05.21.10

Your Children Could be Terrorists

In the wake of the Times Square bomb case, the feds just issued a chilling warning to Pakistani leaders: check your family and staff for terrorist ties. Philip Shenon reports.

The United States has warned civilian and military leaders in Pakistan that they need to worry about a newly uncovered breeding ground for anti-American terrorists—their own families.

A senior federal law enforcement official tells The Daily Beast that the Obama administration has sent a “clear, if carefully worded warning” to Pakistani leaders in recent days that their own children and others relatives, as well as their subordinates in the government, should be scrutinized for possible terrorist ties.

“We’ve got elements of the Pakistani gentry—people who can get in and out of the United States with ease, if they’re not already citizens here—who are getting roped into terrorism,” says an American diplomatic official.

The official, who has been briefed on details of the Times Square bombing case, says Pakistanis have also been told that the United States is concerned by the large number of connections between Pakistani military officers and some of the recently uncovered terrorist plots aimed at the United States and its European allies.

Bruce Riedel: Osama’s Top Gun Is Back The warning comes in the wake of the discovery that the son of a retired Pakistani air marshal was the culprit in the attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square last month, as well as the guilty plea in March by a Pakistani-American man in Chicago who has connections throughout the Pakistan government—including a half-brother who is the prime minister’s chief spokesman.

The Chicago man, David Headley, attended one of Pakistan’s most elite military academies and had, at least until his arrest, maintained friendships throughout the Pakistani military. A retired Pakistani army colonel who remains at large has also been indicted in the Chicago case.

“With these two cases, you really see what we’re up against,” said an American diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the terrorism cases publicly. “We’ve got elements of the Pakistani gentry—people who can get in and out of the United States with ease, if they’re not already citizens here—who are getting roped into terrorism.”

As a result of the failed Times Square bombing, the United States has publicly warned Pakistan of severe diplomatic repercussions if Pakistani terrorists attempt to strike again on American soil. Officials say the warnings were delivered as recently as this week, when National Security Adviser James Jones and CIA Director Leon Panetta traveled to Pakistan to meet with their counterparts there.

Even as the United States has described Pakistan as a key ally in the fight against Muslim extremism and terrorism, Washington has also long signaled its wariness of the intentions of large elements of the Pakistani military and the country’s intelligence agencies. The recent terrorism cases have increased tensions between the two countries—and this latest warning from the United States could further complicate relations.

Teresita Schaffer, a retired American diplomat who served in Pakistan, tells The Daily Beast that while it was too soon to suggest that family members of the Pakistan military elite and its civilian gentry pose a special risk of recruitment as terrorists, she could understand why it was of concern to the Obama administration. “It’s something to watch,” she said.

“There certainly are people in the Army and the intelligence service who have some pretty extreme views” in support of Muslim fundamentalism, said Schaffer, who now directs the South Asia program for the Center for Strategic and International Affairs in Washington.

The Pakistani-born man who is reported to have confessed to the failed Times Square attack, Faisal Shahzad, 30 years old and a naturalized American citizen, is the son of a retired Pakistani vice air marshal, Bahar ul-Haq.

The father, who is reported to have gone into hiding since his son’s arrest, was one of Pakistan’s most accomplished pilots and flight instructors; he was stationed overseas in Britain and Saudi Arabia. Several other family members have served in the small, close-knit Pakistani Air Force.

American officials say they are aware of—but have been so far unable to confirm—reports that a Pakistani army major was arrested this week in Pakistan for involvement in the Times Square plot, and that the officer may have been a go-between for Faisal and the Pakistani Taliban. (Shahzad, who is cooperating with authorities, has yet to enter a formal plea).

In the Chicago case, Headley, who changed his name from Daood Gilani to make it easier to cross borders as a terrorist, has confessed to involvement both in the 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai and in a foiled plot to attack a Danish newspaper that had ran cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. In the Mumbai rampage, nearly 170 people were killed, including six Americans.

His ties to the Pakistan elite are deep. His father is a retired Pakistani diplomat who is reported to have served at the Pakistani embassy in Washington. He attended a Pakistani military academy, the Hasan Abdal Cadet College, where he mixed with young men who would later go on to the run key elements of the Pakistani military and the civilian government, including the diplomatic corps.

Another man indicted in the case, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian who ran a visa company in Chicago with Headley, also attended the military academy. Rana, who is awaiting trial, has insisted that he is innocent of the terrorism charges.

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.