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Uncomfortable Truths and the Times Square Attack

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By Ben West and Scott Stewart

Faisal Shahzad, the first suspect arrested for involvement in the failed May 1 Times Square bombing attempt, was detained just before midnight on May 3 as he was attempting to depart on a flight from Kennedy International Airport in New York. Authorities removed Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, from an Emirates Airlines flight destined for Dubai. On May 4, Shahzad appeared at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan for his arraignment.

Authorities say that Shahzad is cooperating and that he insists he acted alone. However, this is contradicted by reports that the attack could have international links. On Feb. 3, Shahzad returned from a trip to Pakistan, where, according to the criminal complaint, he said he received militant training in Waziristan, a key hub of the main Pakistani Taliban rebel coalition, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Authorities are reportedly seeking three other individuals in the United States in connection with the May 1 Times Square bombing attempt.

Investigative efforts at this point are focusing on identifying others possibly connected to the plot and determining whether they directed Shahzad in the bombing attempt or merely enabled him. From all indications, authorities are quickly collecting information on additional suspects from their homes and telephone-call records, and this is leading to more investigations and more suspects. While the May 1 attempt was unsuccessful, it came much closer to killing civilians in New York than other recent attempts, such as the Najibullah Zazi case in September 2009 and the Newburgh plot in May 2009. Understanding how Shahzad and his possible associates almost pulled it off is key to preventing future threats.

Shahzad's Mistakes

 

While the device left in the Nissan Pathfinder parked on 45th Street, just off Times Square, ultimately failed to cause any damage, the materials present could have caused a substantial explosion had they been prepared and assembled properly. The bomb's components were common, everyday products that would not raise undue suspicion when purchased -- especially if they were bought separately. They included the following:

  • Some 113 kilograms (250 pounds) of urea-based fertilizer. A diagram released by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that the fertilizer was found in a metal gun locker in the back of the Pathfinder. The mere presence of urea-based fertilizer does not necessarily indicate that the materials in the gun locker composed a viable improvised explosive mixture, but urea-based fertilizer can be mixed with nitric acid to create urea nitrate, the main explosive charge used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (It is not known if the fertilizer in the Pathfinder had been used to create urea nitrate.) Urea nitrate is a popular improvised mixture that can be detonated by a blasting cap and does not require a high-explosive booster charge like ammonium nitrate does; 250 pounds of urea nitrate would be enough to destroy the Pathfinder completely and create a substantial blast effect. If detonated near a large crowd of people, such an explosion could produce serious carnage.
  • Two 19-liter (5-gallon) containers of gasoline. If ignited, this fuel would have added an impressive fireball to the explosion but, in practical terms, would not have added much to the explosive effect of the device. Most of the damage would have been done by the urea nitrate. Reports indicate that consumer-grade fireworks (M-88 firecrackers) had been placed between the two containers of gasoline and were detonated, but they do not appear to have ruptured the containers and did not ignite the gasoline inside them. It appears that the firecrackers were intended to be the initiator for the device and were apparently the source of a small fire in the carpet upholstery of the Pathfinder. This created smoke that alerted a street vendor that something was wrong. The firecrackers likely would not have had sufficient detonation velocity to initiate urea nitrate.
  • Three 75-liter (20-gallon) propane tanks. Police have reported that the tank valves were left unopened, which has led others to conclude that this was yet another mistake on the part of Shahzad. Certainly, opening the tanks' valves, filling the vehicle with propane gas and then igniting a spark would have been one way to cause a large explosion. Another way would have been to use explosives (such as the adjacent fertilizer mixture or gasoline) to rupture the tanks, which would have created a large amount of force and fire since the propane inside the tanks was under considerable pressure. Shahzad may have actually been attempting to blast open the propane tanks, which would explain why the valves were closed. Propane tanks are commonly used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in many parts of the world. Even without detonating, the propane tanks would have become very large and dangerous projectiles if the fertilizer had detonated.

That none of these three forms of explosive and incendiary materials detonated indicates that the bombmaker was likely a novice and had problems with the design of his firing chain. While a detailed schematic of the firing chain has not been released, the bombmaker did not seem to have a sophisticated understanding of explosive materials and the techniques required to properly detonate them. This person may have had some rudimentary training in explosives but was clearly not a trained bombmaker. It is one thing to attend a class at a militant camp where you are taught how to use military explosives and quite another to create a viable IED from scratch in hostile territory.

However, the fact that Shahzad was apparently able to collect all of the materials, construct an IED (even a poorly designed one) and maneuver it to the intended target without being detected exhibits considerable progress along the attack cycle. Had the bombmaker properly constructed a viable device with these components and if the materials had detonated, the explosion and resulting fire likely would have caused a significant number of casualties given the high density and proximity of people in the area.

It appears that Shahzad made a classic "Kramer jihadist" mistake: trying to make his attack overly spectacular and dramatic. This mistake was criticized by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wahayshi last year when he called for grassroots operatives to conduct simple attacks instead of complex ones that are more prone to failure. In the end, Shahzad (who was probably making his first attempt to build an IED by himself) tried to pull off an attack so elaborate that it failed to do any damage at all.

As Stratfor has discussed for many years now, the devolution of the jihadist threat from one based primarily on al Qaeda the group to one emanating from a wider jihadist movement means that we will see jihadist attacks being carried out more frequently by grassroots or lone wolf actors. These actors will possess a lesser degree of terrorist tradecraft than the professional terrorists associated with the core al Qaeda group, or even regional jihadist franchises like the TTP. This lack of tradecraft means that these operatives are more likely to make mistakes and attempt attacks against relatively soft targets, both characteristics seen in the failed May 1 attack.

Jihadist Attack Models

Under heavy pressure since the 9/11 attacks, jihadist planners wanting to strike the U.S. mainland face many challenges. For one thing, it is difficult for them to find operatives capable of traveling to and from the United States. This means that, in many cases, instead of using the best and brightest operatives that jihadist groups have, they are forced to send whoever can get into the country. In September 2009, U.S. authorities arrested Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. citizen who received training at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan in 2008 before returning to the United States to begin an operation that would involve detonating explosive devices on New York City subways.

Zazi's journey likely raised red flags with authorities, who subsequently learned through communication intercepts of his intent to construct explosive devices. Zazi had no explosives training or experience other than what he had picked during his brief stint at the training camp in Pakistan, and he attempted to construct the devices only with the notes he had taken during the training. Zazi had difficulty producing viable acetone peroxide explosives, similar to what appears to have happened with Shahzad in his Times Square attempt. Zazi also showed poor tradecraft by purchasing large amounts of hydrogen peroxide and acetone in an attempt to make triacetone triperoxide, a very difficult explosive material to use because of its volatility. His unusual shopping habits raised suspicion and, along with other incriminating evidence, eventually led to his arrest before he could initiate his planned attack.

Other plots in recent years such as the Newburgh case as well as plots in Dallas and Springfield, Ill., all three in 2009, failed because the suspects behind the attacks reached out to others to acquire explosive material instead of making it themselves. (In the latter two cases, Hosam Smadi in Dallas and Michael Finton in Springfield unwittingly worked with FBI agents to obtain fake explosive material that they thought they could use to attack prominent buildings in their respective cities and were subsequently arrested.) In seeking help, they made themselves vulnerable to interception, and local and federal authorities were able to infiltrate the cell planning the attack and ensure that the operatives never posed a serious threat. Unlike these failed plotters, Shahzad traveled to Pakistan to receive training and used everyday materials to construct his explosive devices, thus mitigating the risk of being discovered.

A much more successful model of waging a jihadist attack on U.S. soil is the case of U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas in November 2009. Instead of traveling to Yemen or Pakistan for training, which would have aroused suspicion, Maj. Hasan used skills he already possessed and simple means to conduct his attack, something that kept his profile low (although he was under investigation for posting comments online seemingly justifying suicide attacks). Ultimately, Hasan killed more people with a handgun than the recently botched or thwarted attacks involving relatively complicated IEDs.

With AQAP leader al-Wahayshi advocating smaller and easier attacks against softer targets in the fall of 2009 (shortly before Maj. Hasan's attack at Fort Hood), it appears that the tactic is making its way through jihadist circles. This highlights the risk that ideologically radicalized individuals (as Shahzad certainly appears to be) can still pose to the public, despite their seeming inability to successfully construct and deploy relatively complex IEDs.

Slipping Through the Cracks?

It is likely that U.S. authorities were aware of Shahzad due to his recent five-monthlong trip to Pakistan. Authorities may also have intercepted the telephone conversations that Shahzad had with people in Pakistan using a pre-paid cell phone (which are more anonymous but still traceable). Such activities usually are noticed by authorities, and we anticipate that there will be a storm in the media in the coming days and weeks about how the U.S. government missed signs pointing to Shahzad's radicalization and operational activity. The witch hunt would be far more intense if the attack had actually succeeded -- as it could well have. However, as we've noted in past attacks such as the July 7, 2005, London bombings, the universe of potential jihadists is so wide that the number of suspects simply overwhelms the government's ability to process them all. The tactical reality is that the government simply cannot identify all potential attackers in advance and thwart every attack. Some suspects will inevitably fly under the radar.

This reality flies in the face of the expectation that governments somehow must prevent all terrorist attacks. But the uncomfortable truth in the war against jihadist militants is that there is no such thing as complete security. Given the diffuse nature of the threat and of the enemy, and the wide availability of soft targets in open societies, there is simply no intelligence or security service in the world capable of identifying every aspiring militant who lives in or enters a country and of pre-empting their intended acts of violence.

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