Had the bomb exploded, one former counter-terrorism law enforcement agent says there would have been several fatalities, a large fireball and shrapnel spread for several blocks in Times Square. But on May 1 the explosive elements that were on board the SUV parked on Broadway in New York City did not detonate, preventing mass injuries and possible deaths.
Though there isn't a body count to tally against the alleged terrorist act, by avoiding suspicion in his or her actions pre-incident, analysts say the perpetrator who built the failed bomb may have still won half the battle.
Former law enforcement and counter-terrorism personnel say the value in an incident such as this can serve as a lesson in identifying these criminals before they set the timers on their bombs. The coverage on the purported Times Square terrorist has focused on the swift response to the suspicious vehicle and capture of a suspect; but one area that has been overlooked is the method behind identifying precursor activity as a prevention strategy. "The thing I think that's important here is the pre-incident real-time information sharing," Former Bureau Chief of the New Jersey Counter-Terrorism Bureau Stephen Serrao says. "Nobody's really talking about that."
How do intelligence analysts connect the dots to interdict a would-be bomber prior to finding an explosive device -- inert or active -- and what kinds of information and data-sharing technologies could make this success possible?
In mid-June, Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad was accused of attempting to set off the vehicle bomb in Times Square on May 1. The alleged bomber was taken into custody after his getaway car was identified in an airport parking lot. It was two days after the bomb in the Pathfinder was discovered and the suspect was trying to leave the country on a flight from New York to Dubai (United Arab Emirates). According to the federal indictment, Shahzad learned how to build an explosive in Pakistan in December 2009, and returned to the United States to purchase a gun, the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder and components to build the three-part bomb. Though according to news reports Shahzad made statements at his hearing that he intended to blow up the device, it failed to detonate. In addition, Shahzad stated in court he rented a place in Bridgeport, Conn. where he "built the bomb, put it in the Pathfinder and drove it to Times Square," according to a report by CNN.
The information sharing methods used to follow the clues once the green SUV was discovered were at their best: evidence was obtained at the scene and info was gleaned from the vehicle and its contents that led investigators to query databases and track down data on the sale, owner and purchaser of the vehicle. Data-sharing also helped collect information about the contents of the bomb components and where they were purchased. "Real-time information sharing worked perfectly here," Serrao emphasizes. "But that's all post-incident."
There are several examples in this case that could have utilized info-sharing pre-incident to help identify suspicious activity before it took place.
Jeff Beatty, a national expert in counter-intelligence gathering and analysis and Serrao both indicate suspicious behavior that Shahzad purportedly carried out prior to the day the explosive-rigged Pathfinder was parked in NYC, might have placed him on authorities' radar before the folks on West 45th Street and Broadway were ever in danger.
Beatty's interest in prevention was rooted decades ago. In the mid-'80s he left Delta Force, the elite DoD special ops team, to begin work with the Central Intelligence Agency's Counter-terrorism Center to switch gears from the reactive duties with Delta to proactive activity with the CIA, to try and prevent bad things instead of responding to them. After a slight detour through the FBI, about 15 years ago he started a critical infrastructure protection company, Total Security Services International Inc., which specializes in security planning, operations, intelligence and disaster response. Beatty says that by uniting focused training, fusion centers, info-sharing and analysis, prevention of future terrorist acts may be possible.