Pakistan can't link N.Y. bombing suspect to extremist groups

McClatchy NewspapersMay 11, 2010 

WORLD NEWS NYCARBOMB 1 MCT

Worshippers enter the radical Batkha mosque in north Karachi. Muhammad Rehan, an associate of U.S. terror suspect Faisal Shahzad, was arrested at the mosque in early May. On the wall, to the left, is written that, after prayer, jihad is the primary duty of Muslims.

SAEED SHAH — Saeed Shah/MCT

KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistani investigators have been unable to find evidence linking Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bombing suspect, with the Pakistani Taliban or other extremist groups, Pakistani security officials said Tuesday. Investigators also have been unable to substantiate Shahzad's reported confession that he received bomb-making training in the country's wild Waziristan region, officials said.

The lack of evidence found by investigators stands in contrast to forceful statements by top Obama administration officials linking Shahzad to extremist Pakistani groups.

The prime Pakistani suspect, Muhammad Rehan, was detained early last week outside a radical mosque in Karachi after Shahzad was arrested in New York. A member of the banned extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, Rehan was the only concrete link found so far between the 30-year-old Shahzad and the militant underworld in Pakistan.

However, the interrogation of Rehan didn't provide any link to the Pakistani Taliban or another militant group, officials said.

"We have not found any involvement of Rehan (in the New York attempted bombing). He didn't introduce Faisal Shahzad to the Pakistani Taliban," said a security official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with journalists. "No Taliban link has come to the fore."

An FBI team that flew into Pakistan after Shahzad was arrested also was allowed to question Rehan on Sunday. More than a dozen other suspects taken into custody in Karachi have been released. The Pakistani investigation continues, and new leads yet could emerge.

In Washington, a U.S. official told McClatchy there is "information that links Shahzad to the TTP, and not all of it is coming from him." The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, cautioned that it still wasn't clear how close a relationship Shahzad had to the Pakistani Taliban, who go by the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

The government in Islamabad is perplexed and angry at Washington's statements and threats about Shahzad links with the Pakistani Taliban, officials said. Officials said they suspected that the Obama administration was exploiting the issue to apply pressure for a new military offensive in Pakistan's tribal border area with Afghanistan, in the North Waziristan region, where Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, as well as al Qaida, are holed up.

"There are no roots to the case, so how can we trace something back?" the security official asked.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said over the weekend that the Pakistani Taliban were "intimately involved" in the attempted blast. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Pakistan of "dire consequences" if a plot that originated in Pakistan succeeded in the U.S.

Holder stuck to his words Tuesday. “We stand by the statement of the attorney general and John Brennan,” the White House counter-terrorism adviser, spokesman Dean Boyd said.

Some days earlier, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said Shahzad was a "lone wolf" who was "inspired by militants in Pakistan but didn't have direct contact with them."

McClatchy reported last week that six U.S. officials had said there was no credible evidence that Shahzad received serious terrorist training from the Pakistani Taliban or another radical Islamic group.

"There is a disconnect between the Pentagon and the (Obama) administration," said a senior Pakistani government official, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The Pentagon gets it that more open pressure on Pakistan is not helpful."

The case of the botched May 1 Times Square attack again put the spotlight on Pakistan as a magnet for jihadists from all over the world, and the allegations about the Pakistani Taliban have called attention to the Taliban's close relationship with al Qaida.

The international news media seized on the dramatic arrest of Rehan as he emerged from praying in the Batkha mosque in north Karachi as evidence of Shahzad's involvement with Pakistani militant groups. Investigators learned that Rehan and Shahzad had taken a 1,000-mile road trip together last year from Karachi to Peshawar, on the edge of Pakistan's extremist-plagued tribal area, raising further suspicions.

Pakistani investigators now think that the trip to Peshawar, during Shahzad's visit to Pakistan last year, wasn't suspicious.

The Pakistani probe found that Rehan wasn't a very active member of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a violent group that's organized attacks on India and has no history of global activities. Rehan knew Shahzad because he's related to Shahzad's wife.

Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani origin, reportedly has told U.S. interrogators that he trained in Waziristan, according to U.S. charges against him.

The Pakistani Taliban also released a video in which Qari Hussain seemed to claim responsibility for the U.S. bombing attempt.

The video said nothing specifically about New York, Shahzad or a car bomb, however. The Pakistani Taliban's official spokesman, Azam Tariq, has denied that his group was involved with Shahzad.

The inept construction of the failed bomb also raised doubts over whether the Pakistani Taliban could have trained Shahzad. They have expertise in explosives and were connected to the devastating strike on a CIA base in Afghanistan at the end of last year.

The Pakistani Taliban also favor suicide attacks. Without a track record as a militant, Shahzad would be viewed as a likely spy by the Pakistani Taliban, which are under attack by U.S. and Pakistani forces. Shahzad had left Pakistan when he was 19.

"The lack of tradecraft in Shahzad's device is compelling evidence that whatever 'contacts' or 'training' he might have received in northern Pakistan was largely confined to physical training and weapons handling, not the far more sophisticated skill set of fashioning improvised explosive devices," said a report Tuesday from Stratfor, a private U.S. intelligence firm.

The U.S. focus on Pakistan's tribal area continued Tuesday with another missile strike from an American drone aircraft, the third such attack since the failed Times Square bombing.

The strike, in North Waziristan, reportedly killed at least 14 suspected militants. The Obama administration has unleashed an intensive campaign of drone attacks in Pakistan, targeting extremist hideouts in the tribal area.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott contributed to this article from Washington.)

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