Thank you to this week’s Watchers Council for voting this essay the best for the week of May 7, 2010. I am honored.
So it turns out the Times Square bomber used M-88 firecrackers as a detonator in his car bomb. The firecrackers were meant to ignite the gasoline containers which would then ignite the propane tanks, turning the Nissan Pathfinder into a giant hand grenade. M-88 firecrackers are consumer class 1.4G (formerly known as Class-C) fireworks that look like the M-80 firecrackers of yesteryear: small red cardboard tubes filled with black powder and sealed with wax. But they have little powder and no where near the explosive power of the mythical M-80. They look much more powerful than they are, which probably tricked the jihadi into using them and saving scores of New Yorkers and tourists.*
The Underwear Bomber of Christmas Day 2009 used a plastic syringe as a detonator. It turns out that the detonator chemical melts plastic, turning it into a flaming gooey mess but failing to set off the explosives. Had a metal or glass syringe been used, it’s doubtful that we would have known that jihadis prefer briefs over boxers, and would still be mourning the deaths of hundreds in the sky above Detroit.
Both these incidents show the role dumb luck plays in carrying off any terrorist operation. They do not show the effectiveness of our government in protecting us. This hasn’t stopped Attorney General Eric Holder from claiming that it was an alert citizen that prevented the attack in a news conference today, as Shepherd Smith on Fox News has repeated over and over. Only luck prevented the car bomb from going off, luck that the jihadi wasn’t as familiar with American consumer fireworks as your average pyrotechnic aficionado. Holder seems to be repeating Janet Napolitano’s claim immediately after the Christmas Day bombing attempt that “the system worked.” Even administration mouthpiece Robert Gibbs claimed the fallback procedures in place worked. Napolitano herself couldn’t explain how Shahzad was able to board the plane even after being placed on a No Fly List hours before.
No. In both cases the system failed. Only dumb luck prevented the terrorist attacks from being successful.
What also concerns me is the nature of the bomb and the government’s reaction to it. Its crudeness led many to suspect that it was crafted by a homegrown terrorist – as Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday. Over the weekend the administration emphasized the crudeness of the device, as if it were put together by a crazed right winger. Yet the men behind the 2007 Glasgow International Airport terrorist attack used propane tanks.
al Qaeda pioneered the high-concept, low-tech approach to terrorism. They use whatever is at their disposal. It’s hard to smuggle propane tanks into aircraft, so they use homemade plastic explosives. In Iraq and Afghanistan they use easily obtained artillery shells leftover from previous wars to fashion IEDs and suicide bomber jackets. In New York City propane tanks, cars and gasoline are easy to buy so they used those.
Had the bomb been successful, Faisal Shahzad would be smoking cigarettes in the Emirates lounge in Dubai waiting for his connecting flight to Karachi. He would no doubt have gotten a good laugh with his co-conspirators as the American mainstream news media and the Obama administration searched for a right wing extremist responsible for the bombing in Times Square. Yesterday before Shahzad was caught NPR emphasized that the suspect was a “white male 35-45 years of age”; Shahzad is in his twenties and of Pakistani origin. Even this morning NPR referred to Shahzad as “American,” and did not refer to his ethnicity or the fact that he became a naturalized citizen in 2009.
Had the bomb gone off, what is the likelihood that Shahzad would have escaped? Given the conclusions being drawn over the weekend by Mayor Bloomberg, the Obama administration, and the media’s hyperventilation over the possibility that a Tea Party extremist was behind the attack, is it going too far to believe that had the bomb gone off there would have been a witch hunt against the Tea Party movement?
But dumb luck saved the day. No New Yorkers died on Saturday, and the only thing lost is face by the administration. But dumb luck doesn’t last forever. The administration needs to wake up and get serious to the threat posed by jihadis. As Roger Simon asks, “How can we begin to defeat this enemy if we are not even willing to name it?” The administration got lucky in Times Square on Saturday. Hopefully America’s luck will hold until Obama gets serious about the threat posed by the jihadis, or his administration is replaced by one that is.
As MSM outlets like AP and ABC News pursue the story that made Shepherd Smith so apoplectic this afternoon, the administration is doing what it does best: blaming someone else. In this case it is surprisingly not George W. Bush, but the Emirates airline. The administration claims evidently the airline doesn’t refresh its No-Fly database frequently enough.
Having done my fair-share of database design and system requirements, I would bet that the database used by Emirates Airlines was built according to US government specifications. Former 9/11 Commission vice chair and Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton isn’t accepting this explanation either, telling ABC News “We’ve done a pretty good job on the first part of it people entering the country. But with regard to those exiting the country we simply have not been able to set up a system to deal with that and it showed in this case.”
*UPDATE #2: Shahzad purchased the M-88’s at Phantom Fireworks in Matamoras PA. According to Bruce Zoldan, the store owner, each M-88 contains just 50 mg of black powder and is about 98% paper. This is the legal limit for 1.4g firecrackers and is about the size of a quarter of an aspirin. While legal consumer fireworks often use names like “cherry bomb”, “silver salute” and “M-80” to capitalize on the explosive power of these legendary firecrackers (a single M-80 thrown in a sewer could send a manhole cover high into the air) in terms of power they are mere shadows of their namesakes. Today’s firecrackers can go off in your hand and might cause a wicked sting but they will not take off your fingers (I personally confirmed this by setting off a Thunderbomb in my hand. Yes, I watch too much Mythbusters.)