Faisal Shahzad shows anti-terror plans still don't work

Last Saturday afternoon, a car bomb parked near Times Square failed to detonate. On Monday night, Faisal Shahzad was arrested for allegedly constructed the device. On the surface, this was a happy ending to a potentially devastating episode: no one was killed and the suspected bomber was caught.

Like so many other recent terrorist plots, however, the Times Square bombing represents both a resounding failure and at best a partial success of post-9/11 US counter-terrorism efforts.

First, let’s be absolutely clear: this wasn’t a counter-terrorism success, but a lucky break. There’s an important difference. The plot was neither uncovered at its inception, nor was it impeded in practice. The bomb simply failed. That May 1, 2010 will not go down in history as a day of mourning for the scores of Americans and tourists killed and maimed in the first act of mass-casualty terrorism on US soil since 9/11, notwithstanding the 2009 Fort Hood attacks, has almost nothing to do with successful counterterrorism.  Like the failed bombing attempt over the skies of Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, Americans have Lady Luck to thank for Saturday’s bust.

This isn’t to belittle the vigilance of various New Yorkers who spotted the smoking vehicle and had the good sense to immediately alert police. Nor is it to mock the courage and quick-thinking of the New York Police Department. It is, however, about putting the bombing attempt in proper perspective. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius suggests the attack was “thwarted by a combination of high-tech surveillance and vigilant citizens.” Technically, Ignatius has it exactly wrong. Surveillance was exceptionally useful in catching Shahzad after the fact, but it did little to hinder or deter his attempt to bomb Times Square. Public vigilance, too, is always a good thing. It might have saved lives had the bomb actual gone off, but while the t-shirt vendors who spotted the vehicle are indeed heroes, their vigilance didn’t thwart the bomber either.

The would-be bombing attempt instead brings to light other failures.  Consider these three:

Shahzad was naturalized as an American citizen one year ago: Shahzad lived in the United States for over a decade, received university degrees (including an MBA) in the US, married an American citizen and raised two little girls, settled in a nice home in Connecticut, and worked as a junior financial analyst for over three years. On all counts, Shahzad lived as an integrated and motivated immigrant. Despite all of his successes living and working in the US, he still came to believe that he had a legitimate obligation to target Americans with terrorism. At some point in mid-2009 he became radicalized; he dropped everything, quit his job, and moved the family to Pakistan. He returned to the US after having received terrorism training in Pakistan and with the intent to kill Americans. For some reason, the American dream failed Shahzad. He certainly isn’t the first – as many as 10 would-be terrorism plots involving Americans were uncovered in the US in 2009 alone – and he won’t be the last. But the Times Square plot does raise prickly questions anew: What’s going on here? Why are Western citizens, long-time residents, second-generation immigrants, and Muslim converts participating in terrorism?

Shahzad was not on any international, federal, or state terrorism watch list: Despite the fact that he apparently received terrorism training in Pakistan, is thought to have established some form of affiliation with either the Pakistani Taliban, Jaishe-e-Muhammad, or another group, and was actively recruited to conduct an attack ‘back home’, Shahzad was invisible and unknown to authorities until 24 hours after his car bomb fizzled. Upon his return to the US on February 3, 2010, Shahzad spent three months preparing his attack and successfully eluded all security measures designed to trap terrorists. As an American citizen, he easily passed US customs at the airport: “I was visiting my parents in Pakistan” he is reported to have told US officials. In April, he used cash to purchase a prepaid cell phone and activated it for 12 days. With it he purchased the vehicle and the fireworks he would later use in the car bomb. On the day he bought the vehicle (also in cash) he received calls from Pakistan, presumably from his handlers. For the next two weeks, Shahzad went undetected as he collected various materials – all of them (gasoline, fertilizer, propane tanks) easily and legally purchasable – and constructed the device. While car bombs are generally difficult to detect and US security officials probably did little wrong in overlooking Shahzad, none of this brings much comfort. If the most sophisticated counterterrorism system in the world couldn’t stop Shahzad, how many other “unknown unknowns” are we missing today?

Shahzad was not an incompetent terrorist: When terrorists fail, there’s often a drive to paint them as incompetent. If only shoe bomber Richard Reid had thought of blowing up his shoe in the plane’s lavatory, he might have succeeded in his 2002 attempt to destroy American Airlines 63. Ditto knicker-bomber Umar Abdulmutallab in 2009. And if only Nicky Reilly hadn’t decided to detonate his bombs in a bathroom in his 2008 attack on an Exeter restaurant in England, he might have actually hurt someone other than himself. History is replete with suicide bombers tripping down stairs, triggering their bombs in deserted alleys, purchasing explosives from security officials, and bungling their plans. US Senator Christopher (‘Kit’) Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, just couldn’t help himself in describing Shahzad: “Like the Christmas Day bomber, we were lucky that both of these folks were incompetent – they couldn’t trigger the explosives.”  But Senator Bond is only partially correct. Both men did everything else right to put themselves in positions to kill tens and potentially hundreds of Americans. Shahzad’s plan only failed at the very last phase after he successfully acquired, constructed, and placed the car bomb, undetected, in Times Square. In his many cumulative successes, he proves himself no fool. Had Shahzad been a willing suicide bomber instead of simply lighting the fuse and running off to catch a flight to Dubai, he very well might have succeeded.

So while Americans are right to breathe a sigh of welcome relief following Saturday’s near disaster and should applaud security officials and various government agencies for their expeditious work in gathering intelligence and arresting Shahzad a mere 53 hours after he lit the fuse, the episode leads to a lot more uncertainty than it does comfort.

This article was originally published in The National Post.