FBI test shows that Times Square bombing could have been far more lethal than earlier thought—or maybe not

Dan Mangan reports in today’s New York Post:

Chilling toll of Times Sq. ‘bomb’

Thankfully, it didn’t go off as planned.

A secret FBI test of a correctly made version of the Times Square bomb revealed that it “would have killed thousands of people” if it had been made to explode as terrorists had intended, law-enforcement sources told The Post yesterday.

Had he built the Times Square device the way he had originally intended to, terrorist Faisal Shahzad, would have turned his SUV and nearby vehicles into a fatal spray of razor-sharp fragments and transformed building windows into glass guillotines hurtling to the streets, cutting down hundreds of people walking by.

The results were discovered after feds composed the type of bomb Shahzad set out to make—with the exact components he had initially intended to use—and exploded it in Pennsylvania last month.

“It would have been the biggest thing ever to happen in this country since Sept. 11,” another source said.

“It definitely would have been bigger than [the 1995] Oklahoma City” bombing of the federal building that killed 168 people, the source said. “There would have been a lot of casualties.”

“People would also have been stomped to death from running away. It would have been panic. The buildings would have been severely damaged.”

One source added: “If you look at the four corners [near the bomb] that night, there could easily be 500 people between 20 to 30 feet from the car.

“Any car going down that block or parked nearby would have been turned into fragments, because that SUV’s going to rip apart those cars. More people get killed by the fragments than the actual explosion.”

Shahzad’s homemade bomb—on which he substituted less effective, cheaper components for the more expensive and deadly components he had planned to use—was left in the back seat of his parked SUV in the middle of Times Square, where it smoldered but failed to detonate.

Street vendors noticed the smoke and alerted police. The cops quickly evacuated the tourist-packed area as they dismantled the device.

Shahzad, 30, was nabbed several days later trying to flee the country. Last month, he pleaded guilty to federal terrorism charges, saying he wanted to attack America in retaliation for US military killings of Muslims abroad.

At the end of June, the FBI built its replica of the bomb and exploded it outside Harrisburg, Pa., to test its destructive force, sources said.

The results of the explosive test were sobering—showing that Shahzad was on track to becoming the biggest individual mass murderer in US history, several sources said.

“This attempt failed,” one source said. “But no one thinks this is the only time someone is going to try to blow something up in Times Square.”


I found the article a bit confusing and contradictory, so I wrote to the reporter:

Dear Mr. Mangan,

Your article on the likely toll of the Times Square bomb had it exploded is interesting, but also raises more questions than it answers. You say that the FBI, through a careful recreation of the intended explosion, and taking into account the number and location of people and cars near the car-bomb, and of building windows that would have been shattered by the bomb, determined that “it would have killed thousands of people.” But then you quote an expert saying that that “lots” of people would have been killed. What is “lots”? A hundred? A thousand? Three thousand? You also write that “hundreds” of people would have “cut down,” not necessarily killed, by falling glass from shattered windows, which means that the bulk of the “thousands” of casualties would not have been caused by falling glass but by the explosion itself and by fragments from nearby and passing cars.

Given that the article is reporting a scientific test which presumably presented a definite estimate of likely deaths, I would have hoped that your reporting on the study had been more clear on this point.

You also report someone saying that the bomb would have killed more people than the Oklahoma City bomb. Since the OKC bomb killed 168 people, “more” than that number does not necessarily add up to “thousands.” But since the OKC car bomb was set off directly in front of a government office building during working hours, shattering and partially caving in the entire front of the building where hundreds of people had been located, and since the Times Square bomb was facing buildings on a Saturday night where there would have been few or no people inside, it seems unlikely that the Times Square bomb would have caused far more casualties inside buildings than the Oklahoma City bomb. Here is Wikipedia’s description of the damage caused in Oklahoma City:

The Oklahoma blast claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings. The bomb was estimated to have caused at least $652 million worth of damage.

A huge amount and geographical extent of damage, yet only 168 were killed. Surely the Times Square bomb would not have vastly done more damage, yet the FBI says it would have killed thousands, i.e., at least 2,000, or eleven times more.

Then you suggest that most of the casualties would have been pedestrians, when you quote a source saying that “there could easily be 500 people between 20 and 30 feet of the car.” How could that be? The car was parked on a side street running into Times Square, not in Times Square itself. For 500 people to be within 30 feet of the car parked on a crosstown street would mean that there would have to have been an extremely densely packed crowd directly surrounding the car, with the crowd filling the street as well as the sidewalk, which seems highly unlikely. Further, if pedestrians were filling the street as well as the sidewalk, how could cars have been moving on that street? Yet part of the estimate of casualities involves the passing and nearby cars being turned into fragments and killing pedestrians. which you also mention. It seems unlikely that if only the sidewalks and crosswalks had pedestrians, 500 people could have been within 30 feet of the car.

Given that the FBI knew how powerful the bomb would be, and how many people were within what distance of the bomb, it seems to me that they would have been able to arrive at a plausible and consistent estimated figure of casualties. It would have been helpful if your article had more information taken directly from the FBI test. As it is, your article somewhat confuses the issue rather than clarifying it.

Thank you for any further clarification.

After writing to Dan Mangan, I looked for other articles on the same story to see if I could get a clearer picture of the FBI’s findings. The story by the AP, posted by Fox News, is far more more competently and honestly written. I’ve bolded the key passages:

Times Square Bomb Could Have ‘Killed Thousands,’ FBI Test Shows

Sources close to the investigation of failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad confirm to Fox News that the FBI tested a correctly constructed version of the explosive device.

Shahzad tried to detonate a car bomb in a Nissan Pathfinder on May 1, but the device fizzled and caused no injuries. But if the bomb had been detonated properly, it could have “killed in the thousands on the high end” and in the “hundreds on the low end,” according to a source familiar with the investigation.

While the blast might have been more deadly than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 169 lives, the force of the Times Square explosion would probably not have been as great. The impact of the explosion would have been felt both “upwards and outward,” a source said.

A source close to law enforcement said “too many variables” make a precise damage estimate difficult to calculate adding that the bomb would “have caused a lot of damage.” Although surrounding office buildings were mostly vacant on the Saturday evening of the planned attack, the high number of tourists on the street would have contributed to the number of causalities.

Two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the test explosion destroyed the SUV carrying the properly constructed bomb, damaged other nearby vehicles and scattered flaming debris. The test was conducted in rural Pennsylvania last month.

Shahzad admitted last month to building the homemade bomb and driving it into Times Square in May, officials said.

The AP provides fuller quotes from the source, which qualify the less full and more sensational quotations in the Post. Thus the Post says that the investigation found that “thousands” would have been killed, period. This high number raised the various questions I asked Dan Mangan. But the AP quotes the same source saying:

But if the bomb had been detonated properly, it could have “killed in the thousands on the high end” and in the “hundreds on the low end,” according to a source familiar with the investigation [italics added].

Thus the Post through its sensationalism created contradiction and confusion, while the AP by quoting the source more fully saying that the deaths could have been in the thousands or the hundreds, and that there were “too many variables” to make a precise estimate, avoided both the sensationalism and the confusion. I imagine that the sentence, “There are too many variables to make a precise estimate” would be prohibited at the Post. That paper’s news reporting is largely about getting our glands pumping, not informing us or making us think.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 20, 2010 08:04 PM | Send

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