New York bomb puts Pakistan in spotlight

ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Any links between Pakistan’s  Taliban and a failed bombing in New York’s Times Square could  put the country under renewed U.S. pressure to open risky new  fronts against Islamic militants.    

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban Movement of  Pakistan, has claimed responsibility for the failed bombing and  its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, appeared in videos on the  Internet on Sunday threatening suicide attacks on major U.S.  cities.  

A U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Faisal Shahzad, is accused  of driving the failed car bomb into Times Square and will  appear in Manhattan court today, authorities said.       

Questions may arise again over Pakistan’s determination to  tackle militants as it juggles other problems, from a sluggish  economy to power cuts that have made the government unpopular.   

“Pakistan may have to prepare to make more sacrifices and  wage a much more intense use of force such as search and  destroy operations, more systematically,” said Rifaat Hussain,  head of the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at  Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.   

Pakistan, heavily dependent on foreign aid, says it is too  stretched to expand security offensives to new areas such as  North Waziristan, home to a complex web of militant groups that  could deepen the threat to the state if antagonised.   

“International goodwill is going to sour unless we are seen  to be doing more against the groups in North Waziristan which  have not been touched, and the groups of Punjab which have not  been touched,” said Taliban expert and Pakistani author Ahmed  Rashid.    

 PUNJAB A MILITANT BASE  

Some of Pakistan’s most dangerous militant groups are based  in the country’s heartland Punjab province.   

They include Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), blamed for the 2008  attack on the Indian commercial capital Mumbai which killed 166  people and accused of plotting attacks in the West.       

LeT — once nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services  Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India in Kashmir — is  estimated to have between 2,000-3,000 gunmen and another 20,000  followers, many trained to fight and who could be mobilised  against a crackdown.   

A major assault could drive the LeT and other Punjab groups  into an alliance with the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group  backed by al Qaeda that continues to stage suicide bombings  despite offensives the army says have killed hundreds of  fighters.  

Those risks may be put aside by the United States now that  the failed Times Square bombing has sounded new alarm bells in  a country still haunted by al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001  attacks.     

If the United States pushes Pakistan too hard, it could  strain relations that have improved in recent months.  

“If Hakimullah is responsible for what happened in Times  Square and is launching a campaign against American cities,  then this is the kind of thing that shakes everybody up and  generates political will to really get in the Pakistani  government’s grill,” said Brian Fishman, counterterrorism  research fellow with the New American Foundation.   

“If Hakimullah is in any way providing direction to attacks  on the U.S. homeland, that changes the kind of influence the  U.S. is going to want to assert against Pakistan. That raises  the stakes of the political game.”       

 DOUBTS ON TTP ABILITY   

Pakistan vowed today to help U.S. authorities on the  Shahzad case.      

“We will cooperate with the United States in identifying  this individual and bringing him to justice,” Interior Minister  Rehman Malik told Reuters.      

Long-time U.S. ally Pakistan has proven highly capable of  capturing militants, including some of al Qaeda’s most  notorious heavyweights. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused  mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was arrested in  Pakistan in 2003.     

So Washington may have high expectations from the  Pakistanis if new threats to U.S. security emerge here.       

Law enforcement sources in the United States said Saturday’s  attempted attack in Times Square may have involved more than  one person and could have international ties. The New York  Times said Shahzad had recently returned from a trip to  Pakistan.       

Security experts are sceptical the TTP has the ability to  stage attacks outside Pakistan, but worry it may be growing  closer to al Qaeda and adopting global aims of Osama bin Laden  instead of limiting itself to fighting Pakistan’s government.      

The United States has repeatedly called on Pakistan to do  more to fight not just homegrown militancy but also al  Qaeda-backed Afghan Taliban based in North Waziristan who cross  the border to attack Western forces in Afghanistan.  

Pakistan has said it does not have the resources to go  after other Islamic groups such as the Haqqani network,  described by U.S. forces as one of their biggest enemies in  Afghanistan.       

There are strategic reasons for Pakistan’s hesitancy to  attack the Haqqanis, believed to operate from North Waziristan.       

Pakistan sees the group as a strategic asset that will give  it influence in any peace settlement in Afghanistan so  Islamabad will want those militants on its side.       

But it may have few choices if a solid Pakistani connection  with the failed Times Square bombing emerges. Other cases  already show Pakistani militants have global reach.    

David Headley, an American arrested in Chicago last year,  has pleaded guilty to working with LeT to plotting attacks in  India, including surveillance of targets in Mumbai.      

Counter-terrorism experts say LeT poses a risk to the West  in several ways, including lending its network to groups such  as al Qaeda to conduct attacks.

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