Radicalization of Times Square suspect was gradual, investigators say

By Greg Miller and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; 12:45 AM

The suspect in the attempted Times Square bombing appears to have been acting out of anger toward the United States that had accumulated over multiple trips to his native Pakistan, culminating in a lengthy recent stay in which he committed to the bombing plot while undergoing training with elements of the Pakistani Taliban, U.S. officials said Thursday.

U.S. officials said Faisal Shahzad's radicalization was cumulative and largely self-contained -- meaning that it did not involve typical catalysts such as direct contact with a radical cleric, a visible conversion to militant Islam or a significant setback in life.

U.S. officials said they are assembling a portrait of Shahzad -- based in part on the account he has given interrogators -- that may help explain why he attracted scant scrutiny during his transition from student and young father in the Connecticut suburbs to the man accused of parking a vehicle packed with explosives in Times Square.

Shahzad's transition "was a gradual thing that started years ago," said a senior U.S. intelligence official with access to interrogation reports from the probe. "It wasn't suddenly, 'I found God, and this is the right path.' There is a combination of religion and anger."

The official noted that Shahzad had made at least a dozen return trips to Pakistan since arriving in the United States in 1999 and that the CIA's campaign of Predator strikes and Pakistan's recent military operations are focused on a part of the country very close to where Shahzad grew up.

Officials stressed that investigators are still struggling to come up with a cohesive account of how Shahzad evolved into a would-be terrorist but that they are increasingly convinced that his accounts to interrogators, in particular his assertion that he was trained by the Pakistani Taliban, are on the mark. It is still unclear whether the militant group mainly known for strikes inside Pakistan went beyond training Shahzad to conceiving or carrying out the plot.

"We have nothing that is contradictory to what he is telling us," said a senior Obama administration official, adding that undisclosed new information from Shahzad's interrogation "sheds some light" on his motivation.

The investigation has turned up tenuous links between Shahzad and high-profile figures of jihad. A U.S. official said Shahzad was associated with at least one individual who was in contact with Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born cleric in Yemen who has been tied to the suspect in the attempted Christmas bombing on a Detroit-bound plane as well as the man charged in last year's fatal shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.

A senior law enforcement official said that Shahzad told interrogators he had watched Aulaqi's videos on the Web and that he indicated the cleric had inspired him. Shahzad himself does not appear to have communicated with Aulaqi, who is known for his online postings advocating violence against the West.

Investigators are examining the significance of large sums of money that Shahzad brought into the United States. Between 1999 and 2008, Shahzad declared $80,000 in cash when he returned from various trips overseas, said another law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. Under federal law, anyone bringing $10,000 or more into the country must note the amount on a customs declaration form.

"Obviously, we want to see if there are any links, especially recently," to terrorist groups, said the official. "Terrorists know banks are being watched, so are they moving bulk cash to finance their operations?" The official added that it is not unusual for immigrants -- particularly those like Shahzad who come from well-heeled families overseas -- to travel to the United States with stacks of currency.

The money complicates another line of inquiry: whether financial trouble played a role in Shahzad's radicalization. Shahzad abruptly quit his job at a financial marketing firm last June, when he and his wife and two children vacated their Connecticut home, moved overseas and stopped making payments on their mortgage.

The lender foreclosed on the property, prompting speculation that financial hardship contributed to Shahzad's alleged violent turn. Bringing stacks of bills into the country could suggest that his family in Pakistan was trying to provide financial help.

Shahzad's open declaration of the funds points to another emerging narrative -- that even though his ties to foreign radical groups may be real, he doesn't exhibit the instincts, training or traits of a hardened terrorist. Officials note that Shahzad did much out in the open, including booking his attempted getaway ticket on the Emirates airline under his own name even while he was probably aware that investigators were tracking him.

New information also surfaced Thursday on the whereabouts of his wife, Huma Mian, and their two children. U.S. and Pakistani officials said Shahzad has told interrogators that his family members are in Saudi Arabia and that he stopped there with them to drop them off during his February return from Pakistan to the United States.

Neighbors of Shahzad in Connecticut described him as a furtive figure, who generally avoided social interactions and was sometimes seen around his house late at night. One neighbor, Brenda Thurman, described seeing a figure dressed all in black with a tight hood over his head jump over the fence into Shahzad's back yard around midnight in January 2009. She went to investigate, and it was Shahzad returning from a late-night run.

"That was the only strange thing I knew about him," Thurman said. She added that Shahzad's wife seemed to spend a good deal of money on clothes. "They really loved Kohl's and Macy's," she said.

Those close to Shahzad saw indications of an emerging militancy in his personality.

Saud Anwar, past president of the Pakistani American Association of Connecticut, said he spoke with someone who attended the University of Bridgeport with Shahzad and continued to meet him on a social basis until a year ago. He said the individual, a Pakistani, did not wish to be identified.

"He said that a year ago [Shahzad] became more introverted, more religious, and more stringent in his views," Anwar said. He said that Shahzad was not saying anything "hateful" or expressing extremist views but that it was just a noticeable shift in his approach to life that contrasted with the "regular, social, interactive individual" he used to be.

U.S. intelligence officials and investigators said they are still seeking to determine the extent to which Shahzad was allowed into inner circles of the Pakistani Taliban.

Shahzad has claimed to have met higher-ups within the group, including its commander, Hakimullah Mehsud. But the assertions are greeted with some skepticism, in part because militant groups in Pakistan are likely to be suspicious that a new arrival from the United States might be a spy.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Sari Horwitz, Spencer S. Hsu, Anne E. Kornblut and Sandhya Somashekhar in Washington and Peter Finn and Mary Beth Sheridan in Connecticut and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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