Commentary Magazine


Topic: car-bomb

When Watching Doesn’t Work

Daniel Foster has a good catch at The Corner: according to the New York Times profile of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, officials of the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating him as early as 2004.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any suspicions about him at that time were actionable. But that, itself, is a more profound point than even the fully justified concern about our endlessly porous no-fly list, which came within minutes this week of – once again – letting a watch-listed individual take off on an international flight.

The point driven home by the 2004 investigation is that our established measures for identifying and tracking terrorists aren’t necessarily getting the job done. We can have suspicions about subjects, investigate them, apply all the rules to them – and we can still fail to intervene before they launch an attack.

It seems obvious to me that we can’t profile every naturalized citizen from Pakistan who suffers from unemployment and foreclosure, as Shahzad did in the years after 2004. That would be a waste of time. Apparently, he and his family left their Connecticut home in December in such a rush that they took no household belongings and left food to spoil. That move could, in retrospect, be characterized as a precipitate flight from the U.S. to Pakistan. Perhaps it was worth investigating. But was Shahzad, himself, still under any kind of investigation or surveillance at that point? Local police departments are overworked; it’s doubtful that the one in Shelton, Connecticut, would have made the connection between one more abandoned foreclosure property and a naturalized citizen’s interesting ties to Pakistan.

Faisal Shahzad’s numerous trips to Pakistan should perhaps have been a clue, but there are a lot of South Asian Muslims traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. We do a lot of business with Pakistan and have many Pakistani immigrants. Many of them travel frequently, and for innocent purposes.

It is fair to say that this is a serious problem: one that is not the consequence of partisan politics. It’s not clear how we overcome it. But there are two patterns we’ve seen this week that are utterly counterproductive. One is the tendency of government officials to pretend that perpetrators are as likely to be domestic “militia” activists as radical Islamists – and to group peaceful opponents of Obama’s policies incautiously with bomb-makers. This practice is much worse than mere divisive rhetoric. It portends a negligent misuse of law-enforcement assets.

The other pattern is the left-wing punditry’s readiness to attack the right for demanding better performance from our counterterrorism infrastructure. A theme is emerging that it was only 53 hours from the first report of the car-bomb to the arrest of Shahzad, and hey, calm down, law enforcement seems to have done a pretty good job. But what matters is that the bomb was, in fact, planted, and it could have gone off. If this sequence of events constitutes an acceptable standard of performance against terror plots, then I would amend Abe’s conclusion as follows: street vendors aren’t our first line of defense, they’re our last.

Daniel Foster has a good catch at The Corner: according to the New York Times profile of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, officials of the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating him as early as 2004.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any suspicions about him at that time were actionable. But that, itself, is a more profound point than even the fully justified concern about our endlessly porous no-fly list, which came within minutes this week of – once again – letting a watch-listed individual take off on an international flight.

The point driven home by the 2004 investigation is that our established measures for identifying and tracking terrorists aren’t necessarily getting the job done. We can have suspicions about subjects, investigate them, apply all the rules to them – and we can still fail to intervene before they launch an attack.

It seems obvious to me that we can’t profile every naturalized citizen from Pakistan who suffers from unemployment and foreclosure, as Shahzad did in the years after 2004. That would be a waste of time. Apparently, he and his family left their Connecticut home in December in such a rush that they took no household belongings and left food to spoil. That move could, in retrospect, be characterized as a precipitate flight from the U.S. to Pakistan. Perhaps it was worth investigating. But was Shahzad, himself, still under any kind of investigation or surveillance at that point? Local police departments are overworked; it’s doubtful that the one in Shelton, Connecticut, would have made the connection between one more abandoned foreclosure property and a naturalized citizen’s interesting ties to Pakistan.

Faisal Shahzad’s numerous trips to Pakistan should perhaps have been a clue, but there are a lot of South Asian Muslims traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. We do a lot of business with Pakistan and have many Pakistani immigrants. Many of them travel frequently, and for innocent purposes.

It is fair to say that this is a serious problem: one that is not the consequence of partisan politics. It’s not clear how we overcome it. But there are two patterns we’ve seen this week that are utterly counterproductive. One is the tendency of government officials to pretend that perpetrators are as likely to be domestic “militia” activists as radical Islamists – and to group peaceful opponents of Obama’s policies incautiously with bomb-makers. This practice is much worse than mere divisive rhetoric. It portends a negligent misuse of law-enforcement assets.

The other pattern is the left-wing punditry’s readiness to attack the right for demanding better performance from our counterterrorism infrastructure. A theme is emerging that it was only 53 hours from the first report of the car-bomb to the arrest of Shahzad, and hey, calm down, law enforcement seems to have done a pretty good job. But what matters is that the bomb was, in fact, planted, and it could have gone off. If this sequence of events constitutes an acceptable standard of performance against terror plots, then I would amend Abe’s conclusion as follows: street vendors aren’t our first line of defense, they’re our last.

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