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The Attempted Times Square Bombing - Did the System Work?
May 09, 2010
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Faisal Shahzad, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, has been arrested for the attempted car bombing of Times Square on May 1st. While the investigation is far from over, the attempted terrorist attack raises the question once again of whether our homeland security system worked in this latest case. To answer that question, one must examine the system's actions through each phase of the homeland security continuum: prevention, protection, response and recovery.


When it comes to homeland security and counter-terrorism the most important phase is prevention. While the bombing has been relegated to an "attempt" since the bomb did not actually explode and no one was killed or injured; there can be little doubt the system failed in this phase insofar as it was unable to prevent a terrorist from parking and then igniting a vehicle borne improvised explosive device in the heart of Times Square on a busy Saturday night.

Some may argue that it was the alert street vendor who notified police of the smoking SUV that helped prevent this attack. However, had the bomb worked properly inside an SUV with tinted windows, it's highly unlikely that even the street vendor's alerting police would have done any good or even if the vendor would have had time to do so. Indeed, the vendor would likely have been the first person killed. In truth, while the vendor's actions were highly laudable, it was nothing short of the bomb maker's failure that averted mass carnage.

Another element of the system that needs to be more closely examined for potential failure in this case is the immigration and naturalization process. Shahzad is a naturalized citizen meaning he had to go through what is supposed to be a rigorous process from student, to worker, to permanent resident, to citizen, with a deep background check along the way. Shahzad's path to citizenship ended in April 2009 and was expedited by virtue of his marrying a U.S. citizen. Whether this marriage was a sham, as has been done in numerous other terror cases, must be thoroughly reviewed.

While the homeland security system failed to prevent Shahzad from attempting to execute his terrorist plot, a more subtle question is whether it was reasonable for the system to have done so. In other words, while the attack was not prevented was it realistically preventable? The post event investigation into Shahzad is already starting to yield clues, some of which may or may not turn out to be true, apparently missed by intelligence and security agencies leading up to May 1st.

The Obama Administration has now stated that Shahzad is an operative of the al-Qaeda linked Tahrik-e-Taliban who trained Shahzad in Waziristan before dispatching him to the U.S. in February of this year. Shahzad's plot allegedly started as far back as December 2009, if not earlier. ABC News is reporting that Shahzad may have had contacts with the al-Qaeda recruiter, Anwar Awlaki, among other terror leaders. In addition, there are reports Shazhad conducted at least one dry run in Times Square before he went "live" on May 1st. Finally, according to CBS News, from 1999 to 2008, Shahzad was on a U.S. Customs watch list - Traveler Enforcement Compliance System for having brought large sums of cash into the U.S.

There is no doubt that stopping men like Shahzad is no easy task. Doing so is often the equivalent of trying to find a single needle among multiple haystacks. Thus, whether this specific attack was reasonably preventable is not yet clear. It's a matter of what intelligence and security agencies knew or should have known and when, and what they did as a result of what they knew.


None of the cameras, barriers, security guards or police was enough to deter Shahzad from rolling up in his SUV and leaving it parked illegally in Times Square with a home made bomb inside it. Thus, protection as a form of deterrence failed in this case. Protection as a form of mitigation was not tested in this instance as the bomb did not detonate. However, had the bomb detonated it likely would have killed scores of pedestrians, which it apparently was designed to do given it was parked in Times Square on a Saturday night.


While the response is ongoing, the immediate response taken in and around Times Square appears to have worked well. Once the NYPD was alerted to the presence of the car bomb, the police quickly moved pedestrians and motorists away from the scene and then locked down the area. The Fire Department was immediately notified as was the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. A hunt for potential secondary devices, a well known terrorist tactic, quickly ensued. Once those already inside local theatres were about to exit, the police ensured they used exits outside the perceived danger zone.

Despite the success in responding in Times Square, there were serious gaps exposed in the search for Shahzad once he was identified as the likely bomber. Here, the system worked, but not without multiple layers failing before the final layer succeeded. The NYPD admittedly lost Shahzad while surveilling him on the Monday following the attack. Once officials new Shahzad was the man they were looking for he was placed on the federal no-fly list. Nonetheless, he was able to purchase with cash a last minute ticket to Pakistan. Shahzad was literally in his seat on the aircraft as it was departing the gate when U.S. Customs officers boarded the plane and arrested him. It was the final review of the passenger manifest by Customs that alerted them Shahzad was on the plane.

The reason for this near miss with Shahzad exposes a larger gap in the no-fly list. One of the fixes to the no-fly list following the Christmas Day panty bomber's attempt to bring down a jetliner over Detroit was to require all carriers to check the no-fly list within 24 hours of being notified of an update. Emirate airlines, the carrier Shahzad was on in his attempt to escape, apparently did not check the no-fly list in time. Now that time frame has been reduced to two hours. However, in such urgent circumstances, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should call the airlines and notify them immediately, which the agency has done in the past, but did not do in this instance.

It is being reported the FBI asked TSA not to call all the airlines and alert them to Shahzad's new status. The Bureau did reportedly allow TSA to call certain domestic carriers but not Emirate for fear it could jeopardize the investigation. However, if these reports are true, it begs the question: what is the point of urgently putting someone on the no-fly list and expecting all airlines to check it if you aren't willing to proactively notify those same airlines of the urgent update for fear it could hamper your case?


Americans are resilient people and New Yorker's are among the most resilient of us. The day after the attempted bombing, Times Square looked no different than it did the day before the failed terrorist attack. People were out, businesses were open. In short, life went on. It's hard to know what recovery would have looked like had the bomb exploded. Would the Crossroads of the World been shut off to vehicular traffic forever? One hopes and suspects that New Yorker's and the tourists who flock there would have grieved but nonetheless committed themselves to rebuilding and continuing Times Square as we know it.


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