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Flop House

Two theories for why terrorists take credit for botched attacks.

Last Friday, the Pakistani Taliban established a YouTube site titled Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel. (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, means Pakistani Taliban Movement and is the group’s official name.) Two days later, on Sunday morning, a video appeared there taking credit for Faisal Shahzad’s botched car bombing in Times Square. It featured a collage of images (slain jihadis, a Predator drone, Barack Obama, etc.) patched over an audio recording from Qari Hussain Mehsud. Qari Hussain, a militant commander originally from South Waziristan who is in charge of training teenage suicide bombers, described the Times Square bomb as a “jaw-breaking blow to Satan’s USA.” It is quite possible that Shahzad met Qari Hussain during the former’s reported trip to the Tribal Areas. Needless to say, however, Shahzad’s bomb was far from “jaw-breaking”; it was a disaster averted. Why, then, would a member of the Pakistani Taliban want to take credit for such a high-profile flop?

There are two theories to consider. One is that Qari Hussain’s video represents a calculated jab in an internal power struggle; he wants the top job in the Pakistani Taliban and is out to make a name for himself running independent missions. The second explanation is more general: Militants have been weakened by strong anti-terror campaigns and are simply clamoring for more attention these days—and will take it any way it comes. 

The power struggle dates back to last August, when Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban’s founding chieftain, was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan. Qari Hussain’s name was initially floated as a possible successor. But then reports emerged describing a duel between two other militants – Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman—for Baitullah Mehsud’s crown, and it appeared that Qari Hussain hadn’t even made the final cut. When Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over, was thought killed in another drone strike in January, Qari Hussain’s name surfaced again—but he was passed up. Apparently, some internal tensions remain. Soon after Qari Hussain’s video hit the web, the TTP official spokesman denied having any knowledge of the tape. “As far as I know, none of our people have posted it,” he said. “We have no information about it.” Is Qari Hussain using the publicity from the YouTube video to jostle for leadership? Sometimes getting on top means taking credit even where none is due.

Alternately, there’s a second theory for why a terrorist would take credit for this failed bombing: The Pakistani Taliban came out strong in late 2007, taking over most of the Tribal Areas and the Swat Valley, and, according to the Pakistani government, orchestrating the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. They quickly developed into a formidable opponent to both American soldiers in Afghanistan and the very foundations of the state in Pakistan. Lately, however, the combination of Pakistani army operations against them and the incessant threat of CIA-flown drones have diminished the Pakistani Taliban. Those on the defensive often act—and say—irrational things. For example, last spring, Baitullah Mehsud bizarrely took credit for the shooting rampage by a Vietnamese man at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York. Unfortunately for Mehsud, the gunman left a final letter, in which he explained his act not as that of a sleeper agent, but of a supremely fed-up individual. “Undercover cop gave me a lot of ass during eighteen years,” the note read in broken English.

Interestingly, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban’s foreign guests who have been beset by their own troubles, seem to have adopted a similar “all press is good press” strategy. Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, bin Laden and company denied conducting major attacks such as the African embassy bombings in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and 9/11, so as not to compromise their Taliban hosts. (Bin Laden eventually took credit for each bombing.) Bin Laden’s emphasis was on brand integrity; he kept his distance both from failed plots and reckless violence against other Muslims.

Along those same lines, the group was long reluctant to embrace a franchise expansion strategy after 9/11. But they have since relented, evinced by the formation of outfits like Al Qaeda in Iraq (October 2004), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (January 2007), and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (January 2009). (Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri officially blessed the first two and welcomed them into the Al Qaeda fold; whether or not Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been formally sanctioned to use the Al Qaeda moniker remains under dispute.). Indeed, nine years after 9/11, public support for Al Qaeda is down and they are confined to the drone-infested mountains in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. Last July, Al Qaeda assessed its own situation in a web document; the harm done by the drones, it read, was “alarming.” “The matter is very grave. … So many brave commanders have been snatched away. … So many hidden homes have been leveled.” The result? Last January, bin Laden claimed responsibility for the failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to ignite his briefs and take down Northwest Airlines flight 253.

American counterterrorism policies are far from perfect. But proof of their effectiveness could very well be seen in the perpetual splintering and weakening of Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s core. When terror kingpins are stuck taking credit for sizzling underwear and smoking Nissans, perhaps something is working.

Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.