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The Times Square Bomb Scares and the Perils of False Alarms

In the days since the failed Times Square bombing last Saturday night, New York has faced several additional brief, but fraught, alarms. Late Wednesday night, the city’s RFK (formerly Triboro) Bridge was swarmed by police and shut down after a man ran away from a rental van which smelled of gasoline fumes. False alarm. On Thursday morning, an Emirates airways flight for Dubai was temporarily grounded at JFK airport shortly before takeoff because of a possible match between the name of a passenger and that of an individual on the U.S. government’s “no fly” list. Another false alarm; the plane was sent on its way. On Friday afternoon, part of Times Square was evacuated when police were notified of a “suspicious package.” Yet another false alarm; it turned out to be a cooler filled with water bottles.

This spate of false alarms, which received greater than normal publicity due to the fact that they occurred just after the genuine but unsuccessful Times Square car bombing, demonstrates how sorting out real threats from over reactions and hoaxes can be a burden that wastes the time of cops and investigators who could be doing more useful things. It also points to a dilemma U.S. intelligence agencies face as they consider, in the wake of the attempted Times Square attack, whether U.S. intelligence and law enforcement procedures can be adjusted to somehow provide earlier warning about “lone wolf” or self-radicalized attackers, like Faisal Shahzad. But some current and former counter-terrorism officials also warn that trying to sift through data on too many potential suspects could overwhelm U.S. agencies and actually make it harder to spot the really dangerous people.

Counterterrorism experts agree that a disturbing trend has emerged over the last year involving the willingness of American citizens and residents to become involved in terror plots motivated by Islamic extremism. The Times Square bombing attempt is only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. Other recent examples include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant who traveled to Pakistan with two cohorts and then, on returning to the U.S., plotted to bomb New York subways last September (which was only foiled at the last minute); David Headley, a Pakstani-American who volunteered himself as a spy who carried out advance work for the terror group that launched a spectacular commando attack on public buildings in Mumbai in November 2008; and the so-called Northern Virginia Five, a group of young American Muslims who went to Pakistan seeking to volunteer to fight American forces in the region, but found themselves taken into custody by Pakistani authorities after suspicious militant groups refused to engage with them.

The cases of Zazi, failed Christmas Day underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (a Nigerian from a wealthy background who had been schooled in Britain), and, most recently, Shahzad, demonstrate how individuals with clean backgrounds and identity documents, or citizenship, granting them easy access to America have lately become as useful to militant groups in the Islamic world as more dedicated (and more competent) operatives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohamed Atta were in the past. Experts believe that what is left of Al Qaeda central (with whom Zazi is believed to have been in contact) and the Qaeda network’s franchises or affiliates, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (who trained and equipped Abdulmutallab) or the Pakistani Taliban (who claimed credit, albeit vaguely, for Shahzad’s failed attack last weekend) are now so eager to make a statement of any kind against America, even if it’s a failed attack like the ones on Christmas or at Times Square, that they’re willing to engage with less committed and less effective operatives, provided that they have access to U.S. territory. “This is a learning enemy,” retired Gen. Michael Hayden told Declassified. Hayden, who served as President Bush’s last CIA director and, earlier as deputy intelligence czar and chief of the ultrasecret National Security Agency, added: “If [terror groups] are willing to go with significantly less preparation—and therefore lower probability of success—we have to adjust accordingly.”

What can U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies do to adjust to the emerging, more diffuse threat? Potential solutions could create as many problems as they are intended to solve. One former counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in the wake of 9/11, U.S. agencies believed that Al Qaeda plots would continue to be elaborate and therefore relatively slow to develop, allowing U.S. spies some times to find a thread, tease it out and eventually take the plot apart before it came to fruition (as U.S. and U.K. authorities did with a 2006 plot to bomb a dozen transatlantic flights using home-made explosives hidden in sports-drinks containers). But the failed underpants plot demonstrated how Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, which is only loosely connected to what’s left of the central bin Laden command structure, was willing to risk recruiting operative whose background they didn’t have too much time to check and who they didn’t have much time to train because they knew that if they took too long to check him out and train him—“hugged” him too closely, in the words of a former  senior official—it would make it easier for U.S. and other intelligence services to spot him before he attacked.

Current intelligence procedures could be tweaked to cast a wider intelligence net and spot such suspects before they attack, said one former intelligence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. One model would be to comb through raw intelligence files looking for people upon whom agencies only have traces of information, but who generally fit the known profile of emerging operatives like Abdulmutallab or Shahzad. Then launch intense investigations to find out more on those suspects before they come back to the U.S., or, if they are already here, to find out what they are presently up to. Such a methodology would produce a number of “false positives”—intelligence hits on people who later turn out to be innocent, so better intelligence on operatives of the lone wolf model, would mean more complaints from innocent people caught in the net and civil libertarians.

Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism adviser in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, warns that any moves to tighten intelligence filters to produce larger lists of potential suspects could backfire by producing so many false positives that it could actually make it more difficult to find real terrorists amongst a large pool of innocent people who fit the profile. “If you lower the bar to identify potential [terrorist] recruits, the [agencies] will spend a vast majority of their time running after false leads. That will overwhelm the system.” One possible consequence: “There will be an increasing likelihood that you’ll miss the real bad guys.”

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