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Experts on Terrorism Say Time Square Suspect's Radicalization Gradual

Faisal Shahzad
Faisal Shahzad

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American man accused of attempting to bomb Times Square, is providing useful information to investigators, and authorities are pursuing new leads in the case.  Holder said Thursday in Washington that although the car bomb failed to detonate, it provided a reminder that terrorists are still plotting to kill Americans.

As Faisal Shahzad tells his story to investigators,  questions arise about why someone like him would become a terrorist. He once seemed to be living the American dream - an immigrant who had gained U.S. citizenship, after earning two university degrees and getting a job as a financial analyst.

But Shuja Nawaz at the Atlantic Council points out that even some of the terrorists who attacked the United States in September 2001 came from affluent families. "These are not the uneducated suicide bombers who are being used and hired locally. These are the people who feel they can do something spectacular," he said.

Jerrold Post, the author of "Mind of the Terrorist,"  points out that American newspapers quote officials close to the investigation as saying Shahzad told them he was inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. born Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen. Awlaki has used his sermons on the Internet to try to recruit American Muslims and turn them against Americans. "It's not you. You are not the problem. The reason you are not finding satisfaction and accomplishment in life is, them. They are taking it away from you," he said.

Post explains how Awlaki tries to convince his audience that Islam is in danger. "One, the Muslim as a victim. Two, the necessity for defensive jihad - the West is out to destroy Islam and we have to defend it. And three, the person who martyrs himself for the cause has higher stature and will be rewarded in paradise. That is a powerful series of messages," he said.

Both analysts say Shahzad's transition was gradual, and came about from a combination of religion and anger.

Post points to the numerous trips Shahzad made to Pakistan since 1998 when he first came to the United States, and the fact that his hometown is close to the Pakistani region where the militants are now being targeted by U.S. drone attacks. "There is intense anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. This has been magnified by some of the drone killings, targeted assassination basically, of Taliban leaders in which, unfortunately, there is always some collateral damage. This has been magnified by al-Qaida and Taliban as action of America killing Muslims," he said.

The analysts note that American Muslims are part of mainstream society, and for the most part do not face discrimination like they do in some European coutries. But Nawaz says that's not enough - there should be more moderate Muslim voices to provide an alternative to the Awlaki's provocative messages. "Which I think has been a failing not only of the countries like Pakistan where some of the terrorists or suspected terrorists come from, but also on the part of the U.S. Public Diplomacy. They need to focus on bringing those leaders of the Muslim community from India, Pakistan and Indonesia who can relate Islam to modern times," he said.

The analysts say the core issue is how personal frustrations among young Muslims can turn into political causes that drive them to kill. And this can be averted if the message of clerics like Awlaki can be countered by moderate Muslim voices.

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