What If Times Square Car Bomb Had Gone Off?

What makes a "successful" attack

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The makeshift bomb left in an SUV in Times Square on Saturday night did not go off, owing to the NYPD's quick response and, according to experts, to the "amateurish" quality of the bomb itself. But what if the bomb had been better made or the police had not gotten there in time?

  • Don't Underestimate 'Amateurish' Attacks Georgetown Security Studies professor Bruce Hoffman told the Wall Street Journal, "Unsophisticated bombs don't necessarily mean that they're amateurish. ... I can assure you if that bomb had gone off we wouldn't be talking about an amateurish attack."
  • Wouldn't Have Been Successful Terrorism Conflict expert John Robb explains why the attacker picked Times Square. "A large explosion there would generate vast media coverage. The assumption of the attacker being that vast media coverage of an attack is by definition a form of successful terrorist systems disruption. It's not. This is the classic mistake of traditional terrorists. Vast media coverage, one of the earliest forms of network amplification (as in, the network converts a small event into something large), isn't useful as systems disruption unless it divides or shatters targeted social networks." It gets attention but it doesn't do damage. "That's why, the trend in terrorism and warfare in general is increasingly directed towards the disruption of physical infrastructure."
  • Echoes of McVeigh Time's Howard Chua-Eoan writes that, according to NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, "while the explosives were unsophisticated, if the 100-lbs. of fertilizer found in a gun locker in the SUV had detonated, the car would have been cut in half and there would almost certainly have been casualties on the crowded street. The mention of fertilizer rekindled memories of the attack on Oklahoma city masterminded by Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. army vet. Carried out with a truckload of fertilizer, the April 19, 1995 incident killed 168 people, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until al-Qaeda's suicide missions against Washington D.C. and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001."
  • Propane Tanks Wouldn't Have Gone Off Liberal blogger mistermix says not to worry about the big propane gas tanks that were apparently meant to be the bulk of the blast. "There's a reason why we don't hear about explosions at backyard cookouts--those cylinders are well-engineered. Mythbusters just aired an episode where they attempted to make a propane cylinder explode in a fire. It's essentially impossible, since propane cylinders have pressure-relief valves, which vent the propane rather than allowing an explosion. Even after disabling this device, which involved some skill with metalworking tools, the Mythbusters crew had to heat the tank for some minutes over an extremely powerful gas burner to get it to explode. I can't imagine a scenario where a burning car in the middle of Times Square wouldn't be extinguished before even a properly modified propane cylinder would explode."
  • Elevated Fear of Car Bombs Matthew Yglesias points out that U.S. reaction has been much calmer than with the Christmas Flight 253 failed attack, likely in part because "airplane-related incidents have some special grasp on the public imagination." But the New York Times' Ray Rivera thinks a successful attack could have made car bombs much scarier. "Since 9/11, both law enforcement officials and typical New Yorkers have worried and wondered -- why not here? They were simpler propositions than hijacked planes, and they could, as a result, have an even more destabilizing effect on the city and its residents. ... it was an unsubtle and unsettling reminder that threats could be lurking in the trunks or back seats of any of the thousands of vehicles that push their way into the city every day."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.