In July 2011, a 21-year-old Army private entered the gun store of retired police sergeant Greg Ebert, laid six canisters of smokeless gun powder – an unusually large amount for an individual purchase – on the counter, and asked Ebert: “What’s smokeless powder?” Ebert knew the powder could be used as an explosive, and that the canisters selected by the man had different burn rates, which would make them highly volatile if mixed together.
Ebert had reason to be vigilant – it was at his store that the alleged Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nadal Hasan, had bought the weapons he later used to kill 13 people. Though there was nothing illegal about the man’s purchase, the encounter still bothered Ebert at the end of the day, and he reported it to police.
The result of Ebert’s report was the arrest of Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, who was AWOL from Fort Campbell, Ky., and the discovery of bombmaking materials at the hotel room where Abdo was staying. Abdo had also purchased a uniform with Fort Hood patches at a nearby military surplus store.
Abdo was charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device and has yet to enter a plea. During his court hearing, Abdo defiantly shouted out Nadal Hasan’s name; according to court papers, his plan was to build two bombs and detonate them at a nearby restaurant popular with Fort Hood soldiers.
In one significant way, the foiled terrorist plot was reminiscent of the attempted car bombing of Times Square on May 1, 2010, which was disrupted by two street vendors who saw smoke coming from the vehicle’s trunk – the bomb had been ignited – and notified a patrolman from the New York Police Department. Though the bomb failed to detonate, the prompt evacuation of the surrounding area might have prevented casualties if it had worked as planned by the bomber, 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad.
In Killeen and in Times Square, three ordinary citizens who saw something suspicious and notified local authorities helped to eliminate the possibility that people would die in terrorist attacks. It was success stories such as these, in part, that motivated the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the weeks prior to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, to expand its nationwide public awareness campaign with a series of public service announcements (PSAs) encouraging the public to contact local authorities if they see suspicious activity.
A Nationwide Campaign
The “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign is not new, but was inspired by a local campaign that began across New York City subways and buses in the wake of 9/11. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the rights to the campaign and its memorable tagline, has licensed it to DHS for the department’s antiterrorism and anti-crime efforts.