Did Faisal Shahzad “Want to Get Caught”?

By Terry Turchie

On May 5th, NPR’s Morning Edition program featured an exchange about the naturalized U.S. citizen who’s been accused of attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square. It included the usual fuzzy speculation about what his motives could possibly have been:

MONTAGNE: And what do authorities say they know about why he allegedly did attempt to do this bombing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there’s [sic] still a lot of unknowns when it comes to this case. Remember, I mean basically it’s about three days old at this point, so we dont know Shahzad’s motive. I mean we know he lost his job. We know his house was in foreclosure, and that he’d taken his wife and family to Pakistan, just a short time after he became a naturalized citizen last year.

But what we dont know is did he return to Pakistan to get a fresh start after being here for 15 years, and then fall prey to terrorist groups who saw his citizenship as an easy way for him to come here and attack? Or did he actually go to Pakistan fully intending to come back to the U.S. and launch something like this? Thats still unclear. I think we’re going to find that out, however, in the coming days, cause he’s talking.

Kathleen’s ear was caught by this, so I’ll turn it over to her:

(From Kathleen):

I’ve been challenged for years about whether Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber) “wanted to get caught.” Before his execution in 2001, bomber Timothy McVeigh asserted that he’d deliberately left the rear license plate off the sedan he drove out of Oklahoma City, in order to provoke an arrest that would bring him public renown as having sparked a new American revolution. Just recently, a fellow former FBI agent wrote that he’d concluded from his analysis of Faisal Shahzad that this was another terrorist whose apparent sloppiness was deliberate, because he “wanted to get caught.”

Based on my research in this area, I’d put it another way:

Faisal Shahzad was vulnerable to recruitment for a terrorist cause by his need to be recognized; to MATTER in the world. 

Many people who have a history of personal and professional disappointments and/or failures are drawn to angry and paranoid ideologies. 

A tiny number of these, who are isolated, alienated and have an overwhelming need to matter in a world that has ignored or minimized them, may be driven by their own internal dynamics to act violently in the service of an idology that justifies how important they really are. They either self-select as “lone terrorists” (Theodore Kaczynski, Eric Robert Rudolph), or are flattered enough by the attention from a terrorist group to attempt large acts of violence in the name of that group and its cause (Richard Reid, and now Faisal Shahzad). 

It’s recognition they’re after, both from the group and – after the arrest – law enforcement. They’ve become important, and they matter – BIG TIME. 

The fact that they weren’t “professional” or competent in executing their attack is related directly, I think, to the fact that it’s their personal needs that are really driving them, and not the accomplishment of the mission. If they were more centered on the mission, they’d be more effective. And we’d be in more trouble than we are.

Luckily for all of us, these “lone terrorists” – who act alone not because they’re ruthless, independent operatives, but because they’ve been unable to successfully affiliate in a personal sense with any group that would join them in their action – aren’t always very good at it. They’re outsiders who are trying desperately to be inside, but are limited by their own difficulty in getting along with a group, either professional, personal or terrorist in nature. By the time they act, it’s in a BIG WAY, but it’s because their social and psychological needs control their behavior more than a steely, cold resolve to commit acts of terror. So their BIG ACTS are less destructive than they might have been. Their real attention is on themselves.

The personality characteristics that make them vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups (or by their adoption of a terrorist ideology independent of a group), make them less reliable and/or competent as actual terrorists.

In my view, Theodore Kaczynski didn’t “want to get caught.” He’d carefully built the Unabomber into an invincible foe for 18 years before being captured in his Montana cabin, and left thousands of pages that included detailed accounts of how he remained concealed for all those years. He was probably the most uniquely successful of this breed, but It was his intense need to be recognized and published by the New York Times that led eventually to his arrest.

(From Terry: See exactly how this happened in our book Hunting the American Terrorist)

Timothy McVeigh’s pre-execution assertions that he was cool-headed in the execution of the Oklahoma City bombing (“I want to point out that I jogged away from the scene – I didn’t run. I was professional”) are part of the legend he wanted to survive him. The digitally enhanced hawk-like face that stared out from the recent MSNBC special “The McVEIGH TAPES” was a scarecrow image. The real McVeigh spent most of his years in prison with a chubby, genial face and was eager to communicate with both his guards and his fellow inmates. He was a recognized celebrity in the very small club that is Bomber’s Row at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, and his desperate need to be important, to matter, was fulfilled.

The point is that home-grown terrorists Kaczynski and McVeigh have a lot in common with the hapless Richard Reid and the latest “lone terrorist,” Faisal Shahzad. Their terrorist ideologies differ, but their personal backgrounds and motivations are all very similar: they haven’t been able to matter in the world, and they’re determined to matter, to have their deeds recognized as those of men of great importance.

Reid and Shahzad weren’t trusted members of an inner circle of highly trained and organized terrorists like Mohammed Atta and the rest of the 9/11 attackers. They were acted alone because they’ve always been alone in a social sense. And they essentially got what they wanted: they were recognized as important. It was for that purpose they risked their own lives to accomplish a terrorist mission.

And it’s for that reason that Faisal Shahzad continues to talk to counterterrorism authorities about his exploits. He’s become recognized as a far more important person than he ever could have dreamed.


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  2. Dick Pashley says:

    Very bright analysis Kathy.

  3. Terry Turchie says:

    Thanks, Pash – I try :-)

  4. Terry Turchie says:

    Certainly; feel free!

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  6. dbarnhart says:

    Thank you, Kathy. I had come to the same ‘want to get caught’ conclusion but I was attributing it to more sinister and devious motivations. You are brilliant.

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