Pakistan has replaced Iraq as the major source of homegrown radicalization in the West, particularly in the United States. Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad says he was driven by anger over unmanned drone attacks on Pakistan, particularly the dozens he witnessed during his most recent five-month visit there. “They shouldn’t be shooting people from the sky. You know, they should come down and fight,” Shahzad told his Connecticut neighbor Dennis Flanner about a year ago.
That seems a plausible enough motive, particularly since he joins a growing list of homegrown US terrorism suspects who have cited the escalation of US military operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in general, or the drone attacks in particular. They include US resident Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant who pleaded guilty in a plot to bomb the New York subway system; Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the US-born army psychiatrist, charged with fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas last year; and the five American Muslims from Virginia, accused of plotting attacks against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
So why isn’t the Obama administration listening? It has so far been unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the link between the conflict in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the rising incidence of homegrown radicalization. Instead, the administration has accused the Pakistani Taliban of directing and probably financing the Times Square plot, even though Shahzad has said he went to the Taliban for help, not the other way around. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, dismissed the reports that Shahzad was motivated by the drone strikes and, instead, said that the suspect was “captured by the murderous rhetoric of al Qaeda and TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan) that looks at the United States as an enemy.”
US officials convincingly stress that without needing to put US troops in harm’s way, the drone attacks have degraded the capabilities of the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda on Pakistani soil, which would surely enflame Pakistani anger at the US even more. What this calculus ignores is the heavy collateral damage drone attacks inflict on America’s reputation in the Muslim world and the “possibilities of blowback” as the CIA, which leads the drone war, rightly warns. Cultural blindness seems to distort the lens through which Obama’s advisers view Muslim reactions to American actions and fall instead on simplistic explanations of enemies who intrinsically hate the United States.
Recent cases in the US, Britain and Europe show clearly that al Qaeda’s top-down recruitment of would-be terrorists has long been replaced by a bottom-up flow of volunteers who appear to be enraged by the escalation in US military operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan, particularly the drone strikes. The flow is currently very weak, but extremely difficult to track, and a product of the intensifying war in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What these individuals had in common was that they were radicalized online, often on their own, while living an integrated life in the West. Bottom-up radicalization transcends class, educational barriers and space.
The most controversial element of the escalating war on the AfPak border is the use of CIA Predator drones on targets in Pakistan. The CIA currently wages a 24/7 Predator campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda, and other groups very close to where Shahzad grew up and often visited in recent years. In Pakistan, drone attacks are Obama’s weapon of choice, one that he has expanded further against low-level targets, such as foot soldiers. According to an analysis of US government sources, the CIA has killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high-level al Qaeda and Taliban leaders since the drone attacks intensified in the summer of 2008.
The nearly 60 missiles fired by the CIA’s Predators in Pakistan in the first four months of this year roughly match the number fired by all of the drones piloted by the US military in neighboring Afghanistan – the recognized war theater – during the same period. In Pakistan, the pace of drone attacks has increased to two or three strikes a week, up roughly fourfold from the Bush years. Although drone strikes have killed more than a dozen al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, they have incinerated hundreds of civilians, including children, wives, parents, sisters, brothers and cousins of the fighters.
In addition to causing considerable collateral damage, the drone war is a constant reminder to Pakistanis, including many of the elite in the security services, that their country is impotent to take control and to stand up to its powerful patron – the United States. Imposing a sense of fear and terror in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Predator strikes have inflamed Pakistani and Afghani nationalism and anti-American sentiments. There is a widespread perception among Pakistani elites, including the military, that the US drone attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and its dignity. Many Pakistanis, including some who live in the West like Shahzad, view the escalating war as an attack on their Muslim identity.
The Obama administration handled the Times Square bombing attempt in a balanced way, and did not overreact. But real fear does exist: while Shahzad, an incompetent amateur, failed, others might succeed in detonating a bomb. While the administration often stresses the technical efficacy of the drone strikes against the TTP and al Qaeda, it is oblivious to their high civilian deaths, legal and moral costs, and the law of unintended consequences. Drone attacks have become a rallying cry for Taliban militants, feeding the flow of volunteers into a small, loose network that is harder to trace even than shadowy al Qaeda. Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to Army Special Operations, says the strategy is “creating more enemies than we’re killing or capturing.”
Although Obama’s new National Security Strategy unveiled last month is silent on this point, the President needs to at least acknowledge the dangers of military escalation and to welcome a real debate about the costs of the drone war, particularly now as he presses the Pakistani government to launch an all-out new military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda in North Waziristan, their main base. Because clearly, the fallout from Pakistan is reaching home and beyond.