Summary of Events
Faisal Shahzad’s path to radicalization emerged starting around 2006. By the time he gained his US citizenship in mid-2009, his radicalization had crystallized into private admiration of violent jihadism and one of its most vociferous practitioners, the Pakistani Taliban. As it would later emerge, he would receive instructions on bomb making from the Taliban later that year, thereby coming full circle (Elliott, Tavernise & Barnard, 2010).
Image 1: The perpetrator’s Pakistani passport (Adapted from (Elliott, Tavernise & Barnard, 2010))
Returning to America from his nine-month-long stay in Pakistan in February 2010, federal investigators would later report that he had determined to plant a bomb in the Manhattan Times Square (Elliott, Tavernise & Barnard, 2010). Indeed, on May 3, 2010, he was arrested for the attempted bombing of the Times Square two days earlier. Although his explosive device ignited, it did not explode due to the incorrect design of the detonators, inexact chemical compositions of the volatile substances, and its timely discovery (Mazzetti, Tavernise & Healy, 2010; Grier, 2010). Had the car bomb exploded, federal investigators estimate that the fatalities would have eclipsed the 168 that followed the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (United States of America v. Faisal Shahzad, 2010).
Image 2: Intersection of 45th Street and Broadway where Faisal parked a Nissan PathFinder, intending to detonate his car bomb (Modified from (Google, 2007))
While Faisal remonstrated that America’s foreign policy- most notably, the use of clandestine Predator strikes in Pakistan by American military and intelligence forces- had propelled him to Jihadi militancy (Singer, 2012), his actions can only properly be contextualized by appreciating the impact of the September 11th, 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The world, and America in particular, has changed drastically since then.
Figure 1: Terror attacks in New York City by motivation (Adapted from (Quinn, 2016))
In the years since 1975, the motivations of terror attacks have shifted markedly from nationalist and separatist cause to the more immediately identifiable Islamic extremism (Quinn, 2016). In addition, terror attacks have reduced in number, from a peak of 39 in 1976 alone to an average of 1.6 attacks between 2011 and 2015. Furthermore, individual attackers have perpetrated the overwhelming majority of terror attacks, giving rise to the term “lone wolf” attackers among other disambiguations (Caschetta, 2016; Wiskind, 2016). Faisal is an excellent example of this trend, although there have been more recent and violently more successful exemplars.
As intelligence organizations, police forces, and other law-enforcement agencies (LEA), domestic and allied, have increased their ability to pre-empt, foil, and punish terrorism, Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Daesh have invested in more nimble, self-organizing, and responsive planning (Tucker, 2010). This shift has been manifested in the online radicalization of individuals and infiltration of small and self-contained units of operators into Western countries with a view to perpetrating terror acts.
Take for instance the tragic cases of Colleen LaRose (Halverson & Way, 2012), Mohamed Reza and numerous other independently motivated terrorists (Vidino, 2009; Jasparro, 2010). These individuals were radicalized by interacting with extremist material online and consummated their religious fundamentalism by perpetrating terror attacks (Teich, 2013). Significant scholarship has gone into understanding, detecting, and codifying the trend of online radicalization in America and elsewhere (Dalgaard-Nielsen, 2010; McCauley & Moskalenko, 2014; Klausen, 2015; Chavhan, 2016). It remains to be seen whether deradicalization programs will be reliably effective and also whether aggressive surveillance will inadvertently jeopardize efforts at trust-building with Muslim communities (Jasparro, 2010; Horgan & Braddock, 2010). Indeed, while political Islam has become deeply soiled with the unenviable reputation of fringe yet violent extremism (Gabriel, 2002) and judging by successes elsewhere, working with Muslim communities is perhaps the surest and most sustainable means to de-radicalize the disenfranhized and prevent terror attacks (Vidino, 2009; Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez & Boucek, 2010; Ashour, 2011; Kruglanski, Gelfand & Gunaratna, 2011; Uhlmann, 2015; Ferguson, 2016).
Figure 2: After Action responses from focus group participants on lessons learned from recent terror attacks (Adapted from (Donahue & Tuohy, 2006))
Regardless, several lessons can be gleaned from the response to the attempted Times Square bombing. Firstly, it appears that there was uncoordinated leadership and inefficient coordination between agencies in the years leading up to the attempted attack. Faisal was already listed on the Traveler Enforcement Compliance System (TECS) (CBS, 2010), a multi-million dollar border-screening database intended to stop the entry of illegal or harmful people and goods into the United States (Lovelace & Boon, 2012; Mazmanian, 2014). Regardless, Shahzad managed to bring in significant amounts of money without detection. It can be argued the system’s unenviable complexity and poor agency interoperability when using TECS may have played a role in enabling Shahzad to bring in the sums of money that, arguably, could have been used in part to finance his terror plot.
With that said, there was clear leadership and coordination between law-enforcement agencies (LEA) from the moment of the bomb’s detection. The responding officers swiftly once alerted several private citizens (Lapointe, 2010), federal and state investigators collaborated in unearthing and pursuing leads (Barrett, Perez & Gardiner, 2010), apprehend the perpetrator, and investigate financial ties between Shahzad and other alleged facilitators. The response was comparable in its competence and ambition to that following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (Dugan & Fisher, 2015). This comparability demonstrated successful implementation of personnel training and motivation, resource allocation, public relations, disaster planning, and field communications.
These successes also extend to investigators’ competence in deploying and utilizing surveillance assets such as CCTV footage and electronic mail and mobile phone conversation transcripts (Baker & Shane, 2010). In a post-Snowden world, it is perhaps permissible to wonder whether pervasive domestic intelligence, while making us safer, is tolerable in light of reduced liberties. In the months following the foiled attack, The New York Police Department embarked on a “surveillance surge” in Midtown New York. The department installed about 500 subway cameras in three subway stations. This is in addition to the 1,400 that had been activated since Faisal’s attack. Other installations included license plate readers and radiation sensors. The NYPD also installed another 1,800 cameras in Lower Manhattan and Midtown alone in the same period (NYPD, 2010). Despite the hundreds of cameras in the immediate area around the incident area (NYPD, 2010), CCTV footage failed to prevent the attack and detect the impending detonation- it was up to several vigilant street vendors to alert police. Surveillance technology and systems only proved useful in locating the suspect as opposed to preventing or detecting his crime. Indeed, CCTV footage often has minimal forensic utility, and it would seem that surrendering personal liberties and privacy for the sake of greater security is a dubious enterprise. Extant literature agrees in this regard (Greenberg & Roush, 2008; Ratcliffe, Taniguchi & Taylor, 2009; Monahan, 2010; Sasse, 2010; Schneier, 2010; Caplan, Kennedy, & Petrossian, 2011; Belakova, 2013). Take for instance the fact that for every 1,000 CCTV cameras in London, the Metropolitan Police solve just one crime. At the same time, private citizens “are captured on camera 300 times a day” (Hope, 2009). This seems like an exceedingly high price to pay for an Orwellian and hopefully safer society. It would seem that the real threat is the surveillance itself: massive investments to set up technology that, ultimately, fails at its core task of significantly reducing crime, thereby depriving other legitimate constituents of the resources necessary to achieve their goals.
Although this argument undermines the very imperative for greater surveillance, it is incumbent on law-enforcement and policy-making agencies to strengthen the domestic counterterrorism infrastructure. Not all terror threats can be prevented or even mitigated against, and the marginal advantage that surveillance systems confer on security officials cannot be downplayed. There is an opportunity for LEA officers to strengthen collaboration with the local community, as it was the latter that was instrumental in averting an unmentionable disaster. Police officers should have greater opportunity and tools to engineer or welcome chance encounters with concerned private citizens. Furthermore, available tools such as the border-screening tools TECS should receive prioritized Congressional attention, and the counterterrorism enterprise streamlined to ensure fewer lapses in vigilance. These tools also extend to surveillance tools necessary to collate signal intelligence on foreign adversaries. Although the majority of domestic terror cases are now perpetrated by nationals or residents, radicalization or open source jihadism is conducted by overseas actors and the government should proactively pursue strategies that lead to their detention and eventual interrogation or, when all else fails, their unapologetic elimination.
Figure 3: Reasons why terror plots failed from a case study of 89 domestic cases (Adapted from (Dahl, 2011))
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