STEVE INSKEEP, host:
An attempted bombing of New York City's Times Square complicated relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. Faisal Shahzad spent time in Pakistan before the alleged attack. But as the suspect appears in court today in New York, we are reminded of another fact: The attack did not succeed. The car bomb he allegedly built and parked in Times Square failed to go off.
And that's been the pattern. Terrorist groups have had relatively little success with bomb attacks in the United States. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, that's because explosive materials are hard to get, and just making a bomb that works is complicated.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: While there's a lot of information about how to make a bomb on the Web, explosives experts say the Internet's role in helping do-it-yourself bombers is overrated. They say it's a little like someone watching a couple of Major League Baseball games on TV and then stepping up to the plate, expecting to connect with a fastball.
Dr. TERRY TURCHIE (Former FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism): It's much harder to actually sit down and build and make a functioning bomb than I think has been represented.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Terry Turchie. He was the head of the FBI task force that caught Ted Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, in 1996. Kaczynski was behind a 20-year mail bomb spree that killed three people and injured nearly two dozen more.
Kaczynski was a Harvard-educated math genius, and he taught himself how to make a bomb from scratch. But it still took him years of research and testing.
Mr. TURCHIE: You can obtain and acquire the information. Having the tactical ability to put these bombs together is a totally different story, and that's where we've been fortunate so far.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Fortunate because while some terrorist operatives have come to the U.S. and gathered the ingredients needed to make a homemade bomb, the devices rarely work. So that's the first reason we haven't seen many successful explosive attacks.
It takes expertise to assemble the components - the detonator, the timer, the explosive - all in a way that will actually work. A second reason: ingredients. Bomb makers in Afghanistan and Pakistan have military-grade explosives all around them.
In this country, terrorists have to make a bomb from household products like peroxide and hairspray. And, Turchie says, there's another reason.
Mr. TURCHIE: The huge differences between the unsuccessful bombings we've seen here and the highly successful, countless, day-after-day successful bombings in Iraq or Afghanistan, is that they had some significant support with people who knew what they were doing.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, they have teams of experts on the ground: financiers, explosive experts who can turn out devices that actually work, distributors who get the bombs out to the targets. That model was used to attack the U.S. in 1993.
(Soundbite of archived reporting)
Unidentified Woman: Recapping now for you once again: If you've just joined us, an explosion underground in the garage section of the World Trade Center in New York City, hundreds of people, as we speak, are still being evacuated from the...
TEMPLE-RASTON: That was the first World Trade Center bombing and in that case, an operative named Ramzi Yousef and a handful of explosive experts mixed a urea nitrate bomb in an apartment in Brooklyn. Leo West, a former explosives expert with the FBI, says it would be hard to launch that kind of operation now.
Mr. LEO WEST (Former Explosives Expert, FBI): The security has improved so much that it's become very difficult for these people to get into the country.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Without a team, terrorist groups have been forced to rely on just one or two people at a time and then hope to get lucky. And there's one more hurdle.
Even if the plans aligned and someone made a bomb, West says he or she would then have to test the device to make sure it worked - and that attracts attention.
Mr. WEST: That testing phase, as well as the target selection and surveillance phase, those are the phases of the operation where the bomber is most vulnerable to being found out or uncovered.
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to officials close to the case, the suspect in the Times Square bombing never tested his car bomb. He just assumed it would work. It didn't. The fireworks he hoped to use as part of the detonator wouldn't have ignited in a chain reaction.
The fertilizer he bought wasn't the kind that blew up. The kind that does has been regulated since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And the Time Square bomber allegedly had hands-on training in Pakistan.
That isn't to say that terrorist organizations have given up. They're still trying to reach into America and find someone who's capable of succeeding where others have failed.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.