New York: a prime target for terrorism

The attempted bombing of Times Square is the latest in a long line of terror plots and attacks targeting the US city

Police block traffic around Times Square after the discovery of a car bomb

As investigators try to discover the identity and motives of those behind an “amateurish” but potentially lethal bomb found at Times Square, a grim fact is not in dispute: New York exerts an irresistible attraction for those intent on inflicting harm on America.

The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put it succinctly: “We have no idea who did this or why,” he said, adding that his city was always a top terrorism target. “These things invariably … come back to New York.”

Bloomberg was careful not to attribute blame to anyone, but the incident will only add to jitters in a city that is gearing itself up for one of the trials of the century, when the suspected plotters of the 9/11 attacks will appear before a civilian court half a mile from the scene of the crime, Ground Zero.

The decision by the Obama administration to transfer five Guantánamo detainees, including the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to the US mainland for trial has been condemned by Republicans, both because the accused might be released and because of the potential danger to New Yorkers.

Last week two former Brooklyn residents were charged with conspiring to provide al-Qaida with computer advice and other assistance. Prosecutors identified the men as Wesam El-Hanafi, 33, an American citizen, and Sabirhan Hasanoff, 34, a dual citizen of the US. Prosecutors said the men had “conspired to modernise al-Qaida by providing computer systems expertise” and other services.

They said an investigation was continuing, although there were “no allegations of an active plot”. The New York police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, said: “This case’s nexus to New York city serves as another reminder that we remain vigilant to the possibility of supporters of al-Qaida returning to New York.”

In February, a former airport shuttle driver admitted agreeing to conduct an al-Qaida-led “martyrdom operation” motivated by US involvement in his native Afghanistan. Najibullah Zazi is accused of buying beauty products to make bombs for an attack on the New York subway. He told a judge the network recruited him to be a suicide bomber in the city, where he went to secondary school and once operated a coffee cart near the World Trade Centre.

Zazi is co-operating with prosecutors, who hope to expand the case and bring charges against other suspects in what is described as one of the most serious terrorism threats in the US since the September 11 attacks of 2001. Zazi said he had received weapons training and learned about explosives, and had been in contact with al-Qaida operatives while in Pakistan, but he did not identify them.

“During the training, al-Qaida leaders asked us to return to the United States and conduct martyrdom operation,” he said. “We agreed to this plan.”

Even before 9/11, New York had been a target. In 1993, a car bomb blew up below the north tower of the World Trade Centre, with the intent of bringing down both towers. Six people died in the blast. Six men were convicted of the plot, including the mastermind, Ramzi Yousef.

The February 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre was to have been followed up by a series of potentially devastating attacks on several New York landmarks including the UN headquarters building, the Holland tunnel and the George Washington bridge. Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind radical Muslim cleric, and nine others were sentenced to terms ranging from 25 years to life in prison.

Transport was again a target in 2006, when the New York authorities arrested several suspects including a Lebanese native, Assem Hammoud, for planning to blow up train tunnels under the Hudson river.

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