McClatchy NewspapersMay 5, 2010 

MOHIB BANDA, Pakistan — Friends and relatives of accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad expressed shock Wednesday at his involvement in the failed attack, as a picture emerged of a respected, self-made family with no known links to extremism.

In Shahzad's ancestral village of Mohib Banda, a 20-minute drive outside the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, residents described a "sweet" boy and an upright family that still maintains a home here.

Villagers expressed pride in Shahzad's father, Baharul Haq, who'd worked his way up from an ordinary recruit to officer's rank in Pakistan's air force, and then rose to the rank of vice marshal, the equivalent of a two-star general.

The villagers' account suggested that the family wasn't wealthy, which could explain why Shahzad's relatives didn't bail him out when he faced mortgage foreclosure in Shelton, Conn.

Shahzad's parents fled their main home in Peshawar Tuesday, just before the news media arrived. The big house in the upscale suburb of Hayatabad was locked Wednesday, and a domestic servant inside the gates wouldn't answer questions.

Pakistani news accounts linked Shahzad's friend Mohammad Rehan, who was detained in Karachi on Tuesday to either the Pakistani Taliban or to another Islamic extremist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, which has staged assaults against India. However, there was widespread skepticism about Qari Hussain, the head of the Pakistani Taliban's suicide bomb training squad, who claimed responsibility for Saturday's failed car bombing.

The FBI said in a statement of charges that Shahzad had confessed to receiving bomb-making training in Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal area. That suggested that he'd linked up an extremist group and would be at odds with his claim that he'd acted alone.

Faiz Ahmad, a family friend and neighbor in Mohib Banda, said he noticed changes in Shahzad following his marriage about three years ago. Shahzad started to grow a beard, he said — often a sign of a deeply observant Muslim.

"He used to be the kind of boy who would play around. But after his wedding, he wasn't the same person. He was more withdrawn. He became more quiet," Ahmad said. "But we can't believe that Shahzad was involved in such a thing."

Mohib Banda is an ordinary-looking dusty village, where there are no large landowners. Villagers often enlist in the military to improve their circumstances, locals said. One of Shahzad's relatives was a major general who formerly headed the paramilitary Frontier Corps, a special unit that protects Pakistan's tribal area, some said. Plainclothes intelligence officials from several different Pakistani spy agencies appeared to be in the village Wednesday.

One villager, who gave his name only as Jahanzeb and said he served in the armed forces, said that Shahzad came infrequently to Mohib Banda, but that his father maintained close ties.

"The whole village knows the family. They are first-class people. This news was horrible for us. If he (Shahzad) did it, it was wrong, but the whole village, the whole country should not be tarnished with this," Jahanzeb said.

As a child, Shahzad moved around Pakistan, following the postings of his father, including time in Mianwali, Sargodha and Rawalpindi. Shahzad was educated mostly at schools run by the air force, relatives and family friends said. His father's career also took Shahzad to the teeming southern city of Karachi, where he may have formed extremist links. Security agencies on Tuesday detained several people who knew Shahzad in Karachi.

The whereabouts of Shahzad's wife, Huma Mian, and two young children, were unclear. Kifyat Ali, a cousin of Shahzad's father, said that she lived with in-laws in the Peshawar home. Other reports said she was in Karachi or Saudi Arabia, where her parents are expatriate workers.

Shahzad's older brother, Amir Shahzad, is a mechanical engineer living in Canada, and his sister is a doctor in Peshawar, Ali said.

After his retirement around 10 years ago, Shahzad's father received a grant of at least 100 acres of land by the government — a common practice for senior military officials - near the town of Dera Ghazi Khan, in the far south of Punjab province, several hundred miles from Peshawar, Ali said. There, he farmed as a new passion, growing wheat and corn.

"Baharul Haq was never involved in any political activities. He was purely a soldier, a very honest, very devoted, very decent man. And there has never been any talk of Faisal (Shahzad) having links to any jihadi group," Ali said.

Ali, a lawyer in Peshawar, suggested that the military, to protect its image, may have told Shahzad's parents to disappear.

"There may be some policy matters, which are the reason why they are avoiding the media," Ali said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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