May 16, 2010 | Counterterrorism Blog

Time Square message: Many ‘lone wolves’ attempts makes it a terror campaign

In the first few hours following the discovery of the car bomb in Time Square and the subsequent arrest of Faisal Shahzad at the airport, New York’s Governor David Patterson labeled the foiled car bomb attack in Times Square an “act of terror.” Janet Napolitano, our secretary of Homeland Security described it as “potential (then) act of terror.” Gradually US officials agreed, as information was gathered and more arrests were made, that this was an attack with the goal of mass killing in an urban area. Indeed, if the three propane tanks, fireworks, two filled 5-gallon gasoline containers, and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire and other components found in the back of the Nissan Pathfinder, had exploded they would have –in the words of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly “caused a significant ball of fire.” New York’s Mayor Bloomberg said the explosion could have caused “huge damage on a block of Broadway theaters and restaurants teeming with tourists.” In short, federal and local officials understand clearly that the SUV-bomb was aimed at killing a large group of New Yorkers and visitors, causing severe damage to the area and a shock to the public (who would be traumatized by the sight of such pictures), had the “act of terror” been successful.

The watchful citizen who alerted authorities emerges as the hero in this counter- terrorism act. And also the men and women of New York law enforcement who rushed to secure the area and disable the device, while others proceeded to arrest the suspect. In that sense it was a success story for New York's counter terrorism efforts, one of the cities targeted most by terrorists in the Western world.

What follow will be intense investigations and many questions on two tracks: Technical inquiries and identity reconstruction. On the one hand officials have figured out why didn’t the bomb explode and how was it assembled and where. This line of investigation could tell us more about the capacity of terrorists to copycat this attempt in the future, to move material of the same sort across city limits, or worse, build such a weapon inside Manhattan or any other U.S. city. There’s no doubt that the findings will be sobering. The capacity of potential terrorists to build urban-laden bombs, move them through cities, and choose their strategic targets easily would mean that such “acts of terror” can be repeated and launched again in the same city or in other locations across the nation. If the perpetrators did it in New York City, they could do it anywhere.

On the other hand authorities are in the process of determining the identity of the terrorist perpetrators, including suspect Shazad, other arrested suspects but also potential links showing a wider circle of planners and decision centers involved in this operation, and perhaps in future ones. The link to the Taliban-Pakistan, the Jihadi groups who recruits US citizens or residents, and potential links between them leading to a bigger picture.

The public has already received several confusing messages in the past year and a half regarding government’s quick reactions to previous terror attempts. In the most recent cases of the deadly attack at Ft. Hood and the unsuccessful Christmas Day “underwear bombing” attempt, officials rushed to call these acts “isolated extremists” only to discover there was more to the attacks in terms of links to a greater circle of terror. That’s why it is important to be cautious and move from evidence to evidence. “Amateurish” or not, as Bloomberg described the attempted terrorist attack, it was designed to have devastating effects. It was indeed an “act of terror.” Now comes the next part. We’ll need to know more about the minds behind the Time Square fatal plan. Was it designed by a war room using less sophisticated Jihadists so to elude attention?

In any of these scenarios, we’re talking about another “terror act” taking place on U.S. soil, it’s about the fifteenth since the beginning of 2009, five of which targeting or linked to New York. By empirical methods multiple terror acts are a “terror war” waged against this country – and New York City is its prime target. Thus the counter terrorism community, both inside the Government and in the private sector is invited to determine the characteristics of the ongoing campaign targeting the homeland: For one matter is settled: Many lone wolves attacks make it into a wave.

Dr Walid Phares is the author of Future Jihad:Terrorist Strategies against America.