“Terror is a mind f--k,” as a veteran of the New York City Police Department once told me. “And a big part of our job is to f--k with the terrorists’ heads before they f--k with ours.” Both parts of that formulation are worth keeping in mind as the investigation continues into the abortive attempt to detonate a car bomb on the edge of New York’s Times Square on Saturday night.
The device was a dud—almost a joke. The alleged would-be bomber, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, was tracked down and arrested in less than three days. But the incident still has something of the psychological impact terrorists want: spreading fear, undermining public morale, putting a whole city—if not a whole nation—on edge.
At least since a Nigerian with incendiary underpants tried to blow up a flight to Detroit last Christmas and failed, would-be terrorists have learned they don’t have to hit their primary targets to score a blow to the American psyche; they just have to take a shot, and America’s hyperventilating media frenzy will do the rest. The Christmas incident rattled the Obama administration and shook the nation’s confidence.
In the aftermath of the Times Square incident, Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson complained that “government officials refuse to say the word ‘terror,’ ” as if they’d somehow ignored the threat. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani reluctantly agreed with her: “I think you can’t solve a problem until you can face up to it.” Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, says it’s just “luck” the bomb didn’t go off and Shahzad didn’t go on to Dubai.
In fact, most of the luck involved was the kind you make for yourself with good police work and intelligence operations. Since Commissioner Ray Kelly took over the New York City Police Department in 2002, the organization has focused relentlessly on preventing attacks, not just prosecuting those who carried them out after the fact. The FBI has, over time, adopted the same approach. Today the NYPD, the FBI, and other federal agencies have created what amount to multiple layers of defense.
One mundane example: they have made it ever harder for homegrown terrorists to cook up homemade explosives. When Ramzi Yousef built the fertilizer-filled truck bomb that blew up under the World Trade Center in 1993, he got all the components he needed from a Manhattan chemical-supply company in Chelsea, only a couple of blocks from where many police and federal law-enforcement officials now have their offices. Since 2002 the NYPD has worked with businesses all over the metropolitan area and out to a distance of hundreds of miles to make sure terrorists won’t get access to precursors for explosives like that again. That’s probably one reason the Times Square bomb was such a poor example of terrorist tradecraft: it was cobbled together from firecrackers and what turned out to be inert fertilizer rigged to gas cans that didn’t ignite and propane canisters that didn’t blow.
The mind games played by the police are more complicated. The intelligence division of the NYPD—run by David Cohen, a former CIA director of clandestine operations—monitors communications among potential terrorists (with appropriate warrants when necessary, of course). It puts multilingual undercover officers from Muslim backgrounds in corners of the city where would-be radicals are likely to organize.
Lawrence H. Sanchez, a veteran CIA operative who became a top official in the NYPD’s intelligence division, testified before Congress in 2007 that “the New York Police Department believes part of its mission is to protect New York City citizens from turning into terrorists”—that is, focusing police attention on them before they know what they are doing themselves.
The NYPD monitors “groups of guys” who start talking about jihad and works to disrupt their fledgling organizations, intimidating some by picking them up for unrelated offenses, turning others into informers, and generally sowing distrust and paranoia. Only very rarely does the intelligence division ever actually bring suspects to court. When it does, the subtext—based on testimony by undercover cops or informants—is that if three people are conspiring to, say, blow up the Herald Square subway station (a plot back in 2004), one of them is likely to be working for the cops.
These techniques can raise questions about civil liberties, but they also create an environment where someone who wants to park a truck bomb in Times Square will have a hard time recruiting accomplices he can trust.
Finally, the police know that a lot of would-be terrorists, like most common criminals, are pretty dumb. Even when they are educated, they’re often naive or delusional, driven by testosterone, a desire to identify with a cause they see as greater than themselves, and a taste for awesome spectacles of destruction like they’ve seen in movies. So they’re likely to make a lot of mistakes.
The list of terrorist screw-ups is so long, in fact, that we probably should create a new category of the satirical Darwin Awards just for them. Remember the guy from the group that blew up the World Trade Center in 1993 who went to get the deposit back on the rental van used for the bomb? There was the shoe bomber on a U.S.-bound plane in 2001 who couldn’t get his fuse to light. Less well-known are the various members of the team Al Qaeda planned to use for a “second wave” attack against the United States after 9/11 who managed to get arrested even before 9/11 or chickened out afterward. In 2005 an engineering student at the University of Oklahoma filled his backpack with home-brewed explosives and headed for a big football game, but blew off his own head before he got there. The list goes on and on, with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the hapless underpants bomber from Nigeria, and Shahzad, who allegedly put the fizzling Pathfinder in Times Square, as only the most recent examples.
Even idiots can be dangerous, of course. But demystifying the failed terrorists is one good way to keep our composure while the bad guys lose theirs, which is, I guess, a polite way of saying f--k with their minds before they f--k with ours.