05.07.10

Did the Bomber Act Alone?

General Petraeus may believe accused terrorist Faisal Shahzad was a “lone wolf,” but federal officials are quietly reaching out to prominent Pakistani-American groups for help in finding any U.S. accomplices—raising new concerns about ethnic profiling.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have made an urgent appeal to Pakistani-American groups and Muslim leaders for help in determining whether the man who planted a car bomb in Times Square had accomplices elsewhere in the Pakistani-American community.

The request, made in a barrage of phone calls and email messages from the FBI since the bombing attempt Saturday, comes in the wake of several cases in which Americans of Pakistani origin have been implicated in terrorism. The list includes a Chicago man who pleaded guilty in March to involvement in the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Federal law enforcement officials confirmed to The Daily Beast that they had quietly—if urgently—contacted Pakistani-American leaders around the United States since the weekend for help in determining whether the suspect in the foiled Times Square attempt, Faisal Shahzad, had accomplices who were still at large and whether other terrorist plots involving radicalized Pakistani-Americans may be in the planning stages.

An agent said Anwar and others in the Pakistani-American community in Connecticut have gone “above and beyond” in assisting the bureau.

The New York City Police Department remained on alert for the possibility of new attacks, especially in Times Square, which was evacuated temporarily Friday afternoon as a result of a suspicious package.

“The cooperation of the Pakistani-American community may be our best hope of stopping other attacks,” a senior law enforcement official said. “We’re grateful for the help we’ve gotten so far.”

The official said the contacts with Pakistani-American leaders were not being publicized by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security for fear that the Pakistani-American community, estimated to number about a million people, may be targeted for harassment or unfair scrutiny.

On Friday, General David Petraeus, who oversees American operations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, told The Associated Press that he believes Shahzad was a “lone wolf” terrorist who was inspired by Pakistani militants but was not in contact with them.

The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have not made a similar statement and say they are continuing to investigate the possibility that others were involved.

Saud Anwar, a Connecticut physician who is prominent in the Pakistani-American community in the state, told The Daily Beast he has been in contact with FBI agents as often as three or four times a day since last Saturday night, when Shahzad, a resident of Bridgeport, Conn., allegedly left the explosives-laden Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square.

Anwar, a past president of the Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee, a Washington-based lobbying group, said he and other Pakistani-Americans were eager to help the FBI in the case and remove any cloak of suspicion from the larger, law-abiding Pakistani-American community.

“If we get any information, we share it right away with the FBI,” he said. “We are truly partners in this. A lot of information is coming from our community.”

A spokesman for the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut, William S. Reiner, said the bureau had developed a “great working relationship” with the Pakistani-American community through Anwar and others.

“We want people to let us know what’s going on out there, what their concerns are,” said Reiner, who is also a supervisory special agent with the FBI. He said Anwar and others in the Pakistani-American community in Connecticut have gone “above and beyond” in assisting the bureau.

Anwar told The Daily Beast that he was convinced that Shahzad, who was granted American citizenship last year, was a “loner” who had little to do with other Pakistani-Americans.

“His behavior suggested he was a self-radicalized individual,” Anwar said. “From the information of the sources I’ve been in touch with, he was truly antisocial—he did not have any people close to him.”

Shahzad, who is reported to have confessed to the attempted car bombing, insisting that he acted alone, is the latest of several Pakistani-Americans who have been implicated in terrorism in the last several months.

In March, the Chicago man, David Headley, the son of a Pakistani father and American mother, pleaded guilty to charges of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, which left 170 people dead, including six Americans. In December, two Pakistani-Americans were among five young American Muslims, all of them from the Washington, D.C., area, who were arrested in Pakistan and accused of plotting terrorist attacks in that country.

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.