The quick capture of Faisal Shazad after the discovery of his explosive laden truck in Times Square last weekend has been called a victory for both the NYPD and the FBI and a great example of successful cooperation between local and national law enforcement. However, while the response to this event could be considered a success, it is still worrying that this event could probably have been prevented. And, much like the recent incident on board the Detroit bound Northwest Airlines flight in December, this attempted attack was thwarted not by law enforcement or the intelligence community, but by an alert citizen.
There were red flags. Mr. Shazad, a Pakistani native, traveled frequently to his home country and he had, in fact, been interviewed by the TSA. He had been in Pakistan for five months prior to February 2010. This alone does not mean that someone should be considered a terrorist, but it should have been enough reason for him to have received closer scrutiny.
Another major issue is that Mr. Shazad was able to drive into one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country and leave a vehicle unattended. That should not happen in Times Square. Popular tourist areas and business districts should be secured like an airport where you cannot stop your car for more than a few minutes, much less park it and leave. There should also be more traffic barriers preventing cars from driving up on the sidewalks or getting too close to buildings. London has done a good job of this in their inner city with the so called “Ring of Steel”, an area in which streets are narrowed with barriers and chicanes to slow traffic, traffic sentries are posted and thousands off CCTV’s are installed. There are plans to do this in downtown Manhattan to protect the Financial District and City Hall but there are other areas that need similar protection.
We also shouldn’t forget that Mr. Shazad nearly escaped. He had managed to board a plane bound for Dubai with a one-way ticket that he paid for with cash. The alert that went out to airlines with his name did not ring any alarms with Emirates Airlines because airlines were only required to update their “no-fly” lists within 24 hours of receiving an alert. (That has since been changed to two hours). It wasn’t until Customs and Border Protection agents got the final passenger list from the airlines that he was located. This was a major communication failure and another black mark for the TSA.
Fortunately, Mr. Shazad was less than skilled as terrorists go, even with his apparent training with the Taliban. His bomb was a mish mash of gasoline cans, cheap fireworks and inexplosive fertilizer, when a quick internet search would have provided him with the instructions to build one properly. At one point he even locked himself out of his escape car and had to take the train home. While his bumbling ineptitude prevented him from causing the death and destruction that he sought, it is chilling to think of what might have happened with a more competent terrorist
Hopefully this event will serve as a reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent in our efforts to prevent terrorism. Nearly a decade after 9/11, it is inexcusable that major targets in our city are not protected by basic security measures and that there are still communication issues between the government agencies that provide our security.