By Karin Brulliard and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 10, 2010; A11
KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- Terrorism suspect Faisal Shahzad's alleged path to Times Square reflects what experts say is a militant support network that spans Pakistan and is eager to shepherd aspiring terrorists from around the globe.
In this teeming southern metropolis, authorities are focusing on a domestic militant outfit that might have escorted Shahzad to distant northern peaks where U.S. investigators allege he received training with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani Taliban. In Pakistan's heartland, extremist organizations freely build compounds and campaign with politicians, while their foot soldiers fight alongside the Taliban in the borderlands, intelligence officials say.
The overall picture is one of a jumbled scaffolding of militancy that supports al-Qaeda and the Taliban with money and safe houses, and can provide entrance tickets to mountain training camps for aspiring terrorists, one U.S. counterterrorism official said.
Although the planners of most serious terror plots against the West in recent years have received direction or training from groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, the reach of extremist organizations across Pakistan underscores the limits of Pakistani military offensives and of U.S. airstrikes that target the Taliban and al-Qaeda only along the frontier.
"Our cells are working everywhere," one Pakistani Taliban fighter said in a telephone interview. New foreign recruits, among them Europeans and Americans, undergo days of isolation and "complete observation" by militants outside the tribal areas before gaining access to camps, he said.
Many such aspirants do not make it, the Taliban fighter said, because they are deemed to be spies. That happened to five Northern Virginia men, who were rebuffed by Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-i-Taiba last year despite the reference of an online recruiter, according to Pakistani authorities. However, those aspirants deemed sincere represent a "one in a million" opportunity for militants to strike in the West, said Masood Sharif Khattak, a former Pakistani Intelligence Bureau chief.
Their first stop is typically not the mountains of Waziristan, where Shahzad told U.S. investigators he had trained, but 1,000 miles south in Karachi, the Taliban fighter said.
An Arabian Sea gateway of 18 million people, the city is awash in weapons and dotted with mosques where, police say, jihadist literature is freely distributed and clerics deliver vitriolic anti-American sermons. Among them is the Bath'ha mosque and seminary, an unassuming building known locally as a bastion for Jaish-e-Mohammed, a banned Kashmir-focused group. Authorities said they have arrested a man at the mosque who escorted Shahzad to the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Operatives from Pakistan's array of jihadist groups find haven in Karachi's multiethnic sprawl; Afghan Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested in the city earlier this year.
The groups form a nexus, according to recent local intelligence reports. One report, obtained by The Washington Post, warns of coordinated plans by the Pakistani Taliban -- a group based in the tribal areas that has focused its attacks inside Pakistan -- and the traditionally anti-India militant groups of Punjab province. The target: NATO supply convoys in Karachi.
Farther north in the expanse of Punjab, experts say the major anti-India militant groups and other radical Sunni organizations need little cover: They are tolerated and even supported by the state. Banned groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have formed organizations with new names that operate freely. Some of their leaders have been arrested for alleged links to terrorist attacks, then released by the courts.
The groups have in recent years increasingly focused attacks within Punjab as provincial officials have tried to placate them, both to capitalize on their popularity and in hopes of moderating their views.
The chief provincial minister, Shahbaz Sharif, was widely criticized in March for calling on the Pakistani Taliban to "spare Punjab," which he suggested had common cause with the militants by rejecting Western dictates. Another provincial minister visited the seminary of a banned group and campaigned for office with the leader of another. Jaish-e-Mohammed recently built a large walled compound in the southern Punjabi city of Bahawalpur.
"These groups have not been touched," said Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani expert on the Taliban and Islamist extremism. "They have been through a metamorphosis and turned their guns inward and linked up with other groups in the northwest, but no one is acknowledging it. The word is out that if you hang with them, you're safe."
The counterinsurgency tactics used in the tribal areas -- missiles and military operations -- are widely thought to be unfeasible in Pakistan's populous mainland. But critics say Pakistani police, security agencies and officials could at least start to clamp down on extremist organizations by vocally condemning them, monitoring mosques and madrassas and denying public space and private property to militant-linked groups.
Pakistan says it is still investigating the extent of Shahzad's militant links; some security officials have said that he definitely had ties to Jaish-e-Mohammed. Terrorism analyst Muhammad Amir Rana said that what appears to be a lack of political will to tackle militant organizations in Pakistan's heartland is actually rooted in a problem with far greater implications for the global battle against terror: The groups' reach and presence in cities has made them a beast that cannot easily be dismantled.
"It's very complex," Rana said. "They have infrastructure in all different areas."
Constable reported from Lahore. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.