- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan have equipped law enforcement officers to handle the threat of car-bomb attacks like last weekend’s failed attempt in New York’s Times Square, U.S. officials say.

The main challenge is to predict what kind of people are likely to use so-called vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, and to intercept them before any damage is done.

“VBIEDs are hardly new to the terrorist tactic manual,” a senior counterterrorism official said. “They have been around for decades and continue to be used in deadly attacks around the world. U.S. counterterrorism agencies know that some terrorist groups are looking to conduct smaller-scale operations, and VBIEDs are probably part of that calculus. This remains a serious concern.”

Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said many police officers around the country have gained significant knowledge and experience with VBIEDs during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There was a good transfer of lessons learned back to the U.S.,” he said. Even officers not in the military have been “able to train with returning soldiers and have very solid preparation.”

Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani-born U.S. citizen accused of trying to detonate the car bomb on Saturday, was charged Tuesday with trying to blow up a crude gasoline-and-propane device inside a parked sport utility vehicle in one of the country’s busiest city areas. The device failed to detonate.

Although the suspect apparently was not competent enough to make a dangerous bomb, U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts said the case likely will result in increased intelligence efforts to identify and monitor people who could engage in terrorist acts in the United States.

“It’s really scary, the willingness of citizens to radicalize this way and use that status to carry out an attack. Any car could be turned into a bomb,” said Brian Fishman, a fellow at both the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Both Mr. Sanderson and Mr. Fishman said the key to preventing a recurrence of the attack is mastering an effective intelligence operation so authorities know who is likely to use a car bomb. One way is to learn more about links of people already in the country with terrorist groups abroad, they said. Another is to establish relationships with stores selling materials that can be used to make bombs, so they can notify officials of suspicious purchases.

“The question is how to make it more likely that [a terrorist] will make a mistake, and that someone will notice him; how to make his process more difficult so there is a better chance he’ll screw up,” Mr. Fishman said.

Even though Mr. Shahzad told investigators that he trained at a Pakistani terrorist camp and the Pakistani Taliban initially claimed responsibility for the incident, U.S. officials said they have been unable to verify those statements.

“He did a lousy job, which calls his training into question,” Mr. Sanderson said. If he was trained, “it’s a huge embarrassment for the Pakistani Taliban, but there is some value in claiming failure. The message is clear: ‘We are reaching out to the U.S. and have [American] citizens with us.’ ”

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