Faisal Shahzad, a 30 year-old naturalized American citizen from Pakistan, has been arrested as the chief suspect behind the failed car bomb attack on Times Square this past Saturday. The good news is, of course, that the bomb was fairly unsophisticated (showing a low-level of expertise), it failed to detonate (sparing the lives of New Yorkers and tourists), and the man believed to be responsible for assembling and deploying the car bomb was apprehended in short order. Authorities were able to pinpoint the would-be terrorist in impressively little time.
It is not all good news, however. Law enforcement and intelligence officials failed to stop the perpetrator from placing his bomb in the first place. We were simply lucky that onlookers weren’t killed. If this was truly the work of a rogue individual, a “one-off” event as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested on Sunday, then that failure would be somewhat understandable. As law enforcement and intelligence professionals have repeatedly lamented, it is exceedingly difficult to stop a “lone wolf” terrorist.
Shahzad himself is reportedly telling that story to investigators. In interview sessions with the FBI, Shahzad has said that no one else was involved.
But what if Shahzad is simply lying and he was not a lone wolf? What if, as the press accounts are suggesting, there were more actors involved? What if this was yet another attack by the jihadists’ international terror network?
If that is the case, then this is a replay of the failed Christmas Day 2009 terrorist plot, when a would-be terrorist boarded a plane with a bomb that failed to detonate. Lady Luck and the vigilance of the passengers on board saved the day – not the U.S. government’s multi-billion dollar national security bureaucracy.
Press accounts say that Shahzad may have ties to foreign terrorists in Pakistan. For example, Fox News is reporting that there are arrests in Pakistan that are tied to the attempted bombing. And theWashington Post reports that investigators are:
…scouring international phone records showing calls "between some of the people who might be associated with this and folks overseas," according to a U.S. official who has discussed the case with intelligence officers. Investigators uncovered evidence -- a piece of paper, fingerprints or possibly both -- that also indicates international ties, according to a federal official briefed on the investigation.
Before Shahzad's arrest, the official said the material points to "an individual who causes concern to [investigators], who has overseas connections, and they are looking for him."
The Post’s source says that we should think “smaller” than al Qaeda in terms of the organization that may be behind this latest attack. An alphabet soup of Islamist terrorist and extremist groups operates in Pakistan, with al Qaeda being the tip of the jihadist spear. So, Shahzad could have made contact with any one of those groups. Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal first reported that the Pakistani Taliban, which works closely with al Qaeda, claimed credit for the Times Square attack in a video that was apparently recorded beforehand. (See here for Bill’s excellent reporting.)
Whether the Pakistani Taliban or some other part of the jihadist hydra was behind Shahzad’s crude, yet potentially deadly, plot we cannot know for sure at this time. But if these early reports are correct, then we do know that one of two things happened: (1) our intelligence officials failed to detect Shahzad’s overseas terrorist ties, or (2) intelligence and law enforcement officials failed to act on them. Either way, the U.S. government was not able to stop a would-be terrorist before his finger was on the trigger.
Most troubling of all, Saturday’s attempt would mean that -- in the past six months alone -- there have been three terrorist plots against the American homeland with ties overseas that the Feds failed to unravel before the plot became live.
The Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was in regular email contact with a top al Qaeda cleric named Anwar al Awlaki. Despite the fact that Hasan was a self-proclaimed jihadist, and his pen pal had called on Muslim soldiers to turn against their “infidel” armies, the Department of Defense and the FBI failed to connect the dots on him. On November 5, 2009, Hasan made his jihadist nightmare a reality, killing 13 Americans and wounding dozens more in a shooting spree.
Then, on December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound plane with an underwear bomb. His father had let a U.S. embassy know that his son may be a terrorist and had disappeared in Yemen, an al Qaeda hotspot. Other intelligence demonstrated that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is headquartered in Yemen, was preparing to use a Nigerian recruit in an attack. And Abdulmutallab was a known friend of Islamic extremists living in the UK, where Abdulmutallab had studied for years. The dots were not connected. Only the aforementioned Lady Luck and Abdulmutallab’s fellow passengers saved the day.
On Saturday, May 1, we got lucky again in Times Square.
There have been some recent successes. For example, federal authorities stopped an Afghan immigrant, Najibullah Zazi, before he could attack commuter trains in New York City. But still, the recent trend is not good.
We need to know all of the dots that were missed in Shahzad’s case. We need to know if there were other individuals, with their own missed dots, who were involved as well. And we need to explore why the U.S. government keeps failing to stop terrorists like Hasan, Abdulmutallab, and the would-be Times Square bomber.
Needless to say, if Shahzad or others received assistance from the terror network in Pakistan, then this was not a “one-off” event. And, no, the system did not work on Saturday either.
Three failures in six months is a disturbing trend. We can’t keep relying on Lady Luck.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.