Who is the white male in his 40's looking furtively in the direction of the smoldering 1993 Nissan Pathfinder after a crude bomb placed inside the vehicle failed to detonate and fizzled?
The man, whom a surveillance camera videotaped removing a dark shirt, placing it in a bag, and walking away wearing a red shirt, may help answer a vital question about the latest failed terrorist attack in New York.
Was the perpetrator an "EDP" – an "emotionally disturbed person" -- bent on some crazed personal quest for perverse glory or revenge, or an Islamic or other militant group seeking to kill and/or publicity for its cause?
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was laudably cautious on Sunday in his 30 minute press conference. He did not leap to premature conclusions. He also downplayed a claim of responsibility by a group associated with the Pakistani Taliban which has never demonstrated international reach. There was no evidence so far, he told reporters, that the failed bombing was linked to an extremist religious group.
Kelly's description of what might have happened had the bomb gone off, however, left little doubt about the danger New York City has yet again dodged. A detonation, Kelly said, would have caused "a significant fireball" in Times Square when the area was jammed with cars, theatre goers, and other tourists, and undoubtedly, "casualties."
The video, of course, could help the NYPD and the FBI identify the perpetrator. Plus, investigators have more clues – fingerprints in the car, components that can be traced, and other forensic evidence that may eventually help identify the terrorist -- be he a nut or a fanatic.
Counterterrorism experts such as Richard Clarke, the former White House official who warned about the danger of Al Qaeda before 9/11, says that thanks to such video, law enforcement will get its man or perhaps, its group.
But not all crimes get solved. Not even terrorist crimes. For instance, the identity of the perpetrator who used a pipe bomb in 2008 to blow up an Armed Forces recruiting station in Times Square is still unknown.
Dismissing the significance of this latest effort because the device involved has been described as "crude" understates the threat. New York City remains the nation's prime target. This is the fourth failed small bomb attempt in the city in the past five years.
Once again, New York has escaped thanks to a combination of citizen vigilance, rapid response by police for whom counterterrorism remains a top priority, and let's face it -- sheer luck.
A vigorous counterterrorism effort requires consistent support. That's tough almost nine years after 9/11 without another major successful attack on American soil. Success breeds complacency – our greatest threat. While President Obama's Department of Homeland Security announced in December that it was increasing the New York City region's urban security funding from $145 million to $151 million, counterterrorism funds were being cut in other vital areas. Money for the Transit Security Grant Program was reduced from $153.3 million to $110.6 million. So, too, were funds for the Port Security Grant Program, from to $33.8 million from $45 million, and a program to install radiation detectors in New York ports. New York needs all the money that Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Congressman Peter King, and other New York legislators are trying to get restored.
Above all, the latest episode highlights the continuing importance of involved citizens, which is not primarily a question of money. Commissioner Kelly said that two street vendors had flagged down police officers to warn about the smoking vehicle. We are reminded yet again of the importance of New York law enforcement's plea: "If you see something, say something."