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Opinion: What motivates a terrorist?

Answers to what shaped Faisal Shahzad lie not only in Pakistan, but here in the US.

Supporters of the Pakistan Islamist party Pasban chant anti-American slogans during a protest in Karachi, May 6, 2010, against the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American held in New York on suspicion of driving a bomb-laden car into Times Square. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

BOSTON — The American reaction to Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt at a car bombing in Times Square was: Pakistan again? Why do so many of terrorism’s hydra-heads originate in Pakistan? Pakistan answered that Shahzad had, after all, spent decades in America and had become an American citizen. So was he radicalized solely in Waziristan’s training camps? Or were the seeds of his radicalization planted here in the United States?

Perhaps we will learn the answer when his interrogation is completed. Or, more likely, we will never know exactly. My guess is that it will be a combination of both.

Consider the three most recent terrorist attempts here in the United States — two failures and one tragic success — involving Maj. Nidal Hasan shooting soldiers at Fort Hood, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day underpants bomber, and Faisal Shahzad of the explosives-loaded SUV in New York City.

Hasan was American — of Palestinian descent. Abdulmutallab was a Nigerian. Shahzad was a naturalized American from Pakistan. There are two common threads to link all three. They are Muslims, and all appear to have been influenced by the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now living in Yeman.

Abdulmutallab was a suicide bomber, ready and willing to become a martyr. Hasan went berserk, acting like the old “Assassins” — cultists who 1,000 years ago in Persia and the Middle East murdered their victims in fits of zeal but made no effort to escape.

Shahzad, on the other hand, had no martyrdom operation in mind. He wanted to kill people he had never met in Times Square, and then get back to Pakistan where he had stashed his wife and child. Why did he want to kill and leave the country he had adopted as his own?

Although the vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with terrorism, there is no denying that this is a time of crisis for Muslims, and there are plenty of causes for grievance. It is not uncommon for ethnic groups and nationalities overseas to become riled when the countries they left behind are in turmoil. Northern Ireland’s “troubles” touched Irish-Americans, some of whom were willing to run guns to the IRA. American Jews organized arms shipments to the nascent state of Israel when it was embattled in the 1940s. Canadian Sikhs were affected by troubles in the Punjab, and some were even willing to blow up an Air India plane. Pakistanis overseas are likewise moved by the travails in their country of origin.

Then there is the personal failure factor.