In wake of bomb scare, U.S. may lean on Pakistan to hit harder against militants

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A09

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The arrest of a Pakistani American in connection with the failed Times Square bombing again put a spotlight on Pakistan as a global terrorist training hub, raising the prospect of intensified U.S. pressure to break up militant networks.

In court documents, U.S. authorities said Tuesday that Faisal Shahzad, 30, admitted to having undergone bomb-making training in Waziristan, a remote tribal region that hugs Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. If this proves true, Shahzad would join a growing list of extremists who have trained with militants in Pakistan before attempting attacks in the West, including the plotters of deadly subway bombings in London in 2005 and a similar plan that fizzled in New York.

That pattern, now punctuated by the close call in Times Square, is likely to prompt U.S. officials to lean on Pakistan to deepen its fight against Islamist extremists, particularly in the militant hotbed of North Waziristan. But this is a particularly sensitive period in bilateral relations with Pakistan, a U.S. ally that the Obama administration considers key to success in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has chafed at past American exhortations to hit harder against militants on its soil, saying that it has paid a heavy price for its efforts against extremist groups -- in terms of lives and money. U.S. officials, seeking to improve relations, have more recently lavished praise on Pakistan for its military offensives in the tribal areas and arrests of top Afghan Taliban leaders.

Over the past year, Pakistan's military has challenged its homegrown militants with unprecedented force, and it has boosted its image by pushing the Taliban out of the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. But its boasts of having crippled the insurgency have been contradicted by intermittent attacks and, more recently, by the reemergence of a Taliban chief thought to be dead.

Still, Pakistan has resisted U.S. pressure to take on insurgents in North Waziristan or in Punjab province, an area that is at the heart of Pakistan but is also the base of militant groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, suspected in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

Shahzad told investigators that he trained in Waziristan, court documents show.

They did not indicate whether he meant South Waziristan, the Pakistani Taliban's former hub, or North Waziristan, where the group's leaders are thought to be currently based, along with Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

On Tuesday, intelligence officials in Pakistan said they had arrested at least two people in connection with the Times Square case in the southern metropolis of Karachi, where Shahzad had family ties and where militant organizations are known to raise funds and hide. Pakistani government officials said they would cooperate with the U.S. investigation.

News of the bombing suspect's ties to Pakistan was met with questions about whether the country was being unfairly maligned and fears that Pakistanis would face discrimination in the United States, additional screening at airports and global media scorn.

"Somehow or another, there is always a Pakistani connection," an intelligence official said.

Shahzad's arrest followed the release of new videos featuring Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

U.S. and Pakistani officials had thought that Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in January. In videos circulated online this week, Mehsud is shown pledging that his organization would strike in U.S. cities.

U.S. investigators are examining whether Shahzad had links to the Pakistani Taliban, a group that has sustained a campaign of suicide blasts and assassinations against Pakistani government targets.

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