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Sunday, May 2, 2010

First Thoughts on Times Square Bomb

UPDATE 12:13 p.m. EST: The Long War Journal is reporting that the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the failed attack in Times Square last night. My immediate reaction to this can be found here. END UPDATE

Story here. Or you can watch CNN live for some truly worthless speculation.

My first thoughts (aka worthless speculation): If the descriptions of the bomb design are accurate, this certainly sounds like an amateur effort. It was made up of fireworks, a relatively small amount of gasoline and propane as well as some fairly random-sounding components.

The vehicle was left running with its hazard lights on, which also smacks of amateurism. It was parked on a street corner rather than targeting a building from a parking garage. It was an SUV (with windows) rather than a van or a truck (which not only hold more explosives but are more difficult to peer into). There were apparently no shrapnel generators, which a pro (or someone getting professional help online) would have used in a device targeting a crowd rather than a building and which can be easily improvised by someone with even a rudimentary knowledge of bomb-making. However, there was an ammo box in the vehicle, which hasn't been opened as of this writing and could have contained such components.

The amateur design doesn't preclude the involvement of AQ or another organized component, but it does reduce the odds. Even a casual jihadist or a typical domestic anti-government extremist would be able to build a better bomb.

If an amateur effort, the suspects would include a petty criminal or criminals or a depressed or mentally ill person lashing out in a disorganized and relatively spontaneous manner.

This person could still be motivated by classically terrorist ideology, such as jihadism or white supremacy, but there are such robust communities in the U.S. for both of these ideologies, it's difficult to see how one could have an interest in one of those subjects and still put together such an amateurish bomb.

If you look at the Underwear Bomber, for instance, his device was sophisticated even if his execution was not. PETN is not a amateur's tool. Fireworks and gasoline are another story.

I'm available to talk to journalists on this subject today on telephone, Skype or at Boston-area studios. Contact me if you need something.

UPDATE 11 a.m. EDT: Authorities have found a VIN number on the vehicle, which will help them trace its ownership. Interestingly, the primary VIN number had been obscured in some way, which is a much more professional-type of action than the bomb would suggest. If confirmed, this most likely means the car was bought from a chop shop, although it could indicate that the bomber was a mechanic or worked some other sort of profession relating to cars.

However, a mechanic would have built a better bomb. Although the bomb is pretty low-end, as discussed above, a few simple tweaks could have made it work better, and it would still have provided a pretty big bang even if it wouldn't have been as lethal as a professional-grade device.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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