By Anne E. Kornblut and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 10, 2010; A10
Senior Obama administration officials on Sunday blamed the Pakistani Taliban for the attempted car bombing in Times Square, saying in the most definitive terms to date that the militant group was responsible for planning and financing the botched attack.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said investigators had "developed evidence that shows the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack," a sharp escalation from the initial assessment that Faisal Shahzad had acted alone and without sophisticated training. Holder's remarks, coupled with similar statements by other senior U.S. officials over the weekend, highlighted the emerging role of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that appears to have only recently moved to follow through on its ambition, expressed for years, of striking inside the United States.
The group, Holder said on ABC's "This Week," has taken on "a new significance in our anti-terror fight."
The Times Square plot would mark the first time the Pakistani Taliban has tried to strike on American soil, signaling that the group -- which is an umbrella organization of militants in the region -- may be moving beyond its earlier targets in Pakistan and, much more rarely, Afghanistan.
John O. Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser at the White House, said the administration is "taking very seriously" the threat posed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, calling it a "very determined enemy." But Brennan suggested the many errors in the execution of the Times Square plot on May 1 also illustrate that the administration's existing counterterrorism strategy -- which hinges on striking targets abroad using Predator drone aircraft -- is working.
"Because of our success in degrading the capabilities of these terrorist groups overseas, preventing them from carrying out these attacks, they are now relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training," Brennan said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen now in custody in New York, told investigators that, on a recent five-month trip to Pakistan, he trained in Waziristan, a base of operations for al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in the mountainous border region near Afghanistan. Until Sunday, officials had been vague about the connection between Shahzad and the TTP, which they now say directed his return to the United States to attempt an attack. There are reports Shahzad claimed he was motivated by revenge for the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan; Brennan said it appeared the suspect was driven by the "murderous rhetoric of al-Qaeda and the TTP that looks at the United States as an enemy."
Although unsuccessful, the operation represents a remarkable comeback for the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who had been rumored to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in January.
The group had insisted he was alive, and last week two newly released videos of Mehsud proved them right. It was his and the Taliban's second resurrection in a year: Pakistani officials declared the Pakistani Taliban hobbled after the death of its former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a drone attack last summer. Only months ago, the Pakistani Taliban appeared leaderless and, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, on its knees, after a military operation that chased it from its base in South Waziristan to North Waziristan.
The group is a relatively new actor among the militant groups operating in Pakistan. It came together formally in 2007, cementing its foothold in Pakistan's remote tribal areas -- where the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda had by then found sanctuary -- by upending the local power structure through brutal killings of tribal leaders.
For a time, it was tolerated by the Pakistani public and security forces. But over the past two years, the group has terrorized Pakistan through spectacular bombing sprees and a takeover of the picturesque Swat Valley, about 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. The Pakistani government began to push back in 2008, banning the TTP and freezing its bank accounts.
In the past year, after the TTP began to advance toward the capital of Islamabad, the Pakistani military made an aggressive play to demolish the group, pushing the Taliban out of Swat and launching a major offensive in South Waziristan in October. As U.S. drones pounded the area in recent months, the group's attacks slowed, and Pakistani officials and many security analysts declared it splintered and crippled.
Now some of those same analysts say they think the Pakistani Taliban has nourished itself by finding common cause with homespun fighters, the Afghan Taliban and others who make up a chaotic stew of militancy in North Waziristan. Increasingly, they are serving as proxies for al-Qaeda and its global agenda, analysts say.
"Al-Qaeda is now operating through a variety of Pakistani and other types of groups," said Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani expert on the Taliban and Islamist extremists.
Unlike other militant groups suspected of having links to the Pakistani security services, the TTP is a more clear-cut enemy of the state. Holder said there was no indication that the Pakistani government was aware of the plot ahead of time.
"If there is any link that has been concluded we'd like to see the evidence so we can proceed further," said Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik. "They are our enemies. They are the enemies of the world, they are the enemies of humanity. We are taking action against them," he added.
In some ways, evidence of TTP responsibility was a relief for U.S. policymakers, who believe it will be easier to gain Pakistani cooperation against a group that it is already targeting than it would have been to build support for pursuing a group that Pakistan had heretofore resisted attacking.
But nearly nine years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which killed thousands of Americans, the persistent threat of al-Qaeda, and the rise in the number of U.S. citizens apparently willing to help it, has become a growing source of concern for the Obama administration. Holder acknowledged on Sunday that the initial clues in Times Square had not pointed to a terrorist network, saying it had "certainly looked, I think, at the beginning of this investigation, like it could have been a one-off" before officials "developed evidence that shows the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban."
The Pakistani Taliban itself has sent mixed messages about its role. On Thursday, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq contacted news organizations by telephone from an undisclosed location to deny that TTP had anything to do with Shahzad or the car bomb. But, he said, "we will be attacking in a new style against the United States and its allies. Our people have reached the U.S. and other European countries and soon will be attacking."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.