The Radicalization of Faisal Shahzad

Pakistani supporters of hardline pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati protesting in Quetta on June 18, 2009. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

By Hassan Abbas

Originally published on Foreign Policy's Af-Pak Channel, May 7, 2010

The radicalization of Faisal Shazad raises important questions for three sets of actors: the people and government of Pakistan, US intelligence and law enforcement, and American Muslims. Before delving into these aspects further, allow me to present my basic theory about how he got radicalized. Based partly on my studies of Muslim youth in the West, I suspect that Shahzad was first influenced by various websites that encourage and propagate extremist religious views, mixing religious bigotry and dogma with conspiracy theories specifically targeting a younger generation of Muslims living in the West. Secondly, Faisal likely searched for militant training camps in and around Pakistan's troubled frontier after he decided he would try to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States. Economic distress might also have played a role in his radicalization, though the choice of target implies that something greater than personal grievance was at play—Times Square might have been suggested by his militant trainers in Waziristan, who are well aware of New York's symbolic importance.

In this context, Pakistan's government and military must recognize fully that moving against all varieties of militancy and terrorism simultaneously is critical. The time for a "step by step" approach is over. Hopefully, operations in North Waziristan are next on Pakistan's hit list.

US intelligence as well as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI must review their watch lists. I suspect the watch lists are bloated and the analysts reviewing them are overstretched. If every Muhammad and Osama is on the list; if everyone who travels to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria is on the list; and if even members of mainstream Muslim organizations like the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American and Islamic Relations, and the Universal Muslim Association of America are being closely watched, it is very difficult to pursue the real leads. Although this would be unpopular politically in the United States, culling the watch lists is the only way to isolate the significant chatter and stop terrorist attacks in America.

Connecticut's Muslim community maintains that Shahzad was not a regular visitor to any of the mosques or Islamic centers in the state. Still, in the future, American Muslims must be watchful and responsible and not import radical clerics, instead focusing on cultivating educated and broad-minded religious leaders from the United States. Imams who are raised and educated in the United States will be better equipped to communicate with future generations of Muslim Americans.

Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam chair professor at Columbia University and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York, and the author of a recent New America Foundation research paper on the intersection of politics and militancy in Pakistan's northwest.