May 5, 2010

COIN 101: Disarming the TTP's Time Square Bomb

Guerrillas being guerrillas would have been a reasonable initial reaction to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s claim of ownership for the attempted Time Square bombing. The TTP has made similarly outlandish threats against the US homeland in the past, at times targeting the White House.

This could have been another cheap psychological trick to gain recruits.

But as a gush of information flows from Faisal Shahzad, would-be Time Square bomber, and US officials, the emerging profile of Shahzad does appear to lead into Waziristan. Here he claims to have been trained, though by whom hasn’t been released as of this moment.

"It's a leading line of inquiry," one federal law enforcement official said of the TTP. "There are only a few organizations in Pakistan that could provide training, and the Pakistani Taliban is one that has an ax to grind with us."

Much can change between the time of writing and the future, as this event moves by the hour and day, However, enough information has leaked to warrant the hypothetical examination of whether the TTP did in fact launch the Time Square bomb - and how America intends to react.

It won’t be long.

Two possibilities exist: either Shahzad acted as a lone wolf and sought out the TTP, or he participated in a plot. Both outcomes are equally perplexing for America to counter.

In the lone wolf theory, Shahzad the Bush-hating Pakistani loses his house and begins to lose his grip on reality. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Wanting to take action with the little means he had left, he links to a friend with militant connections or though family - possibly his father, retired Pakistani Air Vice Marshal Baharul Haq.

At this point ISI ties may come into play.

Then add in Kifyat Ali, Haq’s cousin, who denied Shahzad had any links to a religious group. He also told reporters at an upscale house in Peshawar, "This is a conspiracy so the [Americans] can bomb more Pashtuns.” This statement alone sounds iffy.

A TTP plot may not differ substantially from a lone wolf, save the motive. Shahzad would be recruited by someone within or through his family as a “homegrown” terrorist, rather than using someone out the FATA. This strategy steps behind the shield of US civil liberties, avoids many diplomatic and airport security procedures, and creates a greater psychological impact.

An enemy in the walls.

Multiple U.S. law enforcement officials said Shahzad had attracted no significant law enforcement attention before the attempted bombing. "He was not on the radar," said one official - the perfect man for a plot.

Both of these possibilities present counterinsurgency challenges America has yet to face in full; the Time Square bomb, sloppy as it was, remains ingenious if the TTP did in fact launch it. The TTP poses an unsolved riddle to the US military: how to combat an insurgency in a country you cannot enter militarily, where you have only external political clout and near-zero local support.

The Afghan Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia for instance, are content to wage a local insurgency. Conversely the TTP insurgency is copying Yemen’s insurgency, actively striking beyond its territory to provoke the counterinsurgent's home nation.

The TTP’s goal isn’t to “kill as many Americans as possible” in the words of US Attorney General Eric Holder and a multitude of White House officials.

Though the TTP and al-Qaeda’s ranks and territory have shrunk, their overall goal remains unchanged - make America spend as much money for as long as possible. They want America to militarily reinvest in Pakistan and stay in that mindset, similar to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) antagonism in Yemen.

Consider Hakimullah Mehsud, healing rather than dying, making his comeback in grand style. Known for how cowboy attitude, Hakimullah loves making a scene as evidenced by bombing a CIA base in Afghanistan, taunting the CIA, then facing the full wrath of the drones. Now he’s mocking America again.

Obviously the TTP and its al-Qaeda shadow seek an overreaction, hope to provoke more war, to force America into spending billions more in reaction to a bomb that cost thousands and didn't even explode. The New York time bomb could very well achieve its objective too. President Obama has already declared, “America will never be intimidated by terror.”

While a display of strength is necessary, “we will not be terrorized” is political speak for continuing the war in Afghanistan and striking wherever al-Qaeda hides. This is exactly what al-Qaeda and all of America’s enemies want.

The fundamental dilemma for America is how to attack and defeat groups like the TTP without giving it what it wants. Retaliatory strikes only have a temporary effect and do not qualify as COIN. As the enemy wants to war, an un-American reaction must prevail - don’t give it war.

The proper response to the TTP is limited military retaliation, ideally none. Security profiling must be avoided as political and diplomatic resources take precedent. Renew positive dialogue with Pakistan and push for civil operations in Waziristan, demonstrate progress over a Kashmir (and Palestine) resolution, and fix the countless errors of Marjah before it’s too late in Kandahar.

When the Oval Office phone rang for Shahzad, President Obama’s first calls hopefully went to his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Hamid Karzai and Asif Zardari.

They are the best and perhaps only means America has to combat the TTP.


  1. I think a main piece to this puzzle is not yet on the table.
    If it does lead to Waziristan, perhaps he came home as a reject.And then became a lone wolf.