Oh, bloody hell.
Over the weekend, an attempted bomb attempt in New York City‘s Times Square set off an intense U.S. investigation and garnered subsequent media attention. According to the most recent news update, an arrest was made at New York’s JFK International airport Monday night/early Tuesday morning, with media outlets reporting that police detained a Connecticut man who was “a naturalized United States citizen from Pakistan,” (his flight was from New York to Dubai).
The man, identified by news agencies as Faisal Shahzad, “was believed to have recently bought the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder that was found loaded with gasoline, propane, fireworks and fertilizer in the heart of Times Square,” reported the NY Times.
The fact that the bomb failed to go off may provide some interesting clues into the increasing intrigue surrounding this story. CNN, which was one of the last outlets to identify the suspect, spoke with Tom Fuentes, the FBI’s former Assistant Director, who called the botched attempt “not very sophisticated.” According to bomb experts, noted Fuentes, propane tanks (found in the Nissan) “are designed to be very difficult to blow up” so consumers “don’t hurt themselves when they’re barbecuing outside.” A potential bomber would have to “know what he was doing” in order to cause an explosion.
In an article for the AfPak Channel, Alec Barker wrote,
Producing a complete detonation has been the most important hurdle for a number of failed terrorist bombers, including Christmas Day bomber Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, shoe bomber Richard Reid, the bombers of the June 30, 2007 Glasgow Airport attacks, and the bombers of the July 21, 2005 attacks against the London public transit system. While all of these attackers in some way initiated their bombs, none of them caused the explosions — or the accompanying devastation and loss of life — that they intended.
Barker, a national security analyst, also noted that while this attack may have been inspired by “jihadist zeal,” the amateurish nature of the attempt casts doubt on supposed international connections – particularly to larger Pakistani militant groups.
That of course won’t stop experts, analysts, and guys named Bob from speculating on the lone wolf versus Taliban militant network debate, especially given the videos the Tehreek-e-Taliban released Monday. In what news agencies called “the most substantial” of the released TTP messages, Hakimullah Mehsud, (previously presumed to be dead), promised, “(God willing), very soon in some days or a month’s time, the Muslim (community) will see the fruits of most successful attacks of our fedayeen in USA.” The video was reportedly made last month, though TTP’s chief spokesman Azam Tariq told reporters later, “We don’t know about this video. As far as I know none of our people have posted it. We have no information about it.”
While Pakistan will at first seek to downplay Shahzad’s Pakistan connection (though he just returned after spending five months in Peshawar, Pakistani officials initially emphasized that he is an “American citizen,” according to CNN correspondent Reza Sayah), Western news outlets are already doing the opposite. For example, although CNN noted that Shahzad is “Pakistani-American” a reporter emphasized, “he has only been a U.S. citizen since April 2009.”
[Translation: So, really - he's only a teeny bit American. He's way more Pakistani.]
As the speculation continues, one point of contention I have watching Western news coverage is the framing of the story as details are unveiled. In this era of 24 hour news coverage, a stream of consciousness on media channels is pretty apparent – essentially meaning that news consumers are discovering details almost as fast as news producers. While this is arguably a good thing, speculation can also be the devil’s playground, particularly at a time of polarizing perceptions and tensions. If, for example, Fox News‘ main headline soon after midnight [while details were still being revealed] was this, what would you think?