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Dodging the Bullet - The NY Bomber

National Security

Faisel Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, on May 1 attempted to explode a very powerful bomb on 45th Street near Times Square. He was detained on May 3 attempting to board an Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai. The bomb failed to explode because of incompetent implementation of the detonation chain. This was extremely fortunate, because this bomb, installed in a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder small SUV, was powerful enough to cause massive casualties. Below is a diagram of the bomb installation, from the Department of Justice.

  

The primary explosive was 250 lb. of urea-based fertilizer.  Urea-based fertilizer is usually mixed with nitric acid, creating the very powerful explosive urea nitrate. This much urea nitrate would cause serious damage and loss of life.  The Nissan was parked on 45th Street near the always busy Times Square.

The bomb also included two 5-gallon cans of gasoline, which would have done little to enhance the damage if the bomb had exploded. Commercial M-88 firecrackers were placed hear the gasoline cans, presumably to trigger detonation. They did explode, creating only a carpet fire and smoke which alerted a street vendor. The firecrackers were inadequate to initiate the full explosion sequence, including detonation of the urea nitrate.

There were also three 20-gallon pressurized propane tanks with the valves closed. This was apparently intended to increase the explosive power, which they would have done had the thing gone off. If the valves had been opened, the firecrackers would have successfully initiated detonation of the urea nitrate. Propane tanks are common IED components.

The bomb failed due to incompetence and/or inexperience on the part of Shahzad. Had he been a bit more knowledgeable, this would have been a major terrorist incident with many casualties. We were lucky.

Shahzad was apparently trained during a five-month trip to Pakistan, but was inexperienced in bomb-making. He was apprehended so quickly because apparently he was under surveillance because of the Pakistan trip and also probably due in part to intercepted cell phone calls authorized under the much-maligned USA Patriot Act and still quietly being employed.

What is disturbing is that, despite the surveillance, Shahzad was able to purchase and assemble the bomb under our noses. He typifies the new nature of the al Qaeda threat. Its infrastructure decimated, the current terrorism paradigm is the solitary bomber or small cell. Shahzad was probably recruited because of his ability as a U.S. citizen to freely travel overseas. Be assured he is not alone.

The most disturbing feature of this bungled attack was how nearly it succeeded and the ease with which Shahzad assembled the bomb-making materials ostensibly while under surveillance. If he could do it, so can others with disastrous consequences.

While the powers that be in this country apparently realize the severity of the threat by continuing many of the clandestine surveillance activities initiated under the Bush administration, the hard truth is, it is practically impossible to stop them all. Shahzad failed due to the fact he was a novice bomb-maker and screwed up.

If we continue to allow unknown intruders--"non-Mexicans"--across our border, many reportedly resembling Mid-Easterners (Ooo--profiling!) and perhaps with more experience than the hapless Shahzad, a major terrorist attack, likely utilizing the very effective car bomb, becomes a very immediate threat. Even without the "NM" border-crossers, sooner or later someone is going to succeed. If we don't get really serious about surveillance and all other tools, including profiling and border enforcement, the possibility of multiple successful major terrorist incidents causing great loss of life here at home becomes more of a certainty than a possibility.

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