On Saturday, May 1, a crude car bomb composed of gasoline canisters, propane tanks, fertilizer, and fireworks failed to detonate in Times Square. A nearby T-shirt salesman saw the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder-turned-bomb start smoking. New Yorkers are reminded endlessly: If you “See Something, Say Something.” The vendor did. New York City police and FBI agents swarmed the vehicle, the bomb was disassembled, and 53 hours later a Pakistani-American man named Faisal Shahzad was in custody.
We were lucky. Shahzad panicked. He left in a hurry and failed to take several additional steps that might well have led to the detonation of the bomb. If he had remained calm and if the bomb been better built, there is no telling how many passersby would have been killed.
A few days later, on May 4, President Obama tried to put the attack in context.
This incident is another sobering reminder of the times in which we live. Around the world and here at home, there are those who would attack our citizens and who would slaughter innocent men, women, and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda. They will stop at nothing to kill and disrupt our way of life. But once again, an attempted attack has been—failed.
The last few words were a bit awkward. It is as if the president wanted to say the attack “has been thwarted” but then realized he could not. The attack failed because Shahzad did not do a better job of constructing his makeshift bomb. No government agency can take credit for that.
Still, the Obama administration celebrated the “Times Square incident,” as it is delicately called on the White House’s website. It is, the administration believes, a counterterrorism success. After praising the “ordinary citizens” who “were vigilant and reported suspicious activity to the authorities,” President Obama claimed that the attack “failed because these authorities—local, state and federal—acted quickly and did what they’re trained to do.” The Washington Post followed up with an account saying that Shahzad’s swift capture was a “rare moment to celebrate” for beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs echoed this sentiment, saying, “We want to celebrate the success of, rightly so, of what law enforcement was able to do.”
But success in the war on terror is not apprehending terrorists after their attacks fail. Success is preventing them from attempting the attack in the first place.
The Times Square attack was the third time in the past six months that an individual terrorist with ties to high-level Islamic radicals overseas has launched an attack on the American homeland. In each instance, America’s vast, multibillion dollar intelligence and law enforcement establishment failed to detect the terrorists’ plans beforehand. And in each instance Obama administration officials moved quickly to minimize the significance of the attack and downplay the connections that the attackers had with international terrorists.
On the morning of May 2, the day after the attack, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano appeared on ABC’s This Week. Jake Tapper asked her about the likelihood of international involvement in the attempted bombing, pointing to similarities between the crude bomb discovered in the SUV and those used in attempted bombings in London and Glasgow in 2007.
“Well, right now, we have no evidence that it is anything other than a one-off, but we are alerting state, local officials around the country, letting them know what is going on,” Napolitano replied.
Calling the attempted attack a “one-off” wasn’t a direct response to Tapper’s question. What’s clear is that Napolitano, who used “one-off” twice and also described the bomb as “amateurish,” wanted to downplay the seriousness of the attack. So did other Obama administration and law enforcement officials, who dismissed claims of responsibility by the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan).
Many details of Faisal Shahzad’s life remain murky. It will take weeks, if not months, to fill the gaps in our knowledge of his biography. But one thing is clear: When he drove a 1993 Pathfinder to Times Square on May 1, he was a committed jihadist, an Islamist radical inspired by religion to kill Americans.