Authorities Cautious About Linking Terror Groups to Failed Times Square Car Bombing

By Patrick Goodenough | May 3, 2010 | 4:43 AM EDT

A frame made from a surveillance video released by the New York Police on Monday, May 3, 2010, shows a man, right, removing a shirt in an alley in New York. Police investigating a failed car bomb left in Times Square say the videotape tape shows a possible suspect. (AP Photo/NYPD)

(Update: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says there's a "high probability" that law enforcement will capture whoever was behind a car bomb left in Times Square. Bloomberg said Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that all city agencies are working together, along with federal agencies.)

( – As investigations continue into Saturday’s failed car bombing in Times Square, a claim of responsibility linking the incident to the recent killing of two terrorist leaders in Iraq is just one of a range of possible motives radicals could have for the high profile choice of target.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was dismissive of an online claim by a Pakistan-based group allied to al-Qaeda, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), saying there was no evidence to back it up.
“A terrorist act doesn’t necessarily have to be conducted by an organization,” he said. “An individual can do it on their own.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also took a cautious line, saying during a visit to Times Square on Sunday evening that there is no evidence so far that “one of the recognized terrorist organizations” was behind the incident.
Police alerted by an observant T-shirt vendor helped to avert a potential disaster at the busy landmark Saturday evening, disarming an incendiary device inside an SUV involving gasoline, propane tanks, fireworks, alarm clocks and a metal locker packed with a substance investigators said may be fertilizer.
Kelly said a detonation likely would have resulted in “a significant fireball” and caused casualties. Police were trying to track down a man, described as white and in his 40s, caught on video behaving furtively not far from the SUV.
The Pakistan wing of the Taliban has carried out hundreds of deadly bombings in Pakistan over the past two years, most targeting military and government installations and personnel and invariably using suicide bombers.
Despite its string of grisly successes at home, it is not known to have carried out an attack outside the region, however. It falsely sought credit for the April 2009 mass shooting at an immigration centre in New York State. The gunman, who killed 13 people and himself, turned out to be a disgruntled Vietnamese immigrant.
According to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant Web sites, the TTP in its claim cited a number of supposed reasons for what it called “the jaw-breaking blow to Satan’s USA.”
They include the April deaths of two senior al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka al-Masri), U.S. drone attacks along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the recent conviction in a New York federal court of Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani neuroscientist found guilty of trying to kill U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and due to be sentenced this week, and more generally, “for the global American interference and terrorism in Muslim countries,” including Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Reporters study a photo released by the New York City Police Department of one of the alarm clocks found in the Nissan Pathfinder that was used in the attempted bombing in Times Square on Saturday evening, May 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

The nature of the device found at Times Square has sparked various lines of speculation. The inclusion of a substance thought to be fertilizer recalled for some observers the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing where the device was made from a combination of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
But ammonium nitrate also has become the ingredient of choice for the makers of homemade bombs used to deadly effect against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Its use by terrorists has become so pervasive that possession and sale of the substance was outlawed in parts of northwest Pakistan in late 2009, and in Afghanistan in January.
Details about the device released by authorities so far has also turned attention to Britain, where a plot to blow up devices in two cars in 2007 bore some similarities to the Times Square incident.
Two cars left in London’s theater district – like Times Square, popular with tourists and visitors – contained devices involving gasoline and propane, as well as nails and shrapnel designed to maximize casualties. In contrast to use of alarm clocks in the case of the New York device, the London bombers intended to set off their explosives remotely using mobile phones, but they did not detonate.
Two bombers then fled to Glasgow where they used a third car rigged with gas canisters to mount an apparent suicide attack at the Scottish city’s international airport. One was killed; the other, a doctor of Iraqi origin, is serving a prison term of 30-plus years. He said during his trial he was motivated by Western actions in Iraq.
New York could be targeted for many reasons, not least of all because a deadly blast at one of the world’s most recognizable venues would draw massive media coverage.

Police officers at the intersection of 45th Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square on Sunday. A car bomb was found here on Saturday evening, May 1, 2010. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A number of bomb plots have been foiled in the city, both before and in the years since al-Qaeda’s huge attack in 2001. Targets have included the New York Stock Exchange, JFK airport, the subway system, a synagogue and Brooklyn bridge.
“Terrorists around the world who feel threatened by the freedoms that we have always focus on those symbols of freedoms and that is New York City,” Bloomberg said after Saturday’s incident.
One postulated possible motive for the Times Square attempt related to recent threats against the Comedy Central network over the satirizing of Mohammed in an episode of the animated show “South Park.” A radical Islamist Web site warned the show’s creators that they risked violent reprisals. Viacom Inc., which owns Comedy Central, has an office in Times Square.
Plans by the Obama administration to put self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other Guantanamo Bay detainees on trial in Manhattan caused a furor, in part because of the possible security risk to New Yorkers. A final decision on a trial venue is awaited.
Veteran security analyst and former Indian counter terrorism official Bahukutumbi Raman noted among possible motives for a New York attack the fact that al-Qaeda has repeatedly pledged attacks in support of Mohammed and the imprisoned 1993 World Trade Center bombing plotters, led by Ramzi Yousef.
Raman said that al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, periodically has used propaganda messages to assure people like Yousef and Mohammed “that they have not been forgotten and that their arrests and alleged ill-treatment by the U.S. will be avenged.”
As for a possible Pakistan link, he said TTP has been threatening attacks against the U.S. to avenge the death in a drone strike last August of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud. A suicide bombing near Khost, Afghanistan at the end of last year which killed seven CIA employees has been linked to the TTP, but Raman said the group has also vowed to attack the U.S. homeland.
If a jihadist group was behind the Times Square incident, that would make it the second time terrorists have been unlucky in attempts to launch a spectacular attack on American soil in recent months, after the unsuccessful Detroit bombing on Christmas Day 2009, Raman said.
“This second failure is unlikely to discourage it from trying again.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow