New York Gov. David Paterson labeled Saturday night’s foiled car bomb attack in Times Square an “act of terror.” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is treating it as “potential act of terror.”
Fair enough. If the three propane tanks; fireworks; two filled 5-gallon gasoline containers; and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire, and other components found in the back of the Nissan Pathfinder had exploded, they would have “caused a significant ball of fire,” in the words of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
New York’s Mayor Bloomberg said the explosion could have caused “huge damage on a block of Broadway theaters and restaurants teeming with tourists.”
In short, if, God forbid, the “act of terror” had been successful, federal and local officials understand clearly that the SUV-bomb was aimed at killing a large group of New Yorkers and visitors, causing severe damage to the area and a shock to the public.
Bravo to the watchful citizen who alerted authorities: He emerges as the hero in this counter- terrorism act. And also a high five to the men and women of New York law enforcement who rushed to secure the area and disable the device. In that sense, it was a success story for New York, one of the cities terrorists target most in the Western world.
Intense investigations and many questions will follow on two tracks: technical inquiries and identity reconstruction. On the one hand, officials will have to figure out how the bomb was assembled and where, and why it didn’t go off.
This line of investigation will tell us more about the capacity of terrorists to copycat this attempt, to move material of the same sort across city limits, or worse, build such a weapon inside Manhattan or any other U.S. city.
There’s no doubt that the findings will be sobering. The capacity of potential terrorists to build urban-laden bombs, move them through cities, and choose their strategic targets easily would mean that such “acts of terror” can be repeated and launched again in the same city or in other locations across the nation. If the perpetrators did it in New York City, they could do it anywhere.
On the other hand, authorities will have to determine the identity of the terrorists. And we’re not just talking about any Social Security or other identification numbers belonging to the terrorist(s) but their affiliation, their motives and their organization.
The public already has received several confusing messages in the past year and a half regarding government’s quick reactions to previous terror attempts. In the most recent cases of the deadly attack at Fort Hood and the unsuccessful Christmas Day “underwear bombing” attempt, administration officials rushed to call these acts “isolated extremists” — only to discover there was more to the attacks in terms of links to a greater circle of terror.
That’s why it is important to be cautious and move from evidence to evidence. "Amateurish" or not, as Bloomberg described the attempted terrorist attack, it was designed to have devastating effects. It was indeed an “act of terror.”
Now comes the next part. We’ll need to know more about the minds behind Saturday night’s fatal plan. Was it designed by a domestic extremist(s) or homegrown jihadist(s), and was it internationally coordinated? These are the questions as we search for answers in the days ahead.
The following day, a one minute (and one second) video was posted on several jihadist websites claiming the Pakistani Taliban's responsibility for the failed attack, which the video claimed "is revenge for the death” of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and the recent slayings of top leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, “who were killed by U.S. and Iraqi troops last month north of Baghdad."
There is no specific reference to the attack on the tape and it does not mention that it was a car bomb or that it took place in New York City. At first analysis, a jihadi war room online decided to own the attempt and use it as propaganda. Go convince the hundreds of thousands of indoctrinated militants around the world that it isn't a victory by the Taliban international.
That's what counts in this war of ideas. The Taliban and other al-Qaida propagandists threatened months ago that the American homeland will be targeted. Now someone parked a car bomb in the heart of Manhattan.
Found on time or not, disabled or not, the "story" is that some jihadist was able to build a weapon and acquire a target on the busiest square and most famous in the world. The investigation won't matter much for people who have been made to believe that it was the CIA that was behind 9/11.
U.S. authorities will go by the book to investigate thoroughly every lead possible, but the propaganda machine of the jihadists already is investing in the event: one short video to be seen by millions of people and scores of debates and incitements on the region's airwaves. We in the United States will be subscribing to the legal codes of criminal procedures, and they out there are applying the code of psychological intoxication.
But if we discover that it was indeed an act of jihadism, Taliban or not, homegrown or hybrid, this would mean significantly: The days of the strategically designed "amateurish Terror" are just ahead of us. For in al-Qaida's manual of tactics, if you can't administer a perfect strike, let the "brothers" strike with whatever they have.
In any of these scenarios, domestic extremist or its alternative, we are talking about another “terror act” taking place on U.S. soil; it’s about the 15th since the beginning of 2009. By empirical methods, multiple terror acts are a “terror war” waged against this country —and New York City is its prime target.
Dr. Walid Phares is a terrorism expert who teaches global strategies in Washington D.C.
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