How do you protect New Yorkers from this kind of attack?
If you look at the last chapter of Securing the City, which you can browse on Amazon, I go into considerable detail about the measures taken at Times Square on New Year's Eve. They give an idea of the extreme means used when the risk is highest. But at normal times you have to depend on the vigilance of the public, the quick response of cops on the scene, and on aggressive, proactive intelligence work that tries to stop this kind of thing long before it gets to the stage of fireworks popping in the backs of cars. Two examples would be the Herald Square case in '04 and the Zazi case last year.
We are all helped by the fact that most terrorists are idiots and they're inept. But unless you have multiple layers of defense you really are vulnerable. Fortunately that is what the NYPD, working with the Feds (and occasionally in spite of them) set out to achieve - and so far, it has to be said, the cops have been pretty effective.
Most analysis of this incident so far focuses on some threat related to Al Qaeda. The design of the bomb -- and the incompetence of the bomb maker(s) -- are reminiscent of attempted attacks in London and Glasgow in 2007. Those were inspired by Osama bin Laden's war of terror, but none of the people involved ever trained with AQ or took orders from its leadership.
We should not discount the possibility that this attempted mass murder was the work of an individual or small group with no Muslim ties and no sympathy for AQ whatsoever. Anarchists out to mark May 1, right-wing crazies looking to send some demented message of their own against taxes (like Joe Stack, who flew his little plane into some Texas IRS offices), or someone who hated "Lion King" ticket holders, or had a vendetta against the Bank of America ... Never underestimate the range of people who look to make their point by making mayhem in New York City. The potential list of perpetrators is long and will remain so until more evidence has been analyzed.
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