x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pakistanis take hard look at themselves after arrest of alleged would-be New York bomber

The arrest of a Pakistani-born man over the Times Square bombing attempt has highlighted a shift in Pakistan about the origins of terrorism within its borders.

A Pakistani police officer stands outside a house owned by the family of Faisal Shahzad in Peshawar.
A Pakistani police officer stands outside a house owned by the family of Faisal Shahzad in Peshawar.

ISLAMABAD // The arrest and reported admission of guilt by Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed bombing of Times Square and a US citizen of Pakistani origin, has highlighted a shift in public opinion in Pakistan about the origins of terrorism within its borders. As recently as a year ago, when insurgents temporarily gained control over the district of Swat in north-west Pakistan and threatened to attack Peshawar, the regional capital, even many educated Pakistanis were not prepared to acknowledge the extent of militant religious extremism in their country.

Spoon-fed propaganda for three decades by a powerful nationalist lobby within the military, political parties and the independent media, many Pakistanis viewed international outcry about the residence of terrorists in the country's barely governed tribal regions bordering Afghanistan as part of an alleged US-Israeli-Indian conspiracy against Pakistan, in its role as the Muslim world's only nuclear weapons power.

However, prompted by the suspected activity and connections of Mr Shahzad, the scion of a socially privileged family that includes former members of the military hierarchy, Pakistanis are beginning to ask themselves incisive questions. Leading anchors and opinion makers on independent Pakistani cable news channels were quick to focus on Mr Shahzad's military connections: his father was operation chief of the air force, and his uncle commanded Pakistan's tribal paramilitary force.

Matiullah Jan, current affairs anchor for DawnNews, a respected Urdu and English-language channel, said on his prime-time show: "Considering the armed forces' role in grooming militants for Afghanistan, surely this has to be viewed as a historical irony" . Newspaper readers, commenting on stories about Mr Shahzad and his Pakistani linkages on the website of the Express Tribune, a Karachi-based English-language newspaper, voiced a collective desire to distance themselves and their compatriots from suspected terrorists.

Their frustration also surfaced as anger against the state organs that, in collusion with the western powers, had bred mujaheddin, or holy warriors, to further strategic interests in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. "Military coups, provoking wars, killing prime ministers, training jihadists, and now breeding jihadists: yep, let's thank the army for the terrific impact they have on all our lives," commented Murtaza Ali Jafri, a reader.

Other readers voiced confusion about where to place blame for the New York bombing plot and other events unravelling in and around their country - a sentiment picked up by Talat Hussain, current affairs anchor for AajNews, a popular Urdu channel. "A friend's wife said the arrest of Faisal Shahzad was like another twist in the plot of an Indian soap opera, where the faces and characters come and go, but the theme doesn't change," he told viewers.

Parents dropping off their children at school in Islamabad yesterday morning were aghast at the thought of Mr Shahzad, the suspected terrorist, being from a privileged background, instead of a brainwashed seminary student. "Oh, the poor boy must have gone mad. Why did he do something like that? He surely could have had no reason to do such a bad thing," said Sehrish Anwer, a homemaker and mother of three students attending the Lahore Grammar School, a high school that follows the British curriculum.

Her 17-year-old daughter and high school senior, Iyla, said the suspected involvement of Mr Shahzad had shaken belief in conspiracy theories widely shared by students. "Now people will have to come to terms with reality - that this is our problem, not some Zionist-Hindu nationalist-whatever conspiracy, and we have to face it and fix it ourselves."  Readers of the Express Tribune drew parallels between Mr Shahzad and Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani convicted on Monday of carrying out the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, and Aafia Siddiqui, an American-Pakistani found guilty by a US jury in February of trying to kill Americans while in detention in Afghanistan in 2008.

"The saddest part is some of our beloved fellow Muslims are suggesting that it's part of a global conspiracy against us," wrote Sheraz Khan. However, the transition in thinking, while prominent among the emerging generation of educated Pakistanis, a minority, is far from complete and faces formidable hurdles because of the conflicting messages still being put out by different arms of the state and media.

Gen Athar Abbas, spokesman for the Pakistan army, told journalists in Rawalpindi on Wednesday that a claim by Hakimullah Mehsud, the fugitive leader of the country's largest militant faction, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, he was behind the failed Times Square bombing should be "taken with a pinch of salt". Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the foreign minister, thought differently, telling CBS News that the attempted terrorist attack could be retaliation for US drone attacks on Taliban and al Qa'eda targets in Pakistan's north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

"This is retaliation. And you could expect that. Let's not be naive," he said. Rehman Malik, the interior minister, had the oldest explanation of all to offer the media: "This could be a plot to defame Pakistan." @Email:thussain@thenational.ae