An unsuccessful attempt was made by an unidentified element or elements to cause an incendiary attack in the Times Square of New York on the evening of May 1,2010. The attempt involved causing a detonation in a car in which a device assembled with three canisters of propane like those used for barbecue grills, two five-gallon cans of gasoline, consumer-grade fireworks and two clocks with batteries was kept. According to the Police, at 6:28 p.m., a video surveillance camera recorded what was believed to be a dark green Nissan vehicle driving west on the 45th Street. Moments later, a T-shirt vendor on the sidewalk saw smoke coming out of vents near the back seat of apparently the same vehicle which was now parked at the curb with its engine running and its hazard lights on. The vendor alerted a nearby mounted police officer.
2.The police immediately intervened, evacuated the tourists and others from the area and managed to defuse the device with the help of a robot. The alertness of the T-shirt vendor, the prompt intervention of the police and their professionalism prevented what could have been a major incident of an incendiary attack causing a large number of casualties in the crowded area. It was apparently a timed device and not a suicide attempt. The police believe that the smoke showed that the detonation had started, but the prompt intervention of the police and some malfunctioning prevented the detonation from being completed.
3. While the local authorities have not yet characterized it as a terrorism-related attempt, it seems to be one. The attempt recalls a similar incident involving three planned jihadi attempts at mass casualty terrorism in the UK --- two in London on June 28-29, 2007, and one in the Glasgow airport in Scotland on June 30, 2007. In the two incidents in London, cars packed with fuel, gas cylinders and projectiles had been taken to the scene of the planned terrorist strike in a tourist-filled area and left there. The incendiary devices, planned to be remote-controlled, did not work. One of these cars was detected thanks to a timely tip-off from the staff of an ambulance van, who had noticed smoke or vapour coming out of the car. In the second incident, the unexploded device was detected by the Police in a car, which had been impounded for wrong parking. The incident in Glasgow almost succeeded when a jeep filled with a similar device of petrol, gas cylinders and projectiles, with two persons inside, crashed into the departure area of the airport. There was no detonation. Otherwise, the impact of the explosion and the projectiles would have caused large casualties. There was only a fire, which caused material damage, but no human casualties.
4.The US authorities, without upgrading the threat alert, have alerted the police in other cities to look for suspicious vehicles similarly abandoned. They have also undertaken a search to identify the person who drove the car to the Times Square and left it there with the help of closed circuit TV recordings and local enquiries. Only when they get some clues would it be possible to establish clearly whether it was an attempted act of terrorism by local jihadis acting on their own or at the instance of Al Qaeda or organizations affiliated to it which have repeatedly vowed to carry out an act of reprisal terrorism in US territory to express their solidarity with Ramzi Yousef and others involved in the February 1993 terrorist attack with explosives in the New York World Trade Centre, who are presently in jail in the US after having been convicted, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others involved in the terrorist strikes of 9/11 and other incidents who are awaiting trial at the Guantanamo Bay Detention centre.
5.In his periodic messages disseminated by As-Sahab, the propaganda wing of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, has repeatedly told these people that they have not been forgotten and that their arrests and alleged ill-treatment by the US will be avenged. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has also warned of a terrorist attack in the US homeland in reprisal for the death of Baitullah Mehsud, its Amir, after a US Drone (unmanned plane) strike in South Waziristan in August last year. It has already carried out a reprisal attack against some CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer in the Khost area of Afghanistan in the last week of December,2009, but it is determined to strike at the US in the US homeland in reprisal for the US attack on Baitullah in the Mehsud homeland.
6. If it turns out that the May 1 attempt was also the work of Jihadis, like the attempt to blow up an American commercial flight over Detroit on December 25,2009, by a Nigerian student motivated and trained by Al Qaeda of Yemen, it would indicate that Al Qaeda has been twice unlucky in carrying out an act of reprisal terrorism in the US homeland. This second failure is unlikely to discourage it from trying again. ( 2-5-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )