Salisbury: Times Square Rorschach Test

Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Mohamed’s Ghosts writes in a guest essay for Informed Comment:

In the smoke roiling up from the street of a busy Saturday night in Times Square can be found traces of endless fantasies and obsessions lurking in the nation’s post-9/11 primordial lobes. The stages of the theater district are audience to this particular drama and a smoldering SUV illegally parked on 45th Street has emerged as a vague but dramatic Rorschach epic – almost anything can be seen in its smoky clouds.

Actually the response to the Times Square car bomb incident is only the latest iteration of one of the most disconcerting and persistent features of the American landscape since Sept. 11. “I am concerned,” Robert Mueller, head of the FBI, told a Senate intelligence panel a few years ago, “about what we are not seeing.” In former times – before 9/11 changed everything – there was a notion that what we cannot see is not there. Now, what we cannot see is trumped by what we can imagine, and what can be imagined becomes what is.

What do we know about the drama of the SUV? It was spotted burning, the fire was put out, propane tanks, fireworks and fertilizer were ominously packed inside, and the owner was arrested as he was about to fly off to Dubai. Certainly these are suggestive and even alarming facts. But little more is known about the suspect, an American citizen born in Pakistan, or his actions.

Within hours, however, purported details attached to this incident spewed out like ash from a hyperactive crater. Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old suspect, received terrorist training in Waziristan; he was in league with Taliban groups in Pakistan; he had met with radical Taliban leaders; his father was friendly with Pakistani radicals; he was angered by deaths of militants killed by U.S. drones operating over Pakistani territory; he was coached by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam targeted for assassination by the Obama administration; he was captured in the nick of time by secret military spy planes scooping up cell phone calls over New York City; his wife’s relatives lived in the same Colorado town where Najibullah Zazi, the would-be subway bomber, lived. All of this supposed information, dripping with conspiracy and 21st century terror, was leaked by anonymous investigators or federal officials to newspaper and broadcast reporters here and abroad.

How do these alleged links and facts hold up to what is actually known? If nothing else, questions should abound about the quality of terrorist training going on in Waziristan. If Shahzad created a “car bomb” he was profoundly inept. He packed away fertilizer that does not explode and he sought to ignite it with firecrackers designed not to detonate each other. The tanks of propane gas did not have their caps removed, rendering them useless as explosives.

What about Shahzad’s connections with a Pakistani militant group? The group in question, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, first said the smoky SUV was their operation. But within hours, three separate leaders of the group said, no, there was no connection. “We don’t even know him.” Azam Tariq told Agence France Press. On May 6, in an important story, McClatchy newspapers cited “six U.S. officials” who asserted that “no credible evidence has been found” that Shahzad “received any serious terrorist training from the Pakistani Taliban or another radical Islamic group.”

What about the connection to Anwar al-Awlaki, an American imam now supposedly in Yemen, who has been “linked” to two recent terror incidents: the November shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas that left 13 dead, and the thwarted December “underwear bomb” effort to blow up a plane over Detroit. Anonymous officials first said Shahzad claimed Awlaki as a source of inspiration. Now other anonymous investigators question whether the two met or communicated in any way. Shahzad’s father, a former military officer, has been picked up by Pakistani police for questioning about his son’s activities, but he is not a suspect in the case, according to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper. Yet American reports have linked the father to a radical Taliban leader. No mention of that coming from Islamabad.

Was Shahzad angered by drones over Pakistan or Afghanistan? It is impossible to say – that information, again, comes from anonymous investigative and intelligence sources in the U.S. Perhaps he was upset by purported marital problems, again a “fact” pushed by anonymous sources close to the investigation.

Such soft and tenuous facts, taken together, strongly suggest international plot and provide a foundation for political leaders, columnists, internet commentators and television personalities to build all manner of teetering dream houses. The administration, perhaps anxious to have attention diverted from the deadly mess in Afghanistan, is now putting the screws on Pakistan to deal with its radical fundamentalist groups decisively; Joe Lieberman wants a law to strip terror suspects of citizenship; Charles Krauthammer wants to do away with Miranda warnings; Michael Sheehan, a former NYPD deputy counterintelligence chief, wants more informers and secret police agents in U.S. towns and cities; a sheaf of commentators want to shuttle terror suspects directly to military commissions; others want the Obama administration to act quickly and assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki. The internet is also, again, under attack. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, allowed that Shahzad might be a “lone wolf” but, the general told the Wall Street Journal, “in the age of the internet, virtually anyone has the reach, because virtually anyone can reach out through cyberspace…and influence these individuals in ways that just were not possible in the past.” We are all potential suspects.

And the secret spy plane that supposedly pinpointed Shahzad’s cell phone aboard a departing airplane at JFK? It seems, in fact, that immigration officials checking a final passenger list recognized Shahzad’s name and alerted the FBI. No black planes in the New York sky were needed.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland,

just published by Nation Books.

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5 Responses

  1. .
    Salisbury = party pooper.
    Just think of the money to be made by scaring people, and then selling them security services and technology.

  2. It’s disturbing how tightly they cling to a narrative that has never “fit” very well. It apparently took 09/11 to convince that “terrorism” could be carried out without state sponsorship (which did not stop us from invading Afghanistan, of course). The state-actors have been replaced by various great-man evil-doers, Anwar al-Awlaki being the “new Bin Laden” apparently with vast alarums being sounded wrt real-life American muslims being “converted” to terrorism, always somehow “in league” with Al-Qaeda. I’ve been anticipating ad hoc wannabe acts since 09/11 and simply marvel that there have been none of consequence.

    Cynically I wonder if creating an “all roads lead to Anwar al-Awlaki” narrative is not being created to rationalize his assasination. Some people insist that he brainwashed Hasan, for instance, part of the superhuman power of the evil doers, rather than the more likely evolution that Hasan sought our Al-Awlaki because that was where his thoughts were leading him. It is hard to mock the idea that we are at war with Islam when so many non-muslim Americans seems to not only believe this is true but that Islam represent some sort of existential threat , even as Af-Pak flounders and is so easy to ignore, as civilian casualties mount and quality of life goes down the toilet — oh, an opposition the occupation swells “the taliban’s” ranks (the taliban being the inaccurate one-size-fits-all name for the opposition)

    Obama and British Petroleum must be thanking their lucky stars for this this “the system worked!!!!” diversion — this poorly conceived and executed amateur hour attempt (I’m tempted to call it a stunt) has eclipsed the ecologic catastrophe being unfolded. News that the planned “capping” failed before it could even be implemented is “below the fold.” or off the front page entirely — And now the Kagan nomination … the Tennessee floods also apparently are not receiving the attention they deserve.

    We are not being well served by our news industry. This is narrative is all too reminiscent also of the make the profile fit the “suspect” molding of Bruce Ivins into a master criminal Anthrax mailer, when previous prime suspect Stephen Hatfill managed to clear himself.

  3. “Such soft and tenuous facts, taken together, strongly suggest international plot and provide a foundation for political leaders, columnists, internet commentators and television personalities to build all manner of teetering dream houses. The administration, perhaps anxious to have attention diverted from the deadly mess in Afghanistan…” Fascinating how the author whacks “political leaders, columnists, internet commentators and television personalities” for speculation based on little or no direct evidence ~ then immediately engages in speculation, himself: “The administration, perhaps anxious to have attention diverted from the deadly mess in Afghanistan…” ;-)

  4. It is chilling that an attack which failed, one in which the perpetrator was nabbed in timely fashion should stir up such anti-civil rights sentiments among American politicians and political pundits. Those civil rights are part and parcel of a system which in this case worked, but all the hair pulling and teeth gnashing from the right is about how it nearly didn’t work. The fact that the bomber managed to park his car bomb in New York and set it off would be scary enough except when you realize that if the bomb had been assembled correctly from materials which would have been effective, the pattern of activity around the acquisitions would probably have sent up red flags all over the place. As well, the near escape of the bomber was foiled by a backup procedure which double checked the passenger manifest. The truth is that this wasn’t close and the only terrorism in the whole kerfuffle is that whipped up by the right.

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