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Probe reveals 'triggering event' for NYC plotter

Interviews with American officials suggest that Faisal Shahzad’s visits to Pakistan and the friendships he formed there were critical to his militant evolution.
Image: Faisal Shahzad
Faisal Shahzad, an immigrant from Pakistan, returned there and was trained by the Pakistani Taliban.U.s. Marshall's Service via EPA
/ Source: The New York Times

As dawn broke on July 10, 2007, Pakistani commandos stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, ending a lengthy standoff with armed militants in a blaze of gunfire that left more than 100 dead. In Washington, officials applauded the siege as an important demonstration of Pakistan’s willingness to confront Islamist militants.

Yet Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant living in Connecticut, was outraged. He had prayed at the Red Mosque during visits home. The militant Web sites he frequented portrayed the siege as a brazen attack on Islam by a corrupt government bent on pleasing America.

The episode was pivotal for Mr. Shahzad, setting him on a course to join a militant Pakistani group that would train him in explosives and bankroll his plot to strike at Times Square last month, according to senior American intelligence officials and others who have been briefed on or seen reports of Mr. Shahzad’s interrogations.

“That was the triggering event,” said a person familiar with the case.

On Monday, Mr. Shahzad, 30, pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to trying to detonate an S.U.V. packed with explosives on May 1, telling a judge that he considered himself “a Muslim soldier.” Mr. Shahzad provided new details about his training with the Pakistani Taliban, saying he had five days of instruction in explosives and translated a bomb-making manual from Urdu to English.

In the aftermath of Mr. Shahzad’s failed bombing, the public account of his radicalization has largely focused on his time in America. But precisely how this suburban father and financial analyst came to join a terrorist network in the mountains of Waziristan has remained largely a mystery.

Interviews with American officials, a senior Pakistani intelligence official and others familiar with the case revealed that Mr. Shahzad came into contact with militants in Pakistan through a chain of friends, starting with Shahid Hussain, a 32-year-old Pakistani whom Mr. Shahzad had met in Bridgeport, Conn., where both men went to business school. Back in Islamabad, the two friends and a third man, Muhammad Shouaib Mughal, set out to join a militant group as early as 2008, finding their way to the Pakistani Taliban through a connection at the Red Mosque, according to the interviews.

The group, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban, initially suspected that Mr. Shahzad was a spy, and turned him away, according to the interviews. But they accepted Mr. Mughal, who ultimately persuaded them to admit Mr. Shahzad. During training, he met briefly with the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the officials said. After Mr. Shahzad returned to the United States this year, he continued to communicate with the militant group through Mr. Mughal.

Both Mr. Mughal and Mr. Hussain have been arrested in Pakistan. Mr. Shahzad’s court-appointed lawyer, Philip L. Weinstein, declined to comment.

Driven by 'kinship,' not rhetoric
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Shahzad’s devotion to jihadist propaganda seemed to grow in tandem with the pressures of his life in Connecticut, where he owned a home and worked for a financial marketing firm, straining at times to support his budding family.

However, interviews with American officials suggest that Mr. Shahzad’s visits to Pakistan and the friendships he formed there were critical to his militant evolution. Mr. Shahzad seemed to lack “validation” from his family and work environment, finding it instead with “a bunch of like-minded brothers,” said an administration official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.

Mr. Shahzad appears to fit a pattern among young Muslims in the United States who have joined militant groups over the last year. In contrast to their predecessors — the 9/11-era jihadist leaders who framed their movement in religious terms — Mr. Shahzad and other recent recruits carry the attributes of “foot soldiers,” driven less by religious rhetoric than by personal bonds and their sense of obligation to the ummah, or global Muslim community, the American officials said.

“It’s much more attached to kinship with other Muslims,” a senior administration official said. Mr. Shahzad seemed motivated by the duty he felt toward his fellow Muslims and his loyalty to the friends who trained with him in Waziristan, the official said. In court on Monday, Mr. Shahzad said he had made a “pact” with the Pakistani Taliban that he would attack America.

He also told the judge that “until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan”; halts drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and stops killing Muslims, “we will be attacking U.S. and I plead guilty to that.”

Raised as the privileged son of a senior military officer in Pakistan, Mr. Shahzad arrived in Bridgeport in 2000, where he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Bridgeport. There he met Mr. Hussain, a business student who had been raised in Islamabad, the son of a civil servant. Mr. Hussain was a bright student who “wanted to excel in life,” his brother said in an interview. For a time, Mr. Hussain and Mr. Shahzad appeared to have been roommates in Norwalk, Conn., where Mr. Hussain worked as an accountant for DHL.

Mr. Shahzad struck his peers as fun-loving and professionally ambitious. But by 2004, things started to change. A longtime critic of American foreign policy, Mr. Shahzad began dabbling in jihadist ideology, listening to the Internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam, and Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican cleric, according to a person familiar with the case.

Mr. Shahzad took to sending incendiary e-mail messages to friends, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times. (The text of one message matches an essay posted the same month, under another name, on a jihadist Web site that is now defunct.)

While in some ways, Mr. Shahzad appeared to be thriving — he had married a Pakistani-American from Colorado, bought a home in Shelton, Conn., and, by 2006, was en route to becoming an American citizen and a father — he seemed frustrated. “I got this impression of a guy who just looked at his life prospects and felt unfulfilled by it all,” said an American administration official.

On frequent trips home to Pakistan, Mr. Shahzad seemed to be forming a new circle of friends. In Islamabad, he reconnected with Mr. Hussain, his former college friend, who had moved back to Pakistan after briefly living in Plantation, Fla., and then Canada.

The men sometimes prayed at Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, a hotbed for militancy. By the summer of 2007, the mosque had drawn international attention as its cane-wielding students, intent on installing a theocracy, kidnapped Chinese masseuses, raided music stores and took police officers hostage. It is unclear whether Mr. Shahzad was in Pakistan when the government’s security forces stormed the mosque in July, but he was “close to individuals who were associated with that event and that mosque,” an American administration official said.

If before the siege Mr. Shahzad and Mr. Hussain were on the sidelines of militancy, “they heated up after what happened,” said a person familiar with the case. “They realized that more than sympathy was required.”

By 2008, Mr. Hussain had introduced Mr. Shahzad to Muhammad Shouaib Mughal, the owner of a computer store in Islamabad. Initially, they met to discuss a problem with Mr. Shahzad’s computer, but soon found a common interest in the global jihad, an American official said. The men, along with other friends, began meeting at one another’s homes. “They want to do something, but they don’t know what to do,” said a person familiar with the case. “They are searching for anybody who can give them the opportunity.”

That opportunity came at the Red Mosque, where the men met the 17-year-old nephew of a Pakistani Taliban leader who offered to connect them to the network, said the person familiar with the case. But the group passed on Mr. Shahzad, whose father’s military background led them to suspect that he was a spy, according to Pakistani and American officials.

Mr. Shahzad remained determined. He asked his father for permission to join the mujahedeen in Afghanistan; his father declined. An imam in the city of Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad, told Mr. Shahzad to obey his father, said a person familiar with the case.

Return to Pakistan
By 2009, Mr. Shahzad decided he no longer wanted to live in the United States. After getting his United States citizenship in April, he moved back to Pakistan while his wife and two children went to live with her parents in Saudi Arabia, according to a relative.

Later that year, while Mr. Shahzad was staying with his parents in Peshawar, he became incensed by American-led drone strikes in the tribal region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Mr. Shahzad, who is of Pashtun lineage, called Mr. Hussain and said, “They’re killing Pashtuns,” the Pakistani official said. Mr. Hussain was “against innocent people dying in the tribal areas because of the drone strikes,” his brother, Khalid Hussain, said in an interview, adding that most Pakistanis shared that view.

Mr. Shahzad also reached out to Mr. Mughal, who by then had trained with the Pakistani Taliban, earning enough credibility to persuade them that Mr. Shahzad was not a spy, according to people familiar with the case.

“Let’s go,” Mr. Shahzad told Mr. Mughal on the phone, according to a person familiar with the case. In December, the three men met in Mr. Mughal’s home in Rawalpindi, then drove to Waziristan, where Mr. Mughal left them with an instructor and two aides, according to the interviews. Over the next five weeks, Mr. Shahzad, Mr. Hussain and a third recruit underwent boot-camp-style training, followed by instruction in bomb making.

Asked to carry out U.S. attack
When Pakistani Taliban leaders realized that Mr. Shahzad carried an American passport, they asked him to return to the United States to carry out an attack, and discussed possible targets with him, said people familiar with the case. The group initially gave Mr. Shahzad $4,000 in cash, he said in court. After he returned to New York on Feb. 2, Mr. Shahzad stayed in contact with the group through Mr. Mughal, who remained in Pakistan. They communicated about logistics and Mr. Mughal wired him additional installments of cash; the indictment against Mr. Shahzad says he received $12,000.

After Mr. Shahzad was arrested May 3 trying to flee the country following his bombing attempt, he cooperated with the investigation, officials said. Soon after, the Pakistani authorities arrested Mr. Mughal, Mr. Hussain and others in their circle, including a catering company executive and a retired army major, who has since been released.

During a visit to Islamabad on Sunday, Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that both Pakistan and America shared responsibility for the fact that Mr. Shahzad had “slipped through our nets.”

“Neither country paid enough attention to the warning signs,” he said. “We are working with the Pakistanis to tighten our methods of trying to locate and prevent that in advance.”

Reporting was contributed by Salman Masood, Souad Mekhennet, Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt from Pakistan.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.