The stunning events of September 11, 2001, were a potential template for future terrorist attacks. But since then, al-Qaida and its affiliates have been unable to mount a similar encore in the United States. The foiled Times Square attack may be a sign that these groups have been forced to shift tactics to smaller operations that are less spectacular, but are also harder to detect.
Former CIA counterterrorism chief Robert Grenier says the failed Times Square bombing last Saturday may indicate that al-Qaida and its allies have abandoned more grandiose plans for the United States and are emphasizing smaller but still deadly operations.
Shift in tactics
One of the things that a lot of observers have been concerned about is the fact that there could be a change in tactics away from the kind of spectacular and very difficult operations to conduct to operations that could be launched in far greater numbers and might have less individual impact but which in the aggregate could sow a great deal of terror.
Officials were initially reluctant to link the Times Square attempt to foreign terrorists. Such assumptions of a foreign hand have sometimes proved false in the past, most notably in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which turned out to be a purely domestic plot. But, according to court documents, Times Square suspect Faisal Shahzad admitted to receiving bomb-making training in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
But Jim Cavanaugh, a bomb expert who just retired after 33 years in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says either the training was not very good or Shahzad was a poor student.
"Well, when you see the device, what comes to mind is that you have a whole lot of desire but not a whole lot of technical ability," he said. "You've got some people involved who have a grandiose plot for some fanatical reason to put a bomb in the center of New York, but they're not very adept at explosives or bomb-making.
Counterterrorism analyst Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation says the Times Square plot is an indication that al-Qaida is either not willing or not able to deploy seasoned, well-trained operatives. He says that instead of using professionals, al-Qaida is finding people who are ideologically motivated and well-placed to attack, but who receive only rudimentary training.
"But I do think that in general we have seen a shift from, for lack of a better term, professionalized terrorist operations to those that are conducted by not exactly amateurs, but folks with less training and less capability generally, technical capability," he said. "And so they've had to act in sort of a more ad hoc fashion.
One wrinkle in the Times Square plot is that the claim of responsibility came not from al-Qaida, but from the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban group. Analysts have also been skeptical of this claim because the Pakistani Taliban have been targeting Pakistan, not the U.S. It has long been assumed that the threat to the U.S. homeland was from al-Qaida.
But former CIA officer Robert Grenier says the claim may well be true because of their threats of retaliation over U.S. drone aircraft attacks against the Taliban.
"We should take the Pakistani Taliban, and specifically the so-called TTP, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, at their word, he said. "Their leaders have been saying for some time that they want to strike targets outside their own region, and they've talked about the United States, they've talked about the U.K. So I don't think that we should dismiss those threats.
Brian Fishman says it is unlikely that Shahzad was a well-trained TTP operative. But, he adds, although the TTP and al-Qaida have different goals, they have been growing closer, and that U.S. officials now believe there is a terrorist syndicate in Pakistan.
What al-Qaida's greatest strength and its most dangerous capability today is the ability to indoctrinate and infiltrate other established militant groups that have operational capacity," he said. "The TTP is one of those. So when al-Qaida is able to do that, they don't have to develop their own operation. They simply have to infiltrate a group that has its own operational capacity and redirect some of that capacity towards the West. There definitely does seem to be an indication that that is happening.
So far attacks in the U.S. - at least those that are publicly known -- have been thwarted by heightened security awareness and increased counterterrorism measures from the U.S. side, as well as by both bad luck and professional incompetence on the terrorists' part. As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said his city was lucky this time. But luck can change at any time.