N.Y. plot brings the politics of terrorism to the forefront

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed Tuesday morning that authorities have taken a suspect into custody in connection to Saturday's failed attack in Times Square. Holder identified the New York bomb suspect as Faisal Shahzad.
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 10:13 AM

As the U.S. government begins to build its case against Faisal Shahzad in the attempted New York car bombing, the politics of terrorism are sure to swell quickly in Washington as well.

For a White House that has been seeking a new relationship with the Islamic world, the prospect of another terrorist plot that appears to be connected to Pakistan will present a series of complicated -- and politically treacherous -- issues to confront.

High on the list of political questions is what impact the apparent plot will have on the controversial issue of whether Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- the avowed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- should stand trial in a federal courtroom in Manhattan.

That issue has become a thorny one for the Obama administration, which had originally pledged to bring Mohammed to justice in a federal court in the city where more than 2,750 people were killed when two hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, causing the twin towers to collapse. But intense opposition from Republicans and New York officials forced U.S. officials to reconsider, and Justice Department officials now say the final decision on where to try Mohammed rests with the White House -- and that no announcement is imminent.

Shahzad is set to appear in federal court Tuesday, raising concerns about a circus-like scene that could fuel the arguments of critics who say a 9/11 trial would paralyze parts of the city for months.

And the notion that New York barely averted a massive fireball in the heart of Times Square could bolster those who fear that putting Mohammed on trial in the heart of the city would inspire other terror attacks.

On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the Times Square case could help those who want to try Mohammed in federal court. They could point to fast and efficient police and investigative work in apprehending Shahzad and hauling him before a federal judge as arguments that civilian law enforcement and courts do work in terrorism cases.

The bombing injects the issue of terrorism directly into the national conversation even as lawmakers prepare in earnest for their reelection campaigns this fall.

But even before the campaign season begins, the White House is also sure to face questions about its early -- and often changing -- characterization of Saturday's attempted bombing.

Speaking on Sunday morning talk shows just hours after the car bomb was discovered, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the case appeared to be isolated, providing some assurance that people need not worry about multiple attacks.

"You know, at this point I have no information that it's anything other than a one-off," Napolitano said on NBC's "Meet the Press." But asked whether it qualified as an act of terrorism, she added, "You know, it certainly looks that way. It certainly looks as if it was intended to be that way."

Later that day, however, as Obama flew to the Gulf Coast to meet with officials battling the oil spill there, neither the president nor his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, used the word "terrorism" to describe the incident in New York.

In a brief statement before making broader remarks on the oil spill, the president pledged to "ensure that our state and local partners have the full support and cooperation of the federal government."

Monday morning, Holder pointedly declined to confirm that the attempted car bombing was part of a terrorist plot, telling reporters at a briefing that it was "too early to designate it as a terrorist incident. I think there's no question that the people, the person who was behind that act intended to spread terror across New York."

By the afternoon, Gibbs was willing to go further. Asked directly whether it was an act of terrorism, Gibbs said, "absolutely."

"I think anybody that has the type of material that they had in a car in Times Square, I would say that that was intended to terrorize, absolutely," Gibbs said. "And I would say that whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist, yes. We don't know who's responsible, and that's what we're looking at now."

The changing statements likely reflect the rapidly evolving dynamics of the investigation, which moved from initial reports to an arrest in just about 72 hours.

But they may also reflect an early reticence by the administration to jump to any public conclusions, especially when it relates to the issue of Islamic terrorism. Obama has made outreach to the Islamic world a key part of his presidency, saying repeatedly that the United States is not at war with a religion, but rather with specific terrorist groups.

The early rhetoric from the White House can be politically tricky and is often seized by Obama's critics, who contend his administration is weak on terrorism and national security. Napolitano's comment, soon after the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner, that the "system worked" drew howls of protests from Republicans.

In the early days after that incident, Obama called the incident an "attempted act of terrorism," but he later implied that the perpetrator was "an isolated extremist." That opened the door to an attack by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who said that "it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war."

Obama officials fought back furiously against that notion, offering increasingly aggressive statements about the seriousness of the breach of national security represented by the attempted bombing. The suspect in that case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, faces trial in federal court.

Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.

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