by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
April 30, 2010
ANOTHER BATCH OF PRIVATIZATION SNAKE OIL
BRADENTON, Fla., May 2, 2010 -- The strange car bomb found yesterday evening in Times Square by an alert T-shirt vendor and NYPD cavalry officer is the work of an amateur, it appears; but was it also the work of a bomber?
In the cache of explosives police discovered in the car was three propane tanks, two five-gallon plastic gasoline carriers, a metal pot full of fireworks, some electrical wiring connected to two yellow analog children's clocks and to a large black, locked steel box, and batteries. Fox News added a cell phone and wrist watch to the cache, but those items were not reported by police.
The steel box contained a "thicket of wires" and an "inverted metal pot" filled with "20 to 30" M-88 firecrackers, which are legal in nearby Pennsylvania and less explosive than M-80s.
The wires from the clock may have been connected to a large steel box filled with eight grocery bags of fertilizer, the explosive material used in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the inverted pot of wires and more fireworks.
According to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, one of the clocks was damaged and could not be accurately read; the other's alarm was set for noon or midnight, at least five and a half hours after its discovery.
Together, these elements produced a lot of smoke, some fire, a modest bang and not enough damage to crack the car's windows. A clock pictured in the New York Times slideshow published after this piece showed a time of about 3:37, and the alarm was set for about 11:50. It appeared undamaged.
The devices in the car were found close to a Starbuck's, a Bank of America branch and the headquarters of Viacom, the parent of Comedy Central, which has apparently offended Muslims with depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in its vicious, vile and very funny South Park cartoons.
At least one Vehicle Identification, or VIN number, was scratched off the vehicle.
There are about 11 VIN locations in all, and it's unlikely all were scratched off. The license plates, however, led police to a junkyard called Kramer's Used Auto Parts in Stratford, Conn. He said they had been stolen but not reported. The real owner of the plates was questioned and initial reports are that police feel he was uninvolved.
The owner of Kramer's apparently told investigators that the plates were taken from another vehicle left there for repairs. CNN reports that a nearby Bridgeport, Conn., used car lot may have owned the car, but that factoid was not confirmed. Since the events described happened after business hours on a Saturday evening, if the bomber stole both the plates and the car on Saturday, police might not have been alerted until Monday.
So who scratched the VIN off? Was it the former owner? Negative. Was it a car dealer, part of the Cash For Clunkers program who didn't want to turn it in for scrap? I doubt it. Was it the junkyard owner (who says the car was never on his lot), who felt he could more easily sell the car for scrap or otherwise monetize it without the VIN? Unlikely. Was it the car thief who had recently stolen the vehicle and drove it to Times Square? Probably.
The car was left running, with its hazard lights flashing. The alarm was set for six hours later (we don't know the time on the damaged clock, or when the alarm was set for, or whether either one had been wound up). But that's not the way they do it in Baghdad, where the cars are intended to have a low profile to evade detection until the bomb inside is detonated.
It almost appears the fellow who drove it to Times Square wanted police to discover it, suggesting he wanted attention more than he wanted people to die. That in turn suggests his target was inanimate, like Viacom's Comedy Central, Bank of America or Starbuck's. I would rule out Starbuck's - their coffee is just not that bad.
Why file the VIN off if you're going to blow up the car? Why, indeed, unless when the car is traced back to its previous owners and/or operators, a clue to the bomber's identity may emerge? Indeed, police have not yet been able to locate the registered owner, said Kelly, who has been remarkably forthcoming about all aspects of the incident.
A junkyard owner knows his dog. If indeed the car was taken from there, which is in doubt, unless the junkyard owner checked the VIN and found it missing and attributed it to the thief who had once stolen it, or was satisfied by the owner's oral attestation to that effect, or simply used one of the other VINs to identify it, he couldn't complete his documentation for the car. He likely never even saw it, much less bought or sold it. But the owner of a junkyard is rarely an ordinary person.
He may have been the sort of junkyard owner that sells getaway cars with VINs filed off to bank robbers, or helps auto thieves cash in on their crimes, and may have known the person who took the car from Stratford to Times Square. We have no reason to believe that.
In any case, a green Nissan Pathfinder that was in running condition, with little body damage and not reported stolen, left either Bridgeport or Stratford and presumably went somewhere to load the bomb into the car. Then he or she headed south, perhaps across the Beacon Bridge and down the New York State Thruway to the George Washington Bridge, where he or she paid $8 to enter the city and leave behind a nasty surprise.
Was the car thief the same man or woman who dumped the car? Who owned the locked steel box, four and half feet long by three feet wide, weighing 75 pounds, found inside a large cardboard box behind the front seat? It was a delayed bomb, apparently.
A New York Times story this evening indicated there were more fireworks in "an inverted metal pot," decribed as a pressure cooker, inside the gun locker, Kelly said, which was opened in an NYPD forensics lab in The Bronx. Forensics on the car itself were done at a NYPD facility in Queens.
A hot dog vendor interviewed by CNN, Hamid Boubian, said he just 10 feet from the car when it started smoking. He said he saw no one get in or out or leave the car as it remained running and flashing and starting to smoke. You might say he was remarkably unobservant.
Another hot dog vendor was also nearby and was beaten to the calvary officer by yet another vendor. A third vendor, who was just identified Sunday, was already at the car's rear window, peering in to see what was smoking. None of them saw anyone leave the car.
The car was captured on film at 6:28 PM by a surveillance camera as it came through a crowded nearby intersection headed along 45th Street to Broadway, and was reported to police by a vendor at 6:32 PM. The officer called in at 6:34 PM. Presuming the driver arrived at 6:30, which is likely, he was in an awful hurry.
Two of the hot dog vendors reported that there was a loud bang after a few minutes of fireworks and smoke. Meanwhile, police have a video of a white man believed to be in his 40's changing from a dark shirt into a red one - putting the dark shirt into a bag - as he "furtively" looked about and then left the alley. So far, he's the lone suspect.
The three propane tanks were of the backyard barbecue variety, 17-18 lbs. each. The two 5-gallon red plastic gasoline containers were full. In the locked rifle box were eight bags of a "granular" substance - believed to be ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and the upside down pressure cooker filled with fireworks. There were all the makings of a bomb, but the element of detonation was badly flawed.
The plan apparently might have worked - if.
It's almost as though this bomb was rigged with multiple fail-safes so that it would never go off.
There are a lot of ifs. But something clearly went wrong, or there would not have been any ignition of the fireworks, unless they were somehow set off by the 9-volt battery wired to the alarm clock that was damaged. What is supposed to happen is that a current is supposed to be activated along the wires from the battery to the clock and on to the bombs when the alarm goes off ior when the time hands reach a designated minute. You can detonate fireworks with a 9-volt current, but it takes professional help and what are called "electric matches." None were found in the car.
If that clock was set to go off at 6:30 PM, just seconds after the car would have arrived at its destination in Times Square, the driver might have been so rushed he made some sort of mistake, like trying to ignite the fireworks with a match and then run. How else did he or she ignite the fireworks as he got out of the car? Was it the damaged alarm clock that set it off? Was that how it was damaged, or did that happen in the course of the NYPD's defusing of the complicated bomb?
One of the first things I noticed was the proximity of three or more vendors, one of them a Greek - and Greece has been the target of a lot of bombings in recent years - another a man of apparent Arab ethnicity, and third a black man, who was peering into the car when another fourth vendor of T-shirts reported it to police. I noticed them because, first, they all use propane tanks, and second, there were fireworks. I thought once that the driver might have been a guy who delivered propane tanks to the vendors, and sold fireworks to them for resale on the side. Ultimately, those worries dissolved; the wired alarm clocks put that theory to an end.
That leaves us with the identity of the driver as the final puzzle. Was he from Pennsylvania? CNN reported last night, and police reported Sunday afternoon, that a man named Maurice Brewster from Pennsylvania, who was in his native city for the funeral of his father, was walking with his wife on 45th Street to a theater near Broadway. He noticed the Starbuck's across the street as events began to unfold. He said he may have been photographing the car as a man emerged from it, and Brewster told CNN his three photos showed the interaction of the cop and the vendor, the smoking vehicle and someone "lunging" from the vehicle as fireworks begin to explode.
By 4 PM on Sunday afternoon, police were still en route to Pennsylvania to get Brewster's "video," NYPD's Kelly said; but last night, Brewster told CNN when they inquired getting the availability of the pictures, he said he had taken three "pictures," but didn't mention a video; he said that the pictures had been taken from him by police at the scene. It appeared he had taken them with his cell phone, but that is not certain. It's possible another Pennsylvanian had taken a video, of course.
When I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in December 1971, a bomb went off close to the consulate where I was interviewing an official named Grover Penburthy; I ran up to Victoria Square, a few blocks away, and discovered a building surrounded by police, British Army and firemen. Someone gave an all-clear signal, and ignoring a BBC reporter's advice about the possibility of a delayed bomb, I fell in immediately behind the firemen who were going into the building. At the doorway, as the last of the firemen went in, a delayed bomb indeed went off just feet in front of me.
I turned around and ran, and on ITV that night saw myself running underneath a Jaguar that had been blown up in the air above me; I outran it. Later, a British Army bomb expert had me transported in a blindfold out to the camp where they dissected IRA bombs, as that one was, and I wrote a story about it for the Village Voice, whose title, The Best Weapon is Flying Glass, was quoted to me two years later by the great Jimmy Breslin, when Lucian K. Truscott IV introduced me to him at a bar owned by the late, great Toots Shor.
Ah, memories. But oh, my. Bombs in Times Square. The Taliban and someone else has taken credit for it but are probably lying, police say. And it wasn't the IRA, because they know what they're doing and always provide a warning
The person who targeted Times Square with a car bomb was an independent loner, I'd bet, and probably a more accomplished car thief than bomb-maker, whose message was more likely for Viacom - or for the world - than for you and me.
In any case, the clocks apparently were not the timing device; ignition was probably via a match, quickly thrown into the metal pot of fireworks, not the one in the locked box. Any firecrackers in there were discovered when the NYPD opened the steel box in Queens.
Of course, he or she could have opened the box, thrown a match into the firecrackers and then locked it. The bomb would be unlikely to explode in that case, because the box would quickly starve the flames of oxygen. It would be tough to ignite the fireworks with battery-powered electricity.
If a match was used, there might have been a lot of smoke, as several people saw, and a few of the M-88s might have exploded with a loud bang, not a whimper. Police never said anything inside the locked box exploded, though. The other pot outside the box with the fireworks probably exploded when the driver tossed a match into it.
Police may have damaged the other clock trying to disarm the bomb. A purported photo of it shown on Fox News showed the time on it set at a few minutes after 10 PM; the alarm was not visible, and the clock did not seem damaged. But it was a poorly-made bomb, all in all, meant more to scare and score political points than to kill. It's arrival came a day ahead of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York, where he will join 129 heads of state for a meeting at the United Nations.
"It didn't have the ability create a dramatic explosion," one former Secret Service bomb expert said on Fox Sunday night. "Assuming it worked," the expert said, "it would have been a spectacular event," he added. At the interview's end, he opined, "This is not a very sophisticated group." It probably was not a group at all.
He or she has a dubious military record, I'd bet, and reads a lot of thrillers. He probably lives in Connecticut, Pennsylvania or upstate New York, in the same town the grocery bags came from. He may have been hired to send a message and killed after sending it. If he was a white man, the odds would say he was probably not an Arab or a Muslim. Police are thinklng now he was a Pakistani who visited there and returned in the past year.
The fellow who changed his shirt, a lithe, athletic type who was also very bald, may have been a Greek, or Mediterranean - Tunisian, maybe; they have an extremely high incidence of baldness, and there are many in the neighborhood - like those who didn't notice him. He didn't want to kill anyone. He wanted us to think about the Middle East or to make Times Square pedestrian-only. He may be a food vendor himself.
Or a fear vendor, anyway.