New Yorkers were saved from possible carnage when a car bomb failed to explode in Times Square earlier this month. That was due, in part, to a familiar mix of factors that have minimized casualties from terrorism on American soil since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: luck, vigilance, and the bumbling incompetence of those who plotted the attempted assaults.
Minutes after a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder packed with propane canisters, fertilizer, gasoline, gunpowder and firecrackers was parked on the square, two street vendors noticed smoke wafting from the car and alerted nearby police. They closed surrounding streets to foot and vehicle traffic and evacuated nearby buildings.
Their reaction was quick but would have made little difference if the bomb had gone off. It didn’t. Like several other assailants who planned acts of political or religiously motivated terror against the United States, Faisal Shahzad, now under arrest and accused of launching the failed bombing, appears to have been more angry than clever.
This serial ineptitude by aspiring terrorists, combined with quick reactions by civilians, and some effective investigative work by intelligence and law enforcement officials, have spared the United States from the sort of mass-casualty assaults it suffered on Sept. 11, and that Western countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain have experienced since. Spectacular attacks against America have been planned and launched since hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center. But crude, small-scale attacks, sometimes carried out by only one person, have been the most murderous: a lone shooter at a Los Angeles airport El Al ticket counter; the Beltway snipers; an elderly neo-Nazi gunman at the Washington Holocaust Museum; Scott Roeder, who shot dead abortion-providing doctor George Tiller; an Islamist gunman at the Seattle Jewish Federation; another one who ran over and injured six people at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and said he wanted to emulate 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
Many of these attacks fade quickly from the public memory, perhaps because the number of victims is small and the attacks themselves seem less shocking than those that involve crashing planes and burning buildings. But combined with the more ambitious plots that have more often than not failed since 9/11, they add up to more than 20 planned and initiated assaults over the last decade. Nothing has come close to the horrors of 9/11. But terrorism remains very much a part of American life.
Rescue crews were still digging rubble from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York in December 2001 when passengers aboard American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami complained about the smell of smoke. A stewardess found passenger Richard Reid attempting to light a match and told him that smoking wasn’t permitted on the airplane. He promised to stop, and she walked away. When she then saw Reid attempting to light a fuse connected to his shoe, she realized cigarettes weren’t the problem and called for help. Several passengers leaped on Reid and tied him up with seat belts and headphone cords. The British convert to Islam had packed his shoe with explosives and planned to bring down the plane.
The fact that Reid had even been permitted to board the aircraft speaks to the deficiencies in airport security, and to failures by Western counterterrorism intelligence officials. Reid should not have been able to operate below their radar. He regularly attended radical mosques in London and did not hide his affection for Islamist extremism. He travelled to Pakistan and attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. When he initially tried to get on the American Airlines flight to Miami, he looked dishevelled, checked no luggage, and couldn’t answer all the questions posed to him by passenger screeners. But these warning signs only resulted in a one-day delay, and Reid was welcomed onto the flight the following day, on Dec. 22.
Scores of people would have died then were it not for Reid’s stupidity and the vigilance of his fellow passengers. His shoe bomb was well designed. It contained enough combustible material to blow a hole in the plane. But Reid’s foot had sweated enough to dampen the plastic explosives hidden in the shoe heel, and he fumbled with matches. Had Reid kept his feet dry and brought a lighter onto the plane, he might have joined 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in the ranks of Islamist jihadists who managed to murder infidels and martyr themselves in the act. Instead, he’ll likely die of sickness or old age in a maximum security American prison.
Other attempted attacks against the United States have followed a similar pattern: would-be terrorists with aspirations to commit mayhem lack the intelligence to carry it out. In June 2008, Shahed Hussain, an FBI informant, showed up at the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in New York and started praising violent jihad. Hamin Rashada, the mosque’s assistant imam, said that most members of the mosque suspected Hussain was some sort of plant. But James Cromitie, along with three colleagues, allegedly fell for the ruse and, prosecutors say, they were soon plotting to shoot down military airplanes and blow up local synagogues. They grew suspicious that they were being followed while driving to pick up what they thought were Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles. The four doubled back and, now convinced that the coast was clear, returned to get their supposed weapons, locked them in a storage container, and shouted “Allah akbar!” while hidden microphones and cameras recorded their every move.
More recently, on Dec. 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to succeed where Richard Reid failed—by smuggling explosives onto a plane and exploding them to down the aircraft. Abdulmutallab, like Reid, should never have been so easily allowed to board the plane. He bought his ticket with cash and checked no luggage. More seriously, his own father was so worried about Abdulmutallab’s growing Islamist militancy that he reported it to the CIA at the American Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, the month before his son attempted to bomb the plane. This resulted in Abdulmutallab’s name being added to the National Counterterrorism Center’s database, but not to the U.S. no-fly list, nor was his U.S. visa revoked.
Fortunately, passengers on the plane were vigilant where security officials were not. When Abdulmutallab ignited his bomb, which had been sewn into his underwear, they tackled him. He was handcuffed to his chair, with second-degree burns to his genitals, and is now in a Michigan jail.
The terror plot that, had it been successful, almost certainly would have resulted in more victims than anything attempted since 9/11 was—unlike the shoe and underwear bombers—thwarted by diligent intelligence work. In August 2006, British police arrested some two dozen suspects and revealed a plot to blow up at least 10 airliners flying between the United Kingdom and Canada and the United States. The investigation involved extensive surveillance and hundreds of police and intelligence officers. But chances that it would be discovered were inevitably increased by the plot’s complexity.
This perhaps explains the apparent simplicity of the attempted car bombing in Times Square. The bomber wasn’t sophisticated enough to design a bomb that worked. But in packing a car with crude explosives and driving to his target he avoided airport security and took fewer risks that might have tipped off authorities.
George Michael, a political science professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise who has written on Islamist terrorism in the United States, argues that increased security measures since 9/11 have made it more difficult for terrorists in the United States to organize internationally and plot elaborate acts of brutality. “This notion of leaderless resistance or lone-wolf terrorism, that’s really been the trend now for quite some time,” says Michael. “We see people who might have loose ties to organizations but we don’t really see terrorism in an organizational context.”
It is still too early to know what, if any, ties Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square bomber, had with other jihadists or with terrorist groups abroad—though officials in Pakistan have reportedly made arrests in connection to the plot. But Michael’s description matches that of Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army major who shot and killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at the Fort Hood military base in November, wounding at least 30 others.
There is no evidence that Hasan belonged to a terrorist group or had trained at terrorist camps abroad. He had, however, communicated with and praised Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American Islamist linked to al-Qaeda.
Fittingly, U.S.-born al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn recently praised Hasan for his lone-wolf approach to terrorism, saying Hasan “has shown us what one righteous Muslim with an assault rifle can do for his religion and brothers in faith.” Gadahn called him “a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role model who has opened a door, lit a path and shown the way forward for every Muslim who finds himself among the unbelievers.”