Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 12:00 PM
A 30-year-old American immigrant from Pakistan was escorted off a plane bound for Dubai late Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport and arrested in connection with a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced.
Terrorism expert Gary Ackerman was online Tuesday, May 4, at Noon ET to discuss the alleged Times Square bomber and the breaking developments in the case.
Gary Ackerman: This is Gary Ackerman, Assistant Director for Research and Communication at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (www.start.umd.edu). I am happy to answer any questions related to the failed NY Time Square bomb plot.
Chatham, Mass.: First, if TTP is solidly linked, what does this do to the positions that it may be possible to reconcile the Quetta Shura, and disconnect the Taliban generally from al-Qaeda since they have not operated outside South/Central Asia?
Second, any "reverse" thoughts on the level of incompetence in the bomb? After Army training, I could do a LOT better, but I still wouldn't have made some of those mistakes when I was 13 (a long time ago). Speculate on this being a demonstration rather than a serious attempt, or is sheer incompetence an adequate explanation?
Gary Ackerman: Those are excellent questions, and I'll tryt and answer them as best I can in this brief forum.
1. First of all, TTP is linked, but not the same as, the so-called Afghan Taliban. There are, moreover, umpteen militant groups in the orbit of the TTP, all vying for internal supremacy in the movemnt and local power, so the situation is pretty complicated. If the TTP is behind these attacks as it claims, the motivations could be anything from a true commitment to joining AQ in its global jihad, to an internal power-play between leaders within the Taliban's milieu.
Dallas, Tex.: After what happened in Dallas and now Times Square, it seems like law enforcement is doing a pretty good job (although it was luck that the bomb was ineffective). This guy will be tried and probably go to prison, but that is not much of a deterrent. How do we punish this guy so that it is a effective deterrent?
Gary Ackerman: On the one hand, law enforcement did a good job at what they do best - identification and apprehension of the perpetrator after the crime has been committed. On the other hand, this case did not necessarily display prowess at the much more difficult task of preventing and interdicting terrorist plots before they get to the stage where we have to rely on luck or the incompetence of the perpetrator to prevent injury. However, generally, performance has also been pretty good the past few years in interdicting plots before they come to fruition.
As for deterrence, that is a much trickier question, one that many people are looking at. The best overall deterrent at the moment is argued to be so called "deterrence by denial," which is basically if we raise the possibility that the terrorists won't succeed in their attacks, they will eventually stop trying (or at least try something or somewhere else). This, of course is a partial solution at best.
Gary Ackerman: To continue to Chatham, Mass:
The construction of the device was extremely incompetent. I do not think that this displays any kind of 'warning' or 'demonstration' - jihadists are not known for this type of behavior. Rather it indicates, in my opinion, that either the trainers or their student are grossly incompetent, either of which makes it less likely the extrmely operationally proficient TTP was directly involved.
Cabin John: How fair is it to say that persons associated with the Pakistani Taliban instigated, or at least aided, the Fort Hood shooter and the underwear bomber? We don't know yet, but the Times Sq. bomber could be strike three. If so, isn't it fair to conclude that the Taliban in Pakistan is enemy no. 1 in the war on terrorism, and we should significantly step up our efforts at fighting them? Even if this means (1) disentangling ourselves from, or at least deemphasizing our participation in, ancient battles between tribal warlords in Afghanistan, and (2) confronting the Pakistani gov't who seems to be unwilling or unable to take on the Taliban.
Gary Ackerman: Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, has been most closely tied to Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical former US imam, who is aligned with AQ and the AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), rather than the TTP.
One shouldn't get the TTP necessarily mixed up with (AQAP) or AQ central. Nonetheless, it seems that all three are now planning to attack the US homeland. As for the Pakistani government, most of it (with the exception of some diehards in the Inter Services Intelligence agency) seem to be coming around to viewing the Taliban, especially the TTP, as a high-threat. My concern is that they have proven themselves only minimally capble of delaing with this threat.
Detroit, Mich.: Why are the White House and others so hesitant to say what is blatantly obvious, that we are at war with Islamist extremists who take a perverted view of Islam. I understand concerns about racial profiling and political correctness from civil libertarians, but his is really ridiculous. These extremists are determined to kill innocent Americans.
Gary Ackerman: Well, I do not know the answer to your question, other than to say that politicians generally only make statements with one thing in mind - politics.
It is clear to almost everyone that the largest (but by far not the only) terrorist threat to the US is from Islamic extrmeists. Whether defining this as a war is a good idea is less clear. A war implies somthing with a strategy, clear endpoint and identifiable enemy. I myself am more comfortable using the metaphor of a "chronic illness" that is far er to "manage" than to cure.
D.C.: Are you surprised that there hasn't been a terrorist attack on the N.Y. or D.C. subway system? Of course, as a D.C. subway user I hope such an attack never happens, but to a non-expert, they just seem like very easy targets.
On a related note, why do you think such subway/train attacks have happened in Europe but not here?
Gary Ackerman: The truth is that subways (in particular the NY subway) have become prime targets. The jihadist literature often mentions the subway as an attractive target, and as you know rail systems have been attackedi n Europe.
However, the lack of attacks here on the NYC subway has been a mixture of luck and good law enforcement, rather than a lack of trying. There have been several interdicted plots on the subway, from a plot in 1997 (read the book Jiohad in Brooklyn) to last year's interdicted plot by Najibullah Zazi and his cohorts.
Riverdale, Md.: The vehicle was packed with items that have explosive properties, but, when combined, would not seem to be especially volatile in the absence of a source explosion or charge (i.e., detonator). Was there any such item found on or in the vehicle? What was the intended method of detonation?
Gary Ackerman: I am not a technical explosives expert, but I do know enough to realize the amateurishness of the tradecraft employed in producing the device. Without helping future would-be bombers, I will say that you are correct to notice the aparent lack of a detonator. It seems (to me) that Shahzad intended for the firecrackers to set off the propane which would somehow detonate the fertilizer, but there are so many mistakes in such a plan that one cannot but marvel at the incompetence of the bomb builder.
Providence, R.I.: Will this suspect be interrogated by by at least one Muslim who can identify in some way with him, treat him kindly, help him to see that what he did was wrong, get him to cooperate? Or will the interrogators use bullying and torture?
Gary Ackerman: I do not know exactly what will happen with the interrogation, but I can tell you that in my experience, at least for suspects arrested in the United States by regular law enforcement (as opposed maybe to black ops, military, etc.), they are generally treated humanely and are afforded all the protections the law allows. This includes the provision of a translator if needed and professional conduct by the agents and detectives involved.
D.C.: I understand the general public's desire to know about details on how these cases break (e.g., the whole bit about the car sale and cell phone), but why help the terrorists by publicizing their mistakes? Won't they just read these news account and make sure to avoid those mistakes in the future?
On a related question, the government sources for these details have to know this, yet they always provide the details to the media. What's the thinking behind that? Is it a matter of hoping the public sees how their cooperation can help in investigations, or is it more a personal matter of feeling like an important source?
Gary Ackerman: I think you have identified a real issue regarding the balance between informing the public (and thus bolstering public faith in government capabilities and allaying fears and rumors) and tipping off adversaries for their next try. I will tell you that these issues are thought about deeply before information is made public. In this case, the device was so much more amateurish than instruction that are available even online that I don't think that those details are a security risk. Moreover, I think letting the enemy know that disposable cell-phones are not foolproof might introduce more uncertainty into their attack planning in future than it will inform them about what they probably would have figured out on their own anyway.
Washington, D.C.: One report I saw said that the fireworks material (black powder) was contained in a gun safe that weighs about 75 pounds. That's almost too much for one person to lift and carry by himself. Are you aware of any other indicators that other people might be involved in the plot?
Gary Ackerman: Well, first of all, anyone who has gone on vacation with their family will confirm that motivated individuals can carry far more than 75 pounds of baggage when they want to (or at least with sufficient nagging).
Seriously, though, it is possible to fill the gun safe after it is in the car. This does not mean that others weren't involved in planning/training for the plot. However, all indications so far are that Shahzad actually built the device on his own.
washingtonpost.com: LATEST NEWS: 12:16 p.m. Two arrested in Pakistan
New York, N.Y.: How was he able to make it all the way onto the plane? Shouldn't he have been stopped at the check in counter?
Gary Ackerman: More recent reports say that he was actually stopped at the counter. Cynics would however argue that it is far more dramatic to stop a plane just as it is about to take off than to arrest someone at the ticket counter. Either way, I am confident that there is no way the plane would have been able to leave the US with him on board once they knew who he was and where he was going.
Baltimore, Md.: Sen. McCain among others have come out this morning with suggestions that the suspect should not be extended the due process rights normally provided to a criminal accused under the U.S. Constitution and criminal laws. What possible legal basis could there be for withholding such rights, or treating him as other than an accused person under the relevant criminal and constitutional law? The laws of war do not apply, and so it is simply not legally permissible to treat him as an "enemy combatant", so what else is there?
Gary Ackerman: I am a firm believer that existing US laws and rights are perfectly sufficient to deal with such cases. It is a slippery slope to start operating outside the constitution and legal system in such a clear cut case of an American citizen arrested in the United States.
Laurel, Md.: Two questions about video: Have they determined if the suspect is the guy changing shirts?
I though I had read that experience in some other parts of the world, like India and Indonesia, had shown it was very difficult for suspects to get away because of being recorded near the event.
Gary Ackerman: As far as I am aware, the person changing shirts is not the suspect who was arrested. Also, the quantity of surveillance varies greatly from countr to country. Some places (like the UK) pretty much have thousands of cmaeras in big cities, while in the US (out of privacy and other concerns) it is not always so easy to blanket an area with surveillance.
San Diego, Calif.: Is there any discussion that maybe the car bomb was intended to fail? Or are investigators confident this suspect was an amateur?
Gary Ackerman: As I mentioned before, there have been no cases that I know of where jihadists have intentionally set someone up to fail - it makes them look far weaker than if they succeed (even though the terrorists will try to spin it as a failure of US counterterrorism).
Bowie, Md.: The event looks like something nearly impossible to prevent if performed competently.
If he had made it to Dubai, would he have been extradited from there? Or could he have gotten away by exiting the USA more quickly?
Gary Ackerman: You raise several important issues - it is indeed very difficult to prevent a single individual from detonating a car bomb in a major city, but not impossible. The concept of layered defense means that we can try everything from intelligence to find out early about the plot, to target hardening to reduce the explosive effects, but some things will still get through. Before giving in to pessimism, however, you can look at the whole thing from the other point of view. From the terrorist's side, a whole lot of things have to go right - all together - for him to be a success. There are in many ways just as many failure points in the terorrist's attack chain as there are in our counterterrorism.
Austin, Tex.: Thanks for taking our questions. I would like to press you a little further on the possibility of this being a demonstration or trial run of some sort. The level of incompetence just seems so high. Though I haven't done so, I'm pretty sure I could google and find out what kind of fertilizer to buy.
Gary Ackerman: Don't discount the anxiety of doing something like this - especially if you are not a seasoned pro. Even terrorists get nervous and nervous folks make glaringly obvious mistakes. I'm not saying this was the case, but before looking for a demonstration explanation, I would think that Occam's Razor would suggest that we look at the perp's state of mind.
"On the other hand, this case did not necessarily display prowess at the much more difficult task of preventing and interdicting terrorist plots before they get to the stage where we have to rely on luck or the incompetence of the perpetrator to prevent injury.": To play devil's advocate here, why should we have expected law enforcement authorities to show that kind of "prowess" in this case, given the individual involved? None of the items he purchased seem to be out of the ordinary. Is there anything in his past that we know of that would have warranted tracking his moves? During his trip to Pakistan, did he travel to regions or meet with individuals that should have piqued the interest of the proper authorities?
Don't statements like the one you made here ignore reality, that, sooner or later, one person can slip through the cracks and strike?
Gary Ackerman: I think if you look at another post I just made, you will see that I do in fact agree with your comments. I did not mean to say that law enforcment SHOULD have been able to prevent it, just that the outcome does not point to any new or enhanced prowess in this regard.
Some perspective, please: Gary, can you confirm a few things for me, so we have a clear understanding of the actual threat we've faced in recent incidents? In this case, if what I'm reading is true, if the device in the car had gone off, it would have ignited, not detonated, and become a massive fireball, not a bomb? Is that correct?
Going back to the "Underpants Bomber," a few weeks after the event, I read an article from a U.K. paper (sorry, don't remember which one) that stated that research showed that if his device had worked properly, he would have only killed himself and a passenger or two, and that the explosion would not have torn apart the plane. Is that true? Thanks.
Gary Ackerman: Ok - we're getting into the chemistry and physics of explosives here, which is not exactly my lane. At the risk of upsetting all the bomb techs out there, I will tentatively suggest that you are correct. Even if it had ignited, the lack of any substantial quantity of true explosive (the firecrackers had too low quantities and the fertilizers lacked fuel oil) means that most of the effects would have come from the propane canisters which will have ignited and caused conglagration rather than detonation. Don't get me wrong - a fireball can still cause a lot of dmage to human beings, but it won't have the blast force of a large amount of true explosive.
As forthe Underpants bomber, I am not familiar with the exact amount of explosive he had on him. On the one hand, it takes a fair amount to cause catastrophic failure in a fuselage (see an old episode of Mythbusters for this). On the other hand, even a relatively small amount of high-explosive can penetrate the skin of the plane under pressure and along a weak point (see Ramzi Yusef's attack on a plane in the Philippines in 1994 where someone was actually sucked out from a large whole made by a nitro-glycerine based explosive).
Rochester, N.Y.: How do US immigration officials deal with Pakistanis carrying U.K. passports? Aren't U.K. passport holders allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa?
Gary Ackerman: As far as I am aware, under the visa waiver program, you are correct in that UK passport holders do not require a visa.
Bridgewater, Mass.: It was heartening to hear the president say at long last that "we will not cower in fear" -- in the past, it seems that that was exactly what the authorities were suggesting. (That, and military over-reaction in uninvolved countries.)
Do you have any idea whether the U.S. is seen as being more likely to fold under terrorist pressure than Iraq did, for example?
Gary Ackerman: I think that, although the jihadists often paint the UIS as a paper tiger, who will crumble at the first hint of violence (a belief largely instilled by US pullouts from Beirut and Somalia), the US has shown itself to be very resilient. I for one am proud that the often irascible New Yorkers have a "business as usual" approach - the most impotant adivce in the terorrism context can be gleaned from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - "Don't Panic"
Springfield, Va.: Why was the man who flew the plane into the IRS building not labeled as a terrorist, yet the Times Square bomber was automatically labeled with that categorization? Weren't both acts meant to inflict fear in Americans?
Gary Ackerman: That is a good question, and presuming we know enough about the motives of the IRS plane attacker and they were intended to affect a wider audience for a political or ideological motive, I would have no problem labelling him a terrorist. On the other hand, I am not a politician who has to get elected and needs to pander to constituencies...
Pittsburgh, Pa.: There was an episode of a TV series (possibly "Criminal Minds") where the set-up was that terrorists launched a fake attack in order to study how long it took for law enforcement and rescue squads to arrive and how they operated, in order to plan a more effective future attack. Do you think that might have been the case with Saturday evening's event at Times Square?
Gary Ackerman: It's a great plotline, but as I stated earlier, there is no evidence of jihadists ever doing this. They do engage in dry runs, but usually to see if they can get past security or if a bomb really works (again look at Ramzi Yusef), but I believe that if they could get a car bomb into Times Square, they would go for the big bang - especially since this will increase security at this target.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Had the airplane taken off with the suspect on board, I presume the air carrier would have cooperated with authorities. Do we have a legal right to order an airplane to return once it has left American airspace if it is an American airline? Also, if the plane had landed in Dubai, wouldn't the authorities there have detained the suspect?
Gary Ackerman: Interesting questions, and I assume that as long as the plane was still in US airspace, it could have been "escorted" back. Even outside of US airspace, there are precedents for US taking action (the plane carrying the perps from the Achille LAuro was diverted by US planes to Italy if I remember correctly). For the leaglities under international aviation conventions, you would have to ask a lawyer.
Tokyo, Japan: Hi, May name is Taka. My question is below.
What do you think whether he links to Taliban in Pakistan? I heard that Pakistani Taliban does not have the strength of making sophisticated bomb. Please let me know your angle.
Gary Ackerman: First, the latest reports (just come out) seem to piiunt to coconspirators in Pakistan; it remains to be seen whether or not they are linked to the PAkistani Neo-Tlaiban. One thing is for certain - the Pakistani Taliban are extremely proficient at making bombs. They have detonated dozens of sophiosticated bombs in the past two years and have also succeeded in assaulting highly-protected targets in coordinated attacks. In short, their general operational capability is very high.
Terrorists' real motives?: Do you think the real motives of terrorists are to cause the U.S. to have to divert human and financial resources to preventing attacks, and to strike fear in Americans' hearts? I recall that bin Laden seemed surprised that the 9/11 plane attacks caused far more damage than expected. Thus Saturday's event was nonetheless successful on one level, if not the others.
Gary Ackerman: The answers depend on the terrorists involved. Unfortunately in the case of Al Qaeda and many other jihadists, the answer is YEs, Yes and YES. In other words, they have multiple motives for most of their attacks, including a) causing pghysical death and destructions b) economic disruption c)fear uncertainty and doubt in the AMerican govt and public, d) recruitment of new followers, etc.
Operating outside the Constitution double standard?: When the recent militia group was arrested in Michigan, all European Americans, born and raised here, were they mirandized? If so, why is it okay to mirandize people like them who have openly declared war on the U.S., but not okay to mirandize this guy?
Gary Ackerman: I agree - I see no issues with mirandizing any of these perpetrators.
D.C.: Since he recently became a U.S. citizen, would he face treason charges along with all of the other related charges for this bombing attempt? Or does treason not apply?
Gary Ackerman: Terrorists are not often charged with treason or sedition, as far as I am aware, but that might be because it is easier to convict them for a plethora of other crimes. If you go to the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas, they keep a database with US terrorism cases and what all the charges were.
However, I see no problem in principle with adding treason to the list of charges, if it makes sense as part of the overall prosecution strategy.
Washington, D.C.: The FBI and DHS knew this guy's name and yet he was allowed to board a plane undetected and it was just luck they caught him in time. Doesn't DHS, TSA have a system, something like an Amber Alert, that can immediately put a suspect's name on the no-fly list to catch the person before he leaves the U.S.? If not, there is a major hole in our system.
Gary Ackerman: You are assuming that they didn't intentionally let him on - perhaps they wanted to see whether he would sit next to other members of the plot. In any event, I would not presume that it would be that easy to get someone on a no-fly list immediately - the process, like much else in government - has been revealed to be exceedingly bureacratic (just look at folks who have been mistakenly put on and try to get their names taken off).
Washington, D.C.: Why is this success in protecting our country not being celebrated by both parties?
Gary Ackerman: Well, I think because the success was only partial - it was luck and some observant citizens that actually prevented the attack, although the follow-up seems to have been exemplary by our law enforcement and they should get full credit for that.
Philadelphia: What good would it do to openly declare that we are in a conflict with Islamist terror, as opposed to terrorists in general? Wouldn't it just help AQ's recruiting? They feed off an "Islam vs. the West" mentality. Plus there are a billion Muslims in the world -- do we want them all against us? After all, we are currently deeply enmeshed in two Muslim countries -- Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gary Ackerman: You make a good point - one does not want to strengthen the terorrists' own narrative if one can help it. On the other hand, one does not need to ignore the elephant in the room. I feel it is quite legitimate to state that our enemy is violent Islamism, Jihadism, etc., while making clear that this does not apply to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.
Arlington, Va.: Why do you suppose so many people are hung up on the "demonstration" motivation for the attack? What possible reason could a terrorist organization or individual have to intentionally fail at carrying out a terrorist attack? I can't see how this would paint them as anything but incompetent.
Gary Ackerman: The only reason I canthink of for an intentional failure is as part of a flase flag attack - i.e. intentionally failing while implicating someone else to make them look bad or incompetent. I cannot recall any historical cases of intentional failure, but there was a lot of "false flag" terorrism in Italy in the 70s where one group of terorrists on theright would kill people and make it look like the Leftists had done it (and vice versa).
Miami, Fla.: Where is the celebration and kudos for the obviously terrific and speedy police work that made this case an attempted terrorist attack as opposed to one for the history books?
Gary Ackerman: See my previous note - KUDOS to all our wonderful, committed folks in law enforcement.
Baltimore, Md.: Why wasn't this guy surveilled by the FBI. He's a classic case of justified profiling: he's young and he's going to and from Pakistan, exactly where many terrorists hide out. It seems it was simply pure luck that ordinary workers, such as that vendor, who spotted something suspcicious. Again, why wasn't the FBI surveilling this guy?
Gary Ackerman: I think you underestimate was you are suggesting - there are probably tens of thousands of US citizens who fit this profile. Without more to go on, it is difficult (both legally, ethically and practically) to follow people. However, US counterterrorism officials have tracked many potential terorrists, where travel to certain areas is one among many indicators and they will continue to do so.
NYC: "the success was only partial"
How can you say that? The attack was averted and the bomber caught? How do you improve on that?
Gary Ackerman: Ideally, one wants to interdict the attack a little further to the "left of boom" so to speak - not to rely on an attacker's incompetence or the astuteness of passersby. A complete success is something like Jihad Jane, Zazi, the Fort Dix Six, etc. I may be a bit harsh, but in terms of prevention I judge this as partial at best. In terms of tracking down the perp, it was an excellent bit of police work.
Savage: The electronic message board signs on my communicating route sometimes say "Report Suspicious Activity" with a 1-800 number.
Has anything ever been thwarted by a highway tip?
Gary Ackerman: More than you would think. While not wanting to imply we should be paranoid, several terrorist plots have been disruptoed because of smart, astute members of the public noticing something out of place. That's about all I can say at the moment.
Washington, D.C.: 1. I see that one of the two names listed, Tausif Ahmed, lived in Gaitherburg, Md., for some time. Is this the same man? 2. What Mosque did man attend in Conn or elsewhere?
Gary Ackerman: We are unsure at this stage, but I am sure that authorities are interviewing people who knew either suspect as we chat.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Clearly this guy made a lot of mistakes along the way, but any dumber than waiting for two days before trying to leave the country?
Gary Ackerman: I agree to some extent, but many criminals have a tendency to lie low and get a feel for how close the authorities are before making any major moves.
Re U.S. Cameras: Actually, within the last year there was a report stating that in urban areas the proliferation of security cameras means that most people are caught on camera every day. The issue is whether or not those cameras can be accessed since most are privately owned and run and if the video is stored or gets destroyed too soon for analysis.
Gary Ackerman: You bring up clear difficulties. The alternative, to have a 'Big Brother' with hundreds of govt personnel watching every move we make is arguably even more unpalatable, so we will have to find the balance somewhere.
Gary Ackerman: I htink that about wraps it up. I hope many of you were able to receive at least some answer to your questions and I thank you for a stimulating chat.
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