What Can We Learn from the Times Square Suspect?

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

May 5, 2010

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

If Faisal Shahzad — the naturalized American citizen captured on board a flight to Dubai— is the Times Square terrorist, we have turned a sad page in U.S. history.

Until now, most of the al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists operating on U.S. soil have not been American citizens. Had the bomb gone off, Shahzad (though innocent until proven guilty) could have been mentioned, along with Timothy McVeigh, as among America’s most notorious “citizen-terrorists.” Some might dismiss Shahzad’s credentials as a “newly naturalized American,” however he very well may have been radicalized during the years he presumably spent in the U.S. before becoming a citizen.

Now things will be different for American Muslims—or at least naturalized Americans like my father. Although my father has worked on projects to support the Department of Defense for the past decades, no doubt Americans like my dad will be increasingly suspect in terror plots in a way that was not the case after 9/11, where all the terrorists were foreigners.

Understanding ‘twisted logic’

Even so, this new and sad chapter in our history presents us with a golden opportunity—in particular, for U.S. law enforcement. Understanding Shahzad could offer a window inside the mind of an American Muslim terrorist, allowing us to develop a nuanced understanding of the twisted logic that drove this suspect to seek to kill hundreds of innocents.

This is also a golden opportunity for Americans and the country’s Muslim communities to develop a more complex understanding of what drives American terrorism in general and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism by an American Muslim in particular.

While robust justice will need to be served, law enforcement should take a long, in-depth look at this man, including not only a lengthy interrogation of him but also discussions with his family, friends and neighbors so that we can understand the warning signs of those about to commit terrorism as well as the long-term influences that inspire such hatred.

American Muslims like myself need to be increasingly vigilant about recognizing the warning signs of actual extremism. I’m reminded of the parents in Northern Virginia who reported such concerns about their five sons in December 2009. Mulsim Americans also need to be increasingly vocal against the ideologies that undergird such violence.

My parents’ values

The values that my Muslim parents instilled in me are what provoke me to condemn this intended heinous act. Still, I cannot fathom the thoughts flowing through the sick brains of terrorists. Just as America cannot fight what it does not understand, neither can I. Only by developing insights into what drives a terrorist to act can I and other Americans confront this ideology.

Again, my mind returns to McVeigh. What might he and Shahzad have in common? It would seem a desire to send a message to the American people—but what message? What logic might these two men use to justify their actions?

As an American, I want to know the answers to these questions. If all of us—law enforcement, pundits, politicians and average Americans, including the American Muslim community and the communities that hosted McVeigh—can develop a nuanced understanding of the ideologies that drive such awful men to violence, then we will have seized the golden opportunity presented to us by those who captured Faisal Shahzad and McVeigh.