Thursday, May 6, 2010

Uncomfortable Truths and the Times Square Attack

Via STRATFOR (Global Security & Intel Report) -

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.


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.


While a detailed schematic of the firing chain [of the VBIED] 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.


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.


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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