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.