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The real danger in makeshift bombs

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Times Square bomb attempt is a snapshot of the future, say U.S. counterterrorism experts: It was a makeshift plot by a new generation of terrorists that was thwarted by a combination of high-tech surveillance and vigilant citizens. This is the world we will be living in for some years, and we can only hope that other Americans will be as sensible as New York hot dog vendors.

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Government officials, for a change, are acting as coolly as Joe Citizen. Rather than talk ourselves into a national panic and a "global war against terrorism," as happened after Sept. 11, 2001, President Obama took a more measured approach Tuesday: "We will not be terrorized. We will not cower in fear. We will not be intimidated." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also got it right when he insisted: "We will not tolerate any bias or backlash against any Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers."

Analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center have been warning for several years that the terrorist threat is changing, in part because of U.S. success in demolishing the senior leadership of al-Qaeda. That organization had a tight command-and-control system and a rigorous process of targeting and operations. The new generation is looser and sloppier; its operations are more decentralized and less deadly. But the terrorists are also harder to find and their plots are easier to replicate.

"There's some real atomization underway," a U.S. counterterrorism official explained Tuesday. "The old model of centralized command and control no longer tells the whole story. You have franchises that are working independent of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and those franchises have shown the ability to conduct highly effective, highly lethal operations in their own countries and regions. In some cases, though, they've been a hell of a lot less effective when they go far beyond their home turf."

The Times Square plot was amateurish: Faisal Shahzad, the alleged bomber, used M-88 firecrackers to try to detonate his hodgepodge of propane tanks, gasoline and fertilizer. He used cheap-looking alarm clocks as timers. He removed the vehicle identification number of the Nissan Pathfinder from the dashboard but forgot about the identical number engraved on the engine.

The would-be bomber's poor tradecraft shouldn't be reassuring. Jihadists learn from one another's mistakes. They will analyze every error made in the Times Square operation and every successful technique of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence.

The New York Police Department was quick in defusing the explosives-laden vehicle, delivering on its reputation as one of the world's top counterterrorism forces. But the high-tech end of the intelligence community worked pretty well, too, in identifying and arresting Shahzad before he could flee the country.

This time, the dots got connected: U.S. immigration authorities quizzed Shahzad and obtained detailed information when he returned from his last trip to Pakistan; though he used a disposable cellphone, the FBI was able to link that number with the purchase of the Pathfinder. A pattern analysis of that cellphone's calls, including ones to Pakistan, apparently led them to Shahzad. At the last minute, he was yanked off a flight to Dubai. That's the way it's supposed to work, but the dots won't always line up so neatly.

The dragnet will shift now to Pakistan. Shahzad has told the FBI he was trained in bomb-making in Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence has already arrested some alleged contacts of Shahzad there, and a U.S. official told me Tuesday that the CIA is "mobilizing every possible contact overseas."

This plot failed, but America won't always be so lucky. Al-Qaeda and its spin-offs have been working hard to recruit terrorists who can operate in the United States, and sooner or later, one of them is going to succeed. The test of the country's resilience isn't when a terrorist botches the job and people are patting themselves on the back, but when the bomb goes off.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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