Times Square bomb
Monday, May 3, 2010; 12:00 PM
Police and federal investigators are searching for a man who was videotaped changing his shirt in an alley near Times Square on Saturday evening, and another person seen running from the area, as part of their probe into a car bomb that could have killed or maimed many people had it been detonated, officials said.
Terrorism expert Evan F. Kohlmann with Flashpoint Partners was online Monday, May 3, at Noon ET to discuss the latest news about the incident and the Taliban's claim in videos for responsibility.
Investigators acknowledged that much about the bombing attempt, the most serious in the United States since the Christmas Day incident aboard a commercial flight bound for Detroit, remains a mystery. That includes whether an organized group or a determined individual was responsible and whether an intelligence review will turn up clues that pointed to a possible attack.
Omaha, Neb.: The bomb was discovered because of smoke drifting from the car. Does this mean the bomb actually "detonated," and its poor construction is the only reason people weren't hurt?
Evan F. Kohlmann: This device was evidently constructed of fuel canisters and propane tanks wired together with a primer, or detonator. The detonator is usually comprised of black powder or gun powder. What appears to have occurred here is that the initial primer, or detonator, went off, but it was an insufficiently large blast to spark a chain reaction with the other combustible materials inside the vehicle. So, yes, the bomb was poorly constructed, it lacked an explosive charge (aside from the detonator), and fortunately, people weren't hurt.
Long Beach, Miss.: As with other failed or less than successful terrorist actions, such as the Tokyo subway gas attack, are the authorities going to explain in detail just why the attack was not as successful as planned; that is, poor gas mixture and release mechanism?
Evan F. Kohlmann: In this case, we already have some idea about why this attack was not as successful as planned. Quite obviously, the person or persons who put this device together lacked proper knowledge or experience in deploying explosives. Attempting to ignite fuel tanks or propane canisters is much more difficult than the impression one gets from Hollywood movies. Anyone who doubts that should speak with Dr. Bilal Abdullah, the Iraqi-born doctor who attempted (and failed) to use a similar device against a nightclub in London in 2007. The culprits here in Times Square were not even skilled enough to come up with a remote detonator -- they were just relying on simple timers.
Fairfax, Va.: Do you think the man changing shirts on the street is actually the bomber? Why would he do that in full view of everyone right there? If he were the bomber, wouldn't he have taken careful cover somewhere and not done it out in the open?
Evan F. Kohlmann: I think we need to be very careful about ascribing any guilt to this individual, who at the moment is merely a person of interest, not a suspect. As a local New Yorker, I would suggest that the idea of a man changing shirts on the street in Times Square is not really all that unusual or strange. I think you also make a reasonable point in that if he were the guilty party, it wouldn't have been terribly wise to change clothing directly in front of a closed circuit television camera..
New York, N.Y.: Mayor Bloomberg announced this morning that he didn't believe the car bomber was linked to organized terrorists groups (e.g., al-Qaeda). How can law enforcement officers know this already when they don't have a suspect in custody?
Evan F. Kohlmann: The FBI and the NYPD are wisely not disclosing all the information that they've collected so far, but based on the amateurish construction of the device and the fact that it does not appear to be part of a coordinated campaign of attacks, it seems unlikely that an organized terror group was responsible. However, given the flurry of claims from the Pakistani Taliban over the past few days -- including a video last night of Hakimullah Mehsud vowing to carry out imminent attacks on U.S. cities -- it may be premature to rule out that possibility entirely. Several years ago, the Pakistani Taliban was behind a remarkably amateurish terror plot in Barcelona -- but it was nonetheless their work.
Re: explanation: I think the commenter's point may have been that by having the authorities explain exactly what went wrong, it helps the bad guys do some troubleshooting in the future.
Evan F. Kohlmann: That's a fair point -- we don't want to help terrorists learn from their mistakes. Several years ago, the U.S. Justice Department posted a terrorist training manual on its website as a means to educate the public on the threat of Al-Qaida. The problem is, a diverse group of would-be Al-Qaida recruits have since found it and have attempted to use it to school themselves in the methodology of terrorism. In retrospect, it was probably not a great move.
Atlanta, Ga.: What appetite have the TTP shown previously for attacks beyond the Af/Pak region?
Evan F. Kohlmann: Within the past year, Spanish courts have convicted a group of Pakistanis in Barcelona of conspiring with the Pakistani Taliban to carry out a terror attack in that city. Prior to the trial in Spain, we traveled to Pakistan and interviewed senior TTP commander Maulvi Omar, who freely acknowledged (on camera) the role of the TTP in the failed Barcelona plot. The video footage is available from the website of the NEFA Foundation (www.nefafoundation.org).
Beyond that, so far, the TTP's operations have been mostly limited to Pakistan and Afghanistan. At least for now...
New Orleans, La.: As none of the materials, or few of them, actually ignited, won't those materials provide a bevy of information which can be used to catch the perpetrator(s)? Can you trace propane tanks, for example?
Evan F. Kohlmann: Yes, this is one of the key mistakes that is often made in cases such as this. Perpetrators assume that any forensic details will be wiped clean in the ensuing blast -- and thus they are careless with fingerprints and other identifying information. In the case of the failed 2007 nightclub bombings in London, British police were able to identify the culprits by tracing back cellular phone SIM data cards which were intended to serve as the detonators, but which remained intact.
Right now, the NYPD is speaking to managers at hardware stores and home appliance shops looking for anyone who might have made unusual purchases of propane tanks, fireworks, an unusually large gun case, etc. We don't know yet whether or not the propane tanks or any of the other equipment was marked with unique identification numbers, but that's certainly an avenue that police are following up on.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I understand the Taliban group that claimed credit for the bomb has little credibility. What about this bomb and the evidence so far makes it seem likely this is not part of a Taliban or al Qaeda terror attempt?
Evan F. Kohlmann: The incendiary device in question here was cobbled together from ordinary items you can buy at regular stores. For lack of a better analogy, it's almost like a glorified Molotov cocktail. There was no fabrication of an explosive, there was no sophisticated wiring, there was no remote detonator, etc. In other words, you probably wouldn't need to attend a terror training camp -- or have any real knowledge of bomb-making -- to put a device like this together. The presumption, fair or not, is that if Al-Qaida or the Taliban were to actually assign someone to carry out a "jaw-breaking" attack inside the U.S., they would be at least skilled enough to understand how to put together a remote detonator. We will have to see whether that presumption holds true.
Silver Spring, Md.: Is there any concern from law enforcement that by releasing a single video of a "suspect" (individual if not action) the public is possibly prejudiced to give that possible identification too much weight? I'm thinking of how "white van" was the predominant and faulty description of the Beltway snipers. The first bit of information released gets pushed by the media and other relevant information ("blue sedan") gets lost in the noise.
Also, how "suspect" was the guy's behavior? It was a hot and humid day, about 85 at the time of that video. And police tell us to be aware of your surroundings when you travel.
Evan F. Kohlmann: The police obviously need all the help they can get from the public, but yes, there is also the reverse problem of prejudicing potential eyewitnesses by focusing on one or two persons of interest -- who don't necessarily seem to be acting all that unusual. At the moment, we don't know exactly why the police have zeroed in on these individuals, so it would be prudent to wait and see what other evidence they might have accumulated in the meantime. But I wouldn't assemble a lynch mob just yet... ;)
Miami, Fla.: Why does the press avoid like the plague calling Americans domestic terrorists when they take actions identical to foreigners who get that designation for the same acts quite easily?
Evan F. Kohlmann: That is a frustrating element of this phenomenon. I know that a group of tea party activists were in a bit of a huff after I suggested that, aside from Al-Qaida, domestic right-wing extremists were another possible culprit. Likewise, there has been a tremendous reluctance on the part of some politicians to label the suicide attack on an IRS building in Texas as a terrorist attack. I wonder with some dismay whether their reaction would have been the same if the pilot behind the wheel had been an Arab or a Muslim.
Arlington, Va.: Why is it that 9/11 was successful -- and devastating beyond anyone's expectations, if I recall right, even the perps' -- and yet after that we're seeing all these failed attacks recently where the perps seem to be stymied by their own stupidity?
Did they learn nothing from their success, or is some of what looks like bizarre bungling a consequence of tightened security making complex plans like 9/11 difficult or impossible?
Evan F. Kohlmann: The simple answer is that, prior to 9/11, terror groups like Al-Qaida were fairly centralized, with an organizational hierarchy, formal training camps, a written charter, etc. After 9/11, many of Al-Qaida's formal sanctuaries became war zones -- not the ideal place from which to organize a highly complex overseas operation. As Al-Qaida and other terror groups have become more decentralized and distended, the quality of their recruits and the training goes down significantly. However, at the same time, those recruits are coming from increasingly unusual backgrounds. So, it is more of a challenge to stop this new generation of terrorists before they reach their targets, but conversely, they can often be significantly less lethal than the "9/11" generation that preceded them.
Northern Virginia: I assumed this was more likely a foreign or foreign-inspired (copycat) crime because it was against New York and not aimed at some symbol of the U.S. government.
Then I heard about all that fertilizer and my assumption did a 180. That sounds like a domestic terrorist, perhaps from a state where fertilizer is easily purchased.
Do you agree the fertilizer sounds more domestic, or is it truly not an indicator?
Evan F. Kohlmann: I confess that I'm also eagerly waiting to hear more about the fertilizer issue. One very serious question is whether or not this was even the right kind of fertilizer. If it wasn't treated with fuel oil, then it may have been more effective for potting plants than as a basis for combustion.
D.C.: Can you comment that the incident can have a South Park connection (the episode picturing prophet Mohammad) as the vehicle was parked by Viacom HQ (owner of Comedy Central)? I read about it in NY Times.
Evan F. Kohlmann: The miscreants behind the "South Park" threat, "Revolution Muslim", are rather cynical, attention-seeking individuals who do not actually appear to have meaningful connections to violent extremists. I find it very hard to believe that anything associated with them would have a connection to the events this weekend in Times Square.
Miami, Fla.: Why do those security videos continue to be abysmal and hardly useful for their intended purpose of identifying criminals?
Evan F. Kohlmann: It is somewhat frustrating that, so far, the NYPD has not yet recovered clear shots of potential suspects from closed circuit television cameras. However, it should be noted that it is still early in the investigation and there are many, many cameras to check in that small space. It also appears that the police department was preparing for a major security camera upgrade in Times Square just before this incident occurred.
Hot and Humid Day ?: It was a hot and humid day in NY and this guy was wearing two shirts. That seems suspicious to me.
Evan F. Kohlmann: It certainly is a bit unusual, and it obviously caught the eye of police who reviewed the surveillance video. But then again, in hindsight, lots of things can seem to take on added significance that they may or may not actually have. Until this person is identified by police as an actual suspect (versus a person of interest), I would tend to assume that there is probably an innocent explanation.
Silver Spring, Md.: If not a Middle-East terrorist (group), then who? What is the authorities next-guess?
Evan F. Kohlmann: The general theory is that the person or persons responsible for this attempted attack are likely homegrown, or self-taught, based on the simplicity of the device that they built. Whether the guilty party was motivated, in the end, by a group in the Middle East, right wing extremists, or something else is an open question at the moment. We have to keep our minds, and our eyes, open to the evidence.
Evan F. Kohlmann: Thanks very much for all your questions this afternoon -- and here's hoping that the hardworking folks over at the FBI and NYPD are able to quickly identify and arrest the culprit(s) behind this weekend's unsettling events in Times Square.
In the meantime, if you have any other questions, you can visit the website of Flashpoint Global Partners: http:/
washingtonpost.com: Flashpoint Partners
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