Initial Analysis Of The Times Square Bombing Attempt
By Steve Schippert | May 4, 2010
Following the attempted car bombing outside the Viacom building at Times Square in New York City this past Saturday, some of the immediate speculation has turned to information. Much of the rest remains informed speculation but speculation nonetheless. With over 48 hours now past since the initial incident, an analysis of knowns and unknowns is warranted. It is important that the American public access and understand this information, particularly those who live and work in the New York City metro area, for 'home' remains Target New York.
Within the context of "Target New York," three essential pieces of information must be fleshed out fully to completely understand this event and to better predict - and therefor prevent - future terrorist attempts at attack on American civilians. The essential pieces of information are what, who and why - and in that order. The answers to one aspect often lends clues to unknown answers to the others.
What: The Pathfinder Car Bomb
The bomb itself was simple and crude, made from readily available materials. This and the manner of its construction and design - particularly the triggering mechanism - suggests a first-time bomb maker at work is a high probability. All materials readily available, simple triggering mechanism that failed to detonate or ignite the flammable materials and other details indicate that this could well be the product of a bomb maker in his first attempt.
It would at first appear likely that the bomb maker had very little hands-on training if any, with little indication any training would be to the level expected of an al-Qaeda or Taliban explosives training camp in Pakistan or elsewhere. It would therefor also be reasonable then to suspect that the bomb maker was likely following instructions - either written in a book or manual or acquired via the Internet in either a web posting or, perhaps less likely due to security risks, via e-mail exchanges. As we will soon see, considering other information now known, this may all be very wrong assumptions to make. This nevertheless begins to give us clues to the question of who. First, back to the what.
The contents of the vehicle, a Nissan Pathfinder SUV, included two plastic five-gallon containers of gasoline, three metal propane tanks (the type commonly used for outdoor grills), dry fertilizer in a lock metal gun cabinet described as containing "eight bags (over 100 pounds) of an unknown, fertilizer-like substance and an inverted pot with a "bird's nest" of wires. There were two analog alarm clocks wired to arrangements of M-88 firecrackers. The bomber expected the M-88 firecrackers to go off and puncture the gasoline and propane tanks to spark the explosion. This clearly did not happen. Some of the M-88's ignited, as heard by nearby pedestrians and vendors, but failed to penetrate either the plastic gasoline containers or the propane tanks.
The fertilizer still in bags and clearly expected to explode or add to the impact is another sign of a bomb maker of low skill and knowledge perhaps following poor or unclear instructions. In order for an ammonium nitrate fertilizer to be transformed into an explosive, it must be combined with diesel fuel and stirred into a slurry. The fertilizer was reportedly not an ammonium nitrate based type to begin with, slurry or none.
It should be noted here that the crude, technically lacking bomb design itself should be no source of reassurance that the threat to New York City, its citizens, its tourists and its workers is minimal. It was a mistake for authorities and experts to publicly describe it as "amateurish." Americans taking in their information from news reports who see this written and hear it spoken will instinctively conclude that the threat is significantly less than feared. This is a mistake, because upwards of 80% of a successful attack comes from the motivation and desire of the attacker. This is far harder for terrorists to cultivate among recruits than skill levels and tactics. And the motivation and desire to kill innocents on New York City streets was clearly demonstrated Saturday.
The vehicle used was purchased for cash via a Craigslist.com seller's post. The owner reportedly "sold the vehicle for $1,300 to someone who looked 'Middle Eastern' or 'Hispanic.' The buyer reportedly paid in $100 bills." The vehicle was then fitted with license plates stolen off of a Ford pick-up at a Stratford, Connecticut, junk yard. The bomb was loaded and assembled and then driven into New York City late on the Saturday afternoon of May 1, 2010.
Who: The Bomb Cell and Taliban Claims
All of the indications of a poorly trained bomb maker remain. However, the "Middle Eastern" buyer of the 1993 Pathfinder as described by the seller is believed to be a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani origin "who was in Pakistan for several months and returned to the United States recently," according to unnamed officials speaking to FOX News. Authorities believe him to be part of a cell of at least three individuals in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut).
Whatever the individual's training and skill level, if one can presume that he may have either built the bomb or passed on directions, his presence in Pakistan "for months" recently can reasonably be presumed to lend some immediate credence to Taliban claims of responsibility for the attack.
Qari Hussain Mehsud, the top bomb maker for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, said he takes "fully responsibility for the recent attack in the USA." Qari Hussain made the claim on an audiotape accompanied by images that was released on a YouTube website that calls itself the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel.
The tape has yet to be verified, but US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal believe it is legitimate. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan News Channel on YouTube was created on April 30. Officials believe it was created to announce the Times Square attack, and Qari Hussain's statement was pre-recorded.
The pre-recorded nature and the April 30 date of the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) channel creation are another strong indicator that the Taliban had prior knowledge of the attempted bombing and potentially central involvement as claimed. The Pakistani Taliban's top bomb maker said that the attack was "revenge for the great & valuable martyred leaders of mujahideen," indicating that he presumed the attack would be successful to some degree, likely at least expecting the media spectacle of a big boom in Manhattan if not casualties.
If the Pakistani-American purchaser of the Nissan Pathfinder did not indeed meet with, conspire with and take training from the Pakistani Taliban while in Pakistan for months, Mehsud's remarks and timing will prove to be for him one of the most unlikely and unpleasant coincidences of the War on Terror. It is reasonable to conclude that the purchaser of the Nissan Pathfinder used in the bombing was not in Pakistan taking in a series of cricket matches for several months, only to return and find a newly purchased truck stolen and used in a bombing. His disappearance since the incident bears this out.
It is an error to suggest, as I have recently, that the Taliban have never made false claims of credit for attacks they had no part in. It is extremely rare, yes. But they have made at least two false claims responsibility in the past, it should be noted. As pointed out by Marc Sageman to the Wall Street Journal, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the massive northeast blackout of 2003 and also for a mass shooting in Binghamton, New York, last year. But two incidences over a several years does not make a pattern. Considering the other information beginning to take shape in the open-source, the Taliban claims look more credible with each passing day.
Why: What Stirs The Plot?
The specific answer(s) to why the bombing was attempted in the first place is the trickiest - yet simplest - question to answer. What drove these men to attempt a bombing now? Why was the bomb parked at the entrance to the Viacom building? Why wasn't it somewhere else? Why was a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani decent motivated to attack his supposedly adopted country? Each of these questions at their face value require psycho-analysis and intrepid interrogation to answer.
Yet, we can never lose sight of the most basic reality, which is to say that ideologically-driven militant Islamists embrace terrorism as a means of waging war against a nation it cannot defeat militarily. And America is hated most. Yes, the reasons are myriad and the degrees of the hatreds and their root causes are debated among anthropologists and terrorism experts inside and out. But while the specifics are hammered out, argued and debated exhaustively in academic circles, the debate cannot cause Americans to lose sight of the fact that America is the ultimate target. And New York City is the omnipresent image of America abroad and is thus the preferred target for all its symbolism and concentrated media.
Nothing we do in diplomacy, foreign policy or actions will change this dynamic. For, while the specific gripes from specific Islamist terrorist groups are laid forth with great fanfare and passion, the ultimate goal is a global caliphate and the dominance of Islam (with fundamentalist Islamists at the helm) over all lands. America remains a target today because she stood up, because she stands tall and visible. But shrink, and the target doesn't disappear, it is simply delayed.
The majority of hot conflicts on the globe are at the edges where majority Muslim societies border majority non-Muslim societies. This is no accident or coincidence. The wars - or rather, the Jihad - is undertaken by the most dangerous, most violent and most radical among them. There is no room in the jihad for non-Muslims. Nor, as can be seen plainly within Pakistan itself, is there room for the moderate or secular Muslim.
Conclusion to Initial Analysis
And so it is with Target New York. It is entirely possible, nay likely, that the recent Times Square car bomb was placed at the doorstep of the Viacom building's main northeast entrance because of the South Park controversy. Aired and produced by Viacom's Comedy Central, South Park's creators intended to air a depiction of the prophet Muhammed in an episode. This angered some Muslims as an affront to their beliefs, including the forbidding of any images of Muhammed. The reasonable will protest and air complaints. The violent, the extreme, the Islamist and terrorist will attack, kill, maim and destroy.
And he will use the attack as a propaganda tool to recruit and inspire others to the same. And this is the seed of what some call the "homegrown terrorist" or "homegrown jihad." But how "homegrown" can it be when the views and actions are so divorced from the civil American society? It may well be the execution of jihad from those within, but it can hardly be considered a "homegrown" expression of the civil American society. It is wholly foreign in every regard.
Regardless what term is affixed, one of the aims of the terrorists executing and/or claiming public responsibility for the Times Square bombing attempt is to inspire others within America to take up their cause. As a good friend smartly remarked, "The pursuit of those responsible plays right into the al-Qaeda playbook. A recruiting tool that offends the more gifted into action. Global insurgency works like this. All failures are successes. All successes are recruits."
We have no choice but to pursue. We are at war, a long war. A war of bombs, a war of ideas. The enemy gets a vote and a turn. We must win more than we lose. For all its complexities and the natural fears within Target New York, it's also just that simple.