One of the men arrested in Pakistan this week in connection with the failed attempt to bomb Times Square is a member of Jaish-e-Muhammad, an Al Qaeda-allied Pakistani militant group, intelligence sources in the city of Karachi said Wednesday.
The revelation marks the first indication that a specific Pakistani militant group has been associated with the case of Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani American charged in the failed bomb plot. But it does not necessarily mean that the organization engineered the plot or directed the suspect.
The intelligence sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the case.
The man arrested Tuesday in Karachi, Sheik Mohammed Rehan, allegedly drove with Shahzad from Karachi to Peshawar on July 7, 2009, in a pickup truck, authorities said. They returned to Karachi July 22. It is not known why they went to Peshawar and whether they met with anyone there.
Peshawar is a large, mostly Pashtun city perched on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal areas, where Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups maintain strongholds. It is also where Shahzad’s father and other relatives live.
Jaish-e-Muhammad emerged in the mid-1990s as a militant organization primarily focused on overthrowing Indian forces in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir. Most of the violent attacks linked to the group have occurred in Kashmir, the disputed region claimed by India and Pakistan.
Over the years, though, the group has expanded its reach and has trained thousands of young men to fight U.S. and NATO forces battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was also linked to the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Karachi.
Based principally in Punjab province, the heartland of Pakistan, the group has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and was banned by Pakistan in 2002.
But experts believe Jaish-e-Muhammad still benefits from links with Pakistan’s powerful government intelligence community. Some experts believe Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency facilitated the group’s formation.
Authorities said they have not linked Jaish-e-Muhammad or any other militant group to two other men arrested Tuesday in Karachi in connection with the case. Pakistani officials have not explained why those men — Tauseef Ahmed, a cousin of Shahzad’s, and Ahmed’s father-in-law — were detained.
Pakistani authorities are continuing to investigate any potential link Shahzad might have with the Pakistani Taliban, the militant group based in the tribal areas that has beset the country with waves of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks over the last two years.
In the criminal complaint filed in Shahzad’s case, U.S. authorities said Shahzad acknowledged traveling to the Waziristan region in the tribal areas for training in bomb-making. The complaint did not specify whether Shahzad went to North or South Waziristan, but both regions have long been strongholds for the Pakistani Taliban.
Several young extremists from Western Europe accused recently of trying to carry out terrorist attacks in the West or planning such attacks have traveled beforehand to Pakistan’s tribal areas for training with militants there.
Pakistan has launched military offensives in South Waziristan and other tribal regions, but it has yet to carry out a decisive attack against militants in North Waziristan, home to Pakistani Taliban leaders and groups such as the Haqqani network that have focused their violence on Western troops in neighboring Afghanistan instead of Pakistan.
Shahzad’s arrest, and his admission that he trained in Waziristan, could prompt the U.S. to make the case more forcefully to Pakistan to mount an offensive against militants in North Waziristan. Up until now, the government in Islamabad has rejected Washington’s demands that the Pakistani military shift its focus to that area, arguing that it already has thousands of troops in the Swat Valley and in much of the tribal belt, and is stretched too thin to deploy more troops elsewhere.
In a recently released video, the Pakistani Taliban claimed it planned the attempted attack in Times Square in retaliation for the U.S. drone missile strike that killed the insurgent group’s leader, Baitullah Mahsud, in August. Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud in a separate video warned that his insurgent group would soon carry out attacks in major American cities.
Although Pakistani officials have agreed to cooperate in the Shahzad case, they remain reluctant to accept the possibility that the Pakistani Taliban may be linked to the Times Square bomb incident. If the insurgent group’s claim is true, it would mark its first attack outside South Asia.
“Anybody can claim anything, but whether the organization has that kind of reach is questionable,” army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Associated Press. “I don’t think they have the capacity to reach the next level.”
In Pabbi, the small northwestern Pakistan town where Shahzad was born, villagers said news of his arrest came as a shock, mostly because there never was any sign of radicalism in his upbringing. His father, Bahar-ul Haq, is a retired senior air force officer who years ago moved his family to Hayatabad, an upscale district of Peshawar.
“I know his family for a long time, and they are very humble people,” said Faiz Ahmad, a Pabbi villager. “I met Shahzad a year ago.... I found him to be very calm and quiet.”
Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.