Who Is Faisal Shahzad?

Posted on May 4, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Law & Justice, Pakistanis Abroad
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Adil Najam

Pakistan-born and recently naturalized US-citizen Faisal Shahzad has been identified as and arrested for being the man behind the failed car bombing attempt in New York City.

The media in the US as well as in Pakistan is abuzz about him and information pours in so fast that it is very difficult to keep track of it. In these moments of information overload – when we know much and understand little – at least a few things should be clear to all and beyond dispute: the bombing attempted in New York City was heinous in intent and we should all be thankful that it was neither well-planned nor well-executed and the mayhem and murder that was intended was averted.

Authorities in Pakistan have done the right thing by assuring US authorities that they will cooperate fully in any investigation of this incident. Pakistanis in America should do the same. More than that, we need to be thinking about what happened here, and why. If, indeed, Faisal Shahzad was the man behind this attempted terror attack he may have (thankfully) caused no actual damage to New York City but he could deeply mutilate the reputation and self-confidence of the Pakistani community in the United States. One hopes that just as the citizens of New York did not let the car bomb blow up, Pakistanis in America will not let him destroy the self-confidence that this community has been so painstakingly reconstructing since the tragedy of 9/11.

Even as new information flows in and pieces of the puzzle get put in place there are going to be many important questions about exactly what happened when and how and why some of this does or does not fit into expected patterns. All of these are important – even critical – questions. But equally important – and critical – for Pakistanis in America is the need to begin understanding what all of this means for them, now and into the future. Let us not shy away from the tough questions that we need to ask ourselves. But let us also not be more tough on ourselves than we need to be. Let us work very hard to understand how someone from amongst us could even contemplate such a horrible act. But let us not let the horribleness of this contemplation lead to the condemnation of an entire community. Let us understand him for what he is accused of being: a criminal; let us condemn him for what is charged with having done: criminality; but let us not allow his alleged criminality with our own identity.

As one does all of this and navigates through the flood of information, here is a sampling of some important insights into who Faisal Shahzad is, excerpted from The New York Times:

Mr. Shahzad was born in Pakistan in 1979, though there is some confusion over where. Officials in Pakistan said it was in Nowshera, an area in northern Pakistan known for its Afghan refugee camps. But on a university application that Mr. Shahzad had filled out and that was found in the maggot-covered garbage outside the Shelton house on Tuesday, he listed Karachi.

Pakistani officials said Mr. Shahzad was either a son or a grandson of Baharul Haq, who retired as a vice air marshal in 1992 and then joined the Civil Aviation Authority.

A Pakistani official said Mr. Shahzad might have had affiliations with Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant linked to Al Qaeda who was formerly associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India militant group once nurtured by the Pakistani state. But friends said the family was well respected and nonpolitical.

“Neither Faisal nor his family has ever had any links with any jihadist or religious organization,” one friend said. Another, a lawyer, said that “the family is in a state of shock,” adding, “They believe that their son has been implicated in a fake case.”

Mr. Shahzad apparently went back and forth to Pakistan often, returning most recently in February after what he said was five months visiting his family, prosecutors said. A Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Shahzad had traveled with three passports, two from Pakistan and one from the United States; he last secured a Pakistani passport in 2000, describing his nationality as “Kashmiri.”

…According to immigration officials, Mr. Shahzad arrived in the United States on Jan. 16, 1999, less than a month after he had been granted a student visa, which requires a criminal background check.

He had previously attended a program in Karachi affiliated with the now-defunct Southeastern University in Washington; a transcript from the spring of 1998, found in the garbage outside the Shelton house, showed that he got D’s in English composition and microeconomics, B’s in Introduction to Accounting and Introduction to Humanities, and a C in statistics.

He enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, where he received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering in 2000, followed by a master’s in business administration in 2005.

“If this hadn’t happened I would have long forgotten him,” said William Greenspan, Mr. Shahzad’s adviser as an undergraduate. “There are a lot of students you get to know; they call you up once in awhile to say hello, they got a nice job. After he left U.B., I never heard anything from him.”

In January 2002 Mr. Shahzad obtained an H1B visa, a coveted status meant for highly skilled workers and good for three years, with a possible extension. Records show that Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics giant, applied for a visa around that time for a job similar to the one he had there in 2001, arranged through a temporary employment agency called Accountants Inc., according to a timecard found in his trash. Officials at the cosmetics company refused to comment.

In 2006, Mr. Shahzad took a job as a junior financial analyst at Affinion Group in Norwalk, a financial marketing services company. Michael Bush, the company’s director of public relations, said Mr. Shahzad resigned in mid-2009; government officials said he was unemployed and bankrupt by the time of his arrest.

After his marriage, to Huma Mian, he petitioned the immigration agency in 2004 to change his status; he wanted to become a permanent resident, another step on the path to citizenship.

Ms. Mian had just graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a business degree, according to Bronson Hilliard, a university spokesman. She lived in dormitories and in family housing, sharing her quarters with a sister or a cousin, Mr. Hilliard said.

Her parents lived in the Denver suburb of Aurora. A neighbor in their condominium complex, Johnny Wright, remembered that her new husband had visited the family only once before she joined him.

“He seemed educated,” Mr. Wright said. “Didn’t make a lot of conversation.”

And, finally, a particularly well-reasoned reflection on Faisal Shahzad and what his case means to his adopted country; from Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

Providing an accurate e-mail address to the seller of a vehicle you intend to use as a murder weapon is the sort of mistake that might get a person’s membership card pulled down at the terrorist union hall. No doubt Faisal Shahzad, the man arrested in the Times Square car bomb case, is having a bad day. It will probably get worse if he spends time in his holding cell reflecting on the trail of breadcrumbs he apparently left behind while planning what the evidence available so far suggests was the only act of violence committed during his young life as a U.S. citizen. If not for that e-mail address, Shahzad might already have stepped off an airplane in Karachi, ready to melt away into Pakistan.

Terrorists are adaptive, self-correcting, and cunning—except when they aren’t. For all of his alleged error-making as an individual, however, Shahzad’s case may actually reflect on how Pakistan-based jihadi groups have learned to protect themselves. According to news reports, Shahzad spent several months in Pakistan before returning to the United States. This would make him one of at least half a dozen U.S. citizens or residents to travel to Pakistan as alleged volunteers during the last several years.

Last week, before the Times Square incident, I was talking with a former U.S. intelligence officer who worked extensively on jihadi cases during several overseas tours. He said that when a singleton of Shahzad’s profile—especially a U.S. citizen—turns up in a place like Peshawar, local jihadi groups are much more likely to assess him as a probable U.S. spy than as a genuine volunteer. At best, the jihadi groups might conclude that a particular U.S.-originated individual’s case is uncertain. They might then encourage the person to go home and carry out an attack—without giving him any training or access to higher-up specialists that might compromise their local operations. They would see such a U.S.-based volunteer as a “freebie,” the former officer said—if he returns home to attack, great, but if he merely goes off to report back to his C.I.A. case officer, no harm done.

Whatever the narrative behind Shahzad’s case turns out to be, we can take solace that we will hear it in a court of law. Amidst the country’s often self-defeating search for a justice system to address terrorism, his is not a particularly hard case—a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil for a crime against Americans carried out in New York. We can nonetheless look forward to “The Daily Show” clips showing cable television anchors railing about the Obama Administration’s failure to recognize him as a warrior. Fortunately, like one of those Eleven O’clock News bank robbers who tries to rob an A.T.M., only to topple it over on himself, Shahzad’s case may help to illuminate a truth larger than himself: Terrorists are criminals, and the great majority of criminals are prosaic.

137 responses to “Who Is Faisal Shahzad?”

  1. Meengla says:

    @Sridhar,
    I am going to be brief here; we have mostly said what we wanted to say to each other regarding understanding where ‘the other’ side is coming from. I will keep on insisting that Indian media has brainwashed people especially about foreign policy matters to the extent that significant diversity of views in even educated (and well meaning, as in your case) bloggers is lacking. You may keep saying that there is a consensus because of Pakistan’s role in terrorism inside India. I, and most other Pakistanis, can and will say that India’s role and rule in Indian-held Kashmir is no less than ‘State Sponsored Terrorism’. However, with some pride, I can say that Pakistani media and blogspace still manages to self-flagellate about Pakistan’s foreign policy–especially policies since 1977 when the military took over that realm.
    We shall certainly meet again in this blogspace.
    Peace.

  2. Sridhar says:

    Meengla,

    I have no problems with somebody being critical. But if it is not factual, I will point that out. Jeremy was hardly being “balanced” as you suggest – he was being what is called a “troll” in internet language. A fire throwing one at that.

    Secondly, I don’t quite agree with your notion of “balance” – which seems to be the same as “blame both sides equally” in a situation where there are two sides to an issue. To me, balance is about being factual. Of being willing to be convinced by facts, even if it is against one’s position. Of being reasonable. Not of assigning equal blame on all sides even if that is unwarranted.

  3. Meengla says:

    @Jeremy,
    Please ponder this: You are in a Pakistani blog where, presumabely, most visitors are from Pakistan. It has been several hours since you post. But no Pakistani has jumped on you for being critical of Pakistan. You know why? Because most Pakistanis know that something terrible has been done in their name with or without their complicity.
    But one Indian @Sridhar comes here and could not wait to jump on you for merely being ‘balanced’. Indians have the unanimity of opinions when it comes to foreign policy. They are far more brainwashed, one-sided than Pakistanis are. There is a gem-of-an-article by a Western diplomat/journalist who marvelled about how little Indian media–of a supposedly ‘democratic’ country covers Pakistan’s concerns about Indus water rights versus how much diverse political discourse is in a ‘military dictatorship’ like that of Pakistan.
    PS. I will respond to @Sridhar soon. He remains a respected and as ‘balanced’ as an Indian blogger can be at least in my book.

  4. Sridhar says:

    Meengla,

    You rightly say that people should not look at 170 million Pakistanis in a monolithic way. And you are right. But then you go on to paint all Indians in the same brush. Isn’t that hypocritical?

    Speaking for myself, did you care to read what I posted? Where in that post did you read that I said that all Pakistanis were bad and that all Indians are good? Or that there were no mistakes made by the Indian Government? I went even further to refer to mistakes committed by citizens, not just an inanimate entity like the Government, which deflects blame from citizens. And any reference to Pakistani complicity, at least in my posts, has focused on the role of the Pakistan military and its agencies, and the jihadi organizations, not ordinary citizens.

    The fact is that an entire generation has grown up in India in the shadow of terrorism, which was aided and abetted if not directly sponsored by Pakistan. Hence, if there is any unanimity in opinions about the fact that official Pakistani Government policy has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Indians over the last 20 years, it results from the shared experience of a generation. The media in India is independent and quite fiercely so. There are different shades of opinion across the media and the current battle for ratings has sometimes made the media crass. But any suggestions of a controlled proto-Nazi media working as a part of a grand conspiracy to malign Pakistan would be laughable.

    Almost every single claim of Pakistani complicity has been proved right over the years. It may seem that every terror incident in India is blamed on Pakistan. First, that is not true. Incidents have been committed by others and in cases where any evidence has pointed to any other actors, the prosecution has focused on those. Nobody has claimed for instance that Naxalite violence is anything but an issue internal to India that has to be solved using a political approach ultimately. Also, no reasonable person thinks that there is no blame on the part of India for terrorism affecting us – at least some of it has been bred by various mistakes and injustices committed by us. But the fact is simply that a majority of major terrorist acts in major cities of India have had a Pakistani connection, which has been proved. It may seem like same old same old to you, but that is because it is truly a case of same old same old. And now what was exclusively India’s problem that people in the west could just ignore (or worse still, blame the victims like Jeremy does above) since Indian rather than western lives were being lost, is now the world’s problem. So there will be more of the “same old same old”, now from across the world rather that just from India.

  5. Sridhar says:

    Jeremy,

    I would suggest you educate yourself on the issues before passing comments which are nonsensical. In the case of the Mumbai attacks, nobody really doubts that the perpetrators were Pakistanis, that the attacks were planned and controlled from Pakistan. The lone surviving gunman has just been convicted after a legitimate trial in a court of law. An American citizen of Pakistani origin has recently admitted guilt to helping plan the attacks and of coordinating with organizations and individuals in Pakistan. Another American of Pakistani origin has been charged in the US for complicity in the attacks. The recordings of the conversations between the terrorists and their handlers are in the public record and were part of a documentary shown on Britain’s Channel 4 and subsequently by Fareed Zakaria on CNN. Even the Pakistani government admits that these attacks were planned and executed from Pakistan.

    And yet, there will be shameless people like you standing on a high horse without legs and commenting about something you seemingly have absolutely no knowledge of.

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