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05.08.10

The Stalled War on Terror

The Times Square bomb attempt is eerily similar to the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Richard Miniter on how little the terrorists—and the feds—have learned.

The attempted bombing of Times Square has many eerie parallels with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This tells us that neither the terrorists nor federal officials have learned very much in the past two decades.

Fighting terrorism with police. Following the February 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing, the FBI launched an investigation called “Trade Bom” and treated the bombing as a criminal matter, not an attack. This approach made sense to the Clinton administration, whose top ranks were crowded with lawyers. But because it was a criminal investigation, key information was denied to the counterterrorism branch of the FBI as well as to the entire CIA. “At the time, a junior FBI special agent in New York knew more about the case than me,” then-CIA director James Woolsey told me. As a result, it took more than two years to capture the bombing mastermind, Ramzi Yousef. Yousef was nabbed in Islamabad in a joint CIA and Pakistani intelligence operation. Other perpetrators remain at large to this day. Most importantly, the connection between Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the future 9/11 mastermind, was missed entirely. On the other hand, Yousef was eventually read his Miranda rights, a fact that warms the hearts of civil libertarians.

President Obama’s prepared remarks yesterday seem more suitable for a hurricane or another natural disaster….there is no sense that Uncle Sam has just been punched in the eye and needs to hit back.

In the Times Square case, the FBI once again has the lead and its lead suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was Mirandized. Attorney General Eric Holder said that he was questioned before being told of his rights under the “public safety” exemption. (Given that Shahzad is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and that he was arrested on U.S. soil, authorities have no choice but to read him a Miranda warning if they want his testimony to be admissible in court. Mirandizing is largely a right-wing red herring. The main problem with the law enforcement approach is that it makes it hard for U.S. agencies to share information with each other, allowing co-conspirators to escape and slowing the ability of officials to connect the dots to prevent future attacks.)

It may be years before we learn how much (or how little) information criminal investigators are willing to share with their counterparts in intelligence—but we know the results when they don’t.

Leslie H. Gelb: All Those Times Square HeroesBoth bombs are unique, improvised designs, and both used pressurized, flammable gas. Explosive ordinance technicians have told me over the years that “bombs are like fingerprints;” their design reveals the training and often the origin of its maker. Thus, U.S. military bomb disposal units can tell the difference between a roadside bomb in Afghanistan designed by someone with training from Hezbollah from another roadside bomb designed by someone with training from the Quds Force. Both the 1993 World Trade Center bomb and the Times Square bomb do not reflect any of the classic designs associated with known terror groups. This doesn’t mean that there is no connection to a known terror group, one former CIA official told me last night, only that the bomb maker’s training was “piss poor.”

My source, who asked not to be named, given his continuing government contracts, said that al Qaeda and related groups “often teach bomb-making skills in a rented house over a one- or two-day period. They might build one bomb and test it in a riverbed a few miles away. But the longer that the trainee is away from the training, the more his bomb-making knowledge degrades.”

The first breakthrough comes from a VIN on the axle. Beneath the World Trade Center, digging in a crater more than 60 feet deep, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms expert, Joseph Hanlin, and NYPD detective, Donald Sadowy, discovered parts of the vehicle that had carried the bomb, a Ford Econoline van from Ryder. Holding the metal up to the light, they spotted the vehicle identification number. This was the first breakthrough in the World Trade Center bombing case that allowed them to trace the van to a rental agency in New Jersey and arrest one of the perpetrators when he came back to claim his deposit.

Similarly, investigators were able to trace the Nissan Pathfinder due to a vehicle identification number located on the axle and engine of the truck. The perpetrators thought they were clever by removing the VIN from the dashboard, but like the 1993 bombers, didn’t realize that a VIN appears in at least two other places on the drive train of any vehicle sold in America. This allowed authorities to trace the vehicle to a housewife in Connecticut, who had sold the vehicle on Craigslist for $1,300 in cash. When FBI officials showed her a series of photographs, she quickly pointed out Faisal Shahzad and remembered that he’d paid in $100 bills.

Like Superman villains, terrorists of Pakistani origin seem to have a fondness for New York. It is the world’s media capital and has a large South Asian immigrant population, allowing the shark to hide among swimmers.

White House reluctance to call it terrorism. More than 48 hours after the smoking Pathfinder was found in Times Square, the White House finally decided to call it terrorism. In a carefully phrased statement on Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “I think anybody that has the type of material that they had in a car in Times Square, I would say that that was intended to terrorize, absolutely. And I would say that whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist, yes. We don't know who's responsible, and that's what we're looking at now.” Similarly, it took the Clinton White House more than two days to label the 1993 bombing—the first-ever foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil—as a terrorist attack. Presidents Obama and Clinton have something else in common here: their relative silence.

President Clinton’s only public mention of the World Trade Center bombing was in part of a Saturday radio address that was mostly devoted to his economic-reform agenda. And President Obama’s only statement on the bombing was tepid: “This incident is another sobering reminder of the times in which we live.” He didn’t threaten military reprisals if the Taliban can be proved to be behind the attack or even to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” President Obama’s prepared remarks yesterday seem more suitable for a hurricane or another natural disaster. People are urged to remain calm. Federal agencies are thanked, but there is no sense that Uncle Sam has just been punched in the eye and needs to hit back. Very 1993.

The Pakistani connection. Since more high-level al Qaeda operatives have been captured in Pakistan than in any other country on earth, it is not surprising that most anti-American terror attacks have some connection to Pakistan. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (and first cousin to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) traces his family origins to Baluchistan, a large and largely lawless region of Pakistan. Faisal Shahzad hails from Pabbi, Pakistan, a small town (population 37,000) at the bottom of a bowl of mountains within one hour’s drive of Peshawar—a well-known center of al Qaeda and Taliban activity. Further, Shahzad has reportedly received training in a Taliban-al Qaeda camp in Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s lawless tribal territories.

Pakistan has long been a breeding ground for terror movements. Its government has supported terror groups linked to attacks and hijackings in India and Pakistan’s intelligence service helped establish the Taliban in 1994 (the Afghan fighters supported by the U.S. in the 1980s became the Northern Alliance, enemies of the Taliban).

Perpetrators are dumb enough to get caught. In the 1993 bombing case, Mohammad Salameh returned to the Ryder truck rental office to get his vehicle deposit. If he hadn’t, he might well have escaped. Some intelligence experts that I’ve interviewed in the course of writing my 2003 book, Losing bin Laden, said that Salameh was an “expendable,” designed to be caught to fool authorities into thinking that they had caught the main perpetrator, when in fact the mastermind had escaped. There is little doubt that Ramzi Yousef trapped Salameh; the airplane ticket he handed him was a child’s fare and he was told to get the balance he needed to fly to the Middle East from the truck deposit. He had no way out.

Similarly, the man caught on camera changing his shirt might as well have waved a red flag. Was he instructed to change his shirt moments after exiting the vehicle? If so, it would make him a classic “expendable.”

The bombers were broke. In the 1993 case, several of the perpetrators had no money to effect an escape. In the Times Square case, Chase Home Finance had foreclosed on Shahzad’s Shelton, Connecticut, home, valued at $273,000. In addition, he had lost his job as a marketing consultant.

U.S. takes too long to consult Indian intelligence. In the 1993 case, the FBI and other government agencies took more than a year before they consulted officials at India’s intelligence service. Sharing more than 1,000 miles of border with Pakistan, and a frequent target of its proxy terrorist attacks, India has developed vast amounts of information on Islamic terrorists linked to Pakistan.

In the Times Square case, I am reliably informed that federal investigators believe there may be a link between Shahzad and David Headley, a Pakistani American linked to the 2008 Mumbai bombings that killed more than 170 people, including six Americans. Headley, a 49-year-old man whose heritage is Pakistani Muslim, is currently held in Chicago. U.S. law enforcement officials acknowledge that they have denied requests from Indian intelligence to interview Headley–despite the fact that India frequently grants such access to American intelligence officials. Nor is it likely that Indian intelligence services will have access to Shahzad.

This is an obvious mistake and one that doesn’t get any better through repetition.

New Yorkers refused to panic. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was second only to 9/11 as the largest call-out of fire department crews and vehicles. Six people died and the damage was measured in billions of dollars. Yet New Yorkers went about their business as calmly as Brits did during the Blitz. In the Times Square case, the street vendor who spotted the suspicious Nissan was among the first to return to Times Square. New Yorkers, even those with a deep memory of 9/11, have returned to their daily routines.

The pity is that so have the government officials charged with keeping us safe. So little has been learned since 1993.

Richard Miniter, the author of Losing bin Laden and Shadow War, is writing a biography of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.