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Father of Times Square suspect a 'patriotic man' who raised his family 'cleanly'

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 14, 2010; A09

MOHIB BANDA, PAKISTAN -- On a bright spring day in 1976, a Pakistani flight instructor watched approvingly as his Royal Air Force trainees, flying in formation over the English countryside, wrote out "Five-O" in perfect trailer smoke. It was Queen Elizabeth II's 50th birthday, and one of the proudest moments of Bahar ul-Haq's life.

Today Haq, 70, a retired vice air marshal in Pakistan's air force, is hiding in humiliation and shock, secluded somewhere in the northwestern city of Peshawar. His younger son, Faisal Shahzad, whom friends say he sent to the United States to study and to escape Pakistan's problems, stands accused of attempting to explode a bomb in New York's Times Square with help from Islamist militants.

Pakistani investigators are poring through family files and quizzing neighbors. Television crews have mobbed the lanes of this northwestern village where Haq grew up and have camped outside his home in Peshawar. International news programs have shown his son's bearded face over and over, next to shots of the sport-utility vehicle in Manhattan that held the homemade bomb.

Haq "is very, very depressed. He is an honorable, patriotic man who worked hard to rise in the air force and raise his children cleanly. Now his family's reputation has been destroyed," said Hajji Sherzada, a retired importer who is a lifelong friend of Haq's and said he has spoken to him by phone several times since the son's arrest last week. "Every time his wife gets on the phone, she just cries."

Haq has not made any statements and has not been seen in the past week. Provincial authorities said Sunday that he was in "protective custody," but relatives said he and his wife are in seclusion to avoid publicity.

Friends, relations and air force colleagues of Haq's, interviewed in several northwestern communities and Islamabad this week, said they could make no sense of his son's alleged actions or possible conversion to radical Islam.

Shahzad, 30, grew up in a stable community where most people were educated and many were part of Pakistan's close-knit military world. His father, an accomplished pilot, rose from humble village roots to the top ranks of the air force, serving stints in Britain and Saudi Arabia. Several other family members were air force officers, including Shahzad's maternal grandfather.

Over the years, Haq gained a reputation as an exceptional flight instructor and enjoyed training young pilots, especially in loops and other aerobatic stunts. He was invited to teach at an air academy in England for several years. Described by friends as a strict and protective father, he raised his children to become civilian professionals: Faisal's older brother is an engineer in Canada, and one sister is a doctor.

"Faisal's father was liberal, not religious. We are all Muslims here, but there are no extremists in our community," said Badal Khan, a cousin and finance officer for a telephone company, who spent Tuesday showing a team of federal police investigators around Mohib Banda.

Khan said Haq had "land and military connections, and he could have gotten his sons good jobs here, but he was worried about the environment in Pakistan and sent them both abroad to keep them away from trouble. We can't understand what happened to Faisal over there."

Shirzada Bacha, a maternal uncle of Shahzad's, said that if Haq had suspected that his son was involved in extremist activities, he would have "killed him in the house."

Other family friends said they had seen little of Shahzad since he moved to the United States at age 18. Over the next decade, he earned a degree in business administration, married, got a job as a financial analyst, bought a house in Connecticut and became a U.S. citizen. About a year ago, when he returned home for a visit, friends and relatives noticed he was wearing a beard for the first time. But it occurred to no one that this might signify anything sinister.

"When I saw him with the beard, I saw nothing wrong with it. I was happy that even though he was living in America, he was staying close to Almighty God and to our traditions," said Iftikhar Ahmed, a retired air force officer and nephew of Haq's who lives in Islamabad.

Ahmed, 54, said he followed Shahzad's upbringing closely, and he described the father as an "enlightened, upright" man who raised his son to be "balanced" in his views. "We sent a clean and innocent boy to America," Ahmed said with bitterness. "If he went bad in America, why don't you blame America instead of his family and his country?"

Sherzada and others close to the family scoffed at allegations by U.S. prosecutors that Shahzad had developed ties with Pakistani Taliban militants and had found his way to the rugged tribal area of North Waziristan for terrorist training. One relative said the young man did not know his way around after so many years abroad and always traveled with his father to family weddings and funerals.

"If Faisal ever got to Waziristan, and they got to know he was the son of an air marshal, they would kidnap him and ask for millions in ransom for his release," Sherzada said, half-joking.

Ahmed and others from the military who know Haq took pains to point out that the Pakistani armed forces -- and the small air force in particular -- are a close-knit and highly professional meritocracy. They expressed solidarity with Haq and described his son's arrest as a personal tragedy rather than as an incident that would damage the country's military institutions as a whole.

In Utmanzai, the home of Shahzad's mother, relatives recited prayers this week for his safe release. The village is known as a center of Sufi mysticism, a moderate and freewheeling form of Islam that is ideologically poles apart from the severe, Saudi-inspired Wahhabi school of Islam that produced the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Bacha, the maternal uncle, said Shahzad was "never inclined to any fanaticism. I remember him dancing with his cousins, both girls and boys, at his own wedding" five years ago. At various wedding parties, the uncle said, "he danced to not only traditional Pashto music but fast music, and he wasn't shy. Now when I think of him in custody for alleged radicalization, I am not ready to believe it."

Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Mohib Banda and Utmanzai.

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