OK. We New Yorkers got lucky again. Another terrorist plot failed. But once we stop breathing those proverbial sighs of relief and stop congratulating ourselves, let’s ask some tough questions:
- How did an FBI surveillance team tracking suspect Faisal Shahzad in Connecticut manage to lose him before he drove to JFK to make his get-away on an Emirates flight to Dubai? And for how long did it lose him?
- When law-abiding citizens are having their toothpaste, tweezers, and mouth wash confiscated by over-zealous TSA airport screeners, how did Shahzad manage to board a flight, especially one bound for the Middle East, less than 24 hours after law enforcement had circulated his name and photo as someone being sought in connection with the failed bombing attempt?
- Why did his name not come up on the TSA’s notoriously problematic “no fly” list? Or on any list? And why did neither Emirates nor U.S. security personnel at JFK not double check the name and passport photo of a guy paying cash for a ticket to Dubai 53 hours after Shahzad nearly turned Times Square into what Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, describing his explosives-laden Pathfinder, called “one big Hurt Locker”?
- Why did the 80-plus surveillance cameras at Times Square catch the image of a 40-something-year-old white guy furtively removing one shirt to reveal an underlying red one, but miss what must have been an obviously nervous Shahzad running away from his illegally parked Pathfinder, the engine still running and its hazard lights on?
- And why has New York not invested in the sophisticated surveillance system that London uses, which as former police commissioner Bill Bratton noted today, was able to track (albeit after the fact) the movement of the Islamic militants in the deadly July 7, 2005 attack from the trains they took into London to the subways and buses they targeted?
- On Sunday just after the failed Times Square attack, why did DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano describe the failed terrorist attack as a “one-off”? And what on earth did she mean by that?
- Why did members of President Obama’s national security team – Napolitano, Holder, and Robert Gibbs (who as press secretary seems to be an insider even on national security issues and operating way beyond his pay grade) go out of their way to avoid using the term “terrorism” to describe the failed attack until the obvious could no longer be denied? And why, to this day, has the term “Islamic” never been linked with Shahzad or his plot?
- If Shahzad really got some terrorist training up in Waziristan, what on earth did they teach him? How to pick a fertilizer for a bomb that could not explode? How to leave your own car and house keys in the ignition of the vehicle you intend to blow up in Times Square? And how can Washington ensure that all aspiring terrorists enroll in such es?
- But seriously and most important – when, where, why, and how was Faisal Shahzad radicalized? How did a happy-go-lucky Faceook guy, married with two kids and apparently doing OK in America, go from watching “Everyone Loves Raymond” – listed as one of his favorite TV shows – to Peshawar for terrorist training and back to Times Square to kill his fellow Americans? Was he radicalized during his stay in Pakistan by the steady stream of deadly American drone attacks on Muslim extremists as some newspapers are now suggesting? Or, more likely and as some of his neighbors have alleged, was he already withdrawing from society and being radicalized in Shelton, or Bridgeport, Connecticut?
- Finally, as former deputy police commissioner Michael Sheehan has asked, if “home-grown” radicalization is the challenge we believe it to be, why have local police forces in areas with large clusters of young Muslim residents – yes, in Connecticut and New Jersey and Rhode Island — not mimicked the NYPD by investing at least SOME resources in trying to spot radicalized, potentially dangerous people and prevent terrorist organizations from establishing a presence in their communities?
This is not rocket science. As Sheehan argues, we know how to do this. Until we know the answers to these and other vexing questions surrounding our latest terrorist near-miss, self-congratulation is, to say the least, premature.
Reprinted with permission of author.
Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter for The New York Times, is the author of hundreds of articles in the fields of national defense and homeland security, and the co-author (with William Broad and Stephen Engelberg) of “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War” (Simon & Schuster, 2001), a critically acclaimed book about biological warfare programs in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A graduate of Barnard College, she also holds a master’s degree from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In addition to her Pulitzer Prize for “explanatory journalism” (a January 2001 series on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda), she also won an Emmy for her work on a Nova/New York Times documentary based on the “Germs” book and was a member of the Times team that won a DuPont Award for a series of programs on terrorism for PBS’s “Frontline.”