Gone in 53 hours

Perusing the charge sheet against Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square failed bomber, a number of interesting little nuggets are apparent.

1. Shahzad had returned to the US from a five-month trip to Pakistan on 3 February, where he claimed to have been visiting his parents. Shahzad appears to be the son of a senior Pakistani military officer. Interestingly he had also left his wife behind in Pakistan (and the NYT notes his two young children). Shahzad has apparently admitted to having recently received training in bomb-making in Waziristan.

2. Inside the failed VBIED, the police found keys to Shahzad’s rented home in Connecticut and to his other vehicle. Despite changing the number plates, Shahzad had failed to remove the VIN or Vehicle Identification Number, allowing police to track down the person who had sold it to him and provided the police with a description of Shahzad.

3. The police were somehow able to tie a pre-paid (i.e. disposable) cell phone to Shahzad. Such phones are supposed to be highly anonymous so it will be interesting to see what details emerge on how they went about this. As the NYT notes:

Though they declined to say precisely how they tracked such an anonymous number, they established not only that Mr. Shahzad was the buyer of the Pathfinder, but also that he got four phone calls from a Pakistani number associated with him in the hour before he made his final calls to arrange the purchase of the vehicle, according to the papers.

Shahzad apparently also used the phone to call a store that sold the fireworks used in the VBIED’s construction.

4. Shahzad’s rented residence gave him exclusive access to a garage, which presumably allowed him to construct his device without being observed.

5. Inside the vehicle officers found at least two firearms.

The apparent carelessness about leaving his residence keys in the VBIED makes me wonder if this was meant to be a suicide detonation that went wrong. Also, the point about him leaving his wife and children behind in Pakistan and the fact he took several days to try and extract himself from the US might support this theory. The use of clocks as timing devices in the vehicle might undermine this however. Of course, he could just be really incompetent and have left the keys behind by mistake. By the same token, it appears that the ‘training’ he received in Pakistan was of limited use.  However, the admission to having been to a camp in Waziristan might lend some credence to the apparent claim by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to have been behind the attempted bombing. If so, it says something about the TTP’s ability to project force beyond their immediate areas of control.I wonder if this will turn out to be similar to cases in the UK (7/7, 21/7) where individuals have travelled with a view to fighting in Afghanistan but have been turned around and sent back to conduct an attack in their country of residence.

The discovery of the firearms is also interesting; why – if you are not confident about your explosives capability – risk bungling the attack when you could just walk into a shopping mall and shoot potentially dozens of people, perhaps taking inspiration from Nidal Malik Hasan? Is there something symbolic or talismanic about an causing an explosion that a shooting attack does not satisfy?

The other thing that jumps out of this investigation is that it took the authorities just over 53 hours from the discovery of the VBIED to the making of the arrest. That’s pretty impressive in anyone’s book. Though the revelation that the FBI surveillance team lost track of Shahzad and that he had managed to board a plane bound for Dubai is a little alarming.


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