If you wanted to do a lot of damage with a well-rigged car bomb, the junction of West 45th Street and Broadway in midtown Manhattan, where Times Square narrows into an asphalt bottleneck, would be the place to pick. If the bomb planted in a green 1993 Nissan Pathfinder SUV on the evening of May 1 had exploded, here's what would have happened, according to retired New York police department bomb-squad detective Kevin Barry. The car would have turned into a "boiling liquid explosive." The propane tanks that the bomb comprised would have overheated and ignited into "huge blowtorches" that could have been ejected from the vehicle. The explosion, lasting only a few seconds, would have created a thermal ball wide enough to swallow up most of the intersection. A blast wave would have rocketed out in all directions at speeds of 12,000 to 14,000 ft. per sec. (3,700 to 4,300 m per sec.); hitting the surrounding buildings, the wave would have bounced off and kept going, as much as nine times faster than before. Anyone standing within 1,400 ft. (430 m) about five city blocks of the explosion would have been at risk of being hit by shrapnel and millions of shards of flying glass. The many who died would not die prettily. A TIME reporter familiar with the ravages of car bombs in Baghdad describes how victims appeared to be naked because a fireball melted their clothing onto the surface of their skin.
Such horrors did not come to New York for what you might call a New York reason. Amid all the bumping and crowding and hustling that makes Times Square what it is hides a resident network of people who watch one another's backs. On one corner, Lance Orton sells T-shirts at his stall; across the street is fellow Vietnam vet Duane Jackson, a handbag and scarf vendor. Rallis Gialaboukis has his hot-dog cart next to Jackson. And then there's Bullet, the homeless guy who darts from stall to stall, chatting everyone up. Their collective alarms went off when smoke started coming out of the Pathfinder, left with its engine running in front of a phone booth, already conspicuous because it was illegally parked in a bus lane. The cops were called in; the area was evacuated. And the city that never sleeps had one more reason to thank its street-level heroes who always seem to stay wide awake.
In the immediate aftermath, there was a reasonable desire to concentrate on the amateurish nature of the bomb attempt allegedly carried out by Faisal Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan. A gun locker inside the SUV, for example, contained fertilizer that was incapable of exploding. But skill is one thing, intentions another. Given the mayhem that could have resulted from his actions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Shahzad's aims were consistent with those of the global jihadi movement. The bomb in Times Square, it looks pretty clear, was not the work of some addlebrained nut job. It was terrorism: an attempt, for political reasons, to kill Americans. Lots of them.
Combating terrorism demands the highest skills of law-enforcement agencies, and in the case of the Times Square bomber, those agencies did their job. Less than 54 hours after the heroes of 45th Street had seen something and said something to the police, Shahzad was taken into custody. The SUV had a decoy license plate, and its vehicle identification number (VIN), usually on the dashboard, had been removed. But the NYPD found the VIN on another part of the vehicle. Investigators quickly established that the Pathfinder had been bought for $1,300 in cash and found the seller who had posted an ad for it online. The details of the sale led to a disposable cell phone allegedly used by Shahzad to call a store in Pennsylvania that sold fireworks similar to the ones found in the SUV.
With his identity established, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency put Shahzad's name on the no-fly list Monday afternoon, May 3. Still, he nearly got away. The FBI apparently lost track of him that same day. By that night, Shahzad was driving to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, using a cell phone to order a ticket to Dubai on Emirates airlines, which had not yet noted the updated no-fly list. He boarded Emirates Flight 201, but before it could leave the gate, just after midnight, it was stopped, and agents entered to take Shahzad into custody. His Isuzu was found in an airport parking lot; it contained a gun. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder went on TV at 1:30 a.m. to announce the arrest.
In another press conference, Holder said Shahzad was cooperating with authorities and had admitted to driving the Pathfinder into Times Square and trying to detonate it. The official complaint filed in the Southern District of New York charged Shahzad with several counts of attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction. It also said Shahzad had confessed to receiving bombmaking training in Waziristan, part of Pakistan's tribal regions along its frontier border with Afghanistan.