Food Trucks: The Next Terrorist Threat

In a fit of fearmongering reminiscent of the Mobile Bioweapons Labs used to get us into the Iraq War, FDNY did a report last month warning about the use of food trucks by terrorists. (Via Government Security News, h/t G.W.Schulz) The chief worry seems to be that food trucks carry 20 pound propane cylinders, get close to important landmarks, and would serve as an easy surveillance platform.

But some of the other things the report warns about are the fact that “roach coaches” are increasingly being replaced by gourmet carts and ESPN’s food cart has a large screen TV.

Apparently, in addition to Ford being a suspected terrorist, ESPN is now a suspected front for a terrorist surveillance operation, complete with large screen TV showing sports?

The thing is, in addition to threatening burgeoning small business growth, this fearmongering presents another problem: the last two real terrorist plots in NYC.

As Schulz pointed out, the guy who thwarted Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to blow up Times Square was street vendor Duane Jackson, not the NYPD, which was instead busy profiling Muslim-owned businesses rather than the 7-11 that might have led to Shahzad’s hawala. And while Jackson’s handbag cart probably doesn’t have propane tanks, if we start treating street vendors generally as subjects of suspicion, we’re less likely to see the cooperation that Jackson gave.

Food trucks may make great surveillance platforms, but that’s true of citizen observers like Jackson as much as terrorists.

Then there’s the other real terrorist attempt in NYC since 9/11: Najibullah Zazi’s thwarted plot to attack the subway. Before he gave it up to become a terrorist, Zazi ran his father’s food cart in the financial district.

For years, he was a fixture in Lower Manhattan, as regular as the sunrise. Every morning, Najibullah Zazi would be there on Stone Street with his pastries and his coffee, his vending cart anchored to the sidewalk.

For many on Wall Street — young, old, all in a hurry, the charging bulls of Bowling Green — his was the first hello of the day. Affable and rooted, he lived for 10 years in the same apartment with his family in Flushing, Queens. His father drove a cab for more than 15 years.

He was, in other words, no brooding outcast, no sheltered, suggestible loner raised in a closed community.

He was the smiling man who remembered a customer liked his coffee large, light and sweet. He had a “God Bless America” sign on his cart. He was the doughnut man.

But rather than just blowing up his cart and a bunch of banksters, Zazi dropped the cart, flew to Pakistan, learned how to make explosives, moved to CO, bought a lot of hair care products, and then got picked up calling a known terrorist in Pakistan, whereupon the FBI caught him before he finished making his explosives.

Obviously, a smart terrorist isn’t going to follow Zazi’s plan to the letter. But it just shows that even someone with the intent and the coffee cart isn’t necessarily going to use that cart to kill people, even bankster people.

Look, I think it’s a great idea for the FDNY to have a good idea of what fuels well-outfitted food trucks have on them and what jerry rigged ones have, because they do, occasionally and apparently accidentally, blow up.

But that’s a threat independent of the terrorists lurking behind ESPN’s large screen TV. And if we turn all the food truck vendors (who of course often are immigrants) into potential terrorists, we’re going to alienate citizen observers like Jackson.

Sometimes a doughnut cart is just a doughnut cart.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    What I’m trying to wrap my head around is why the “gourmet” trucks would be more likely to have terrists. After all, ones like the ESPN truck in the photo are likely to have large, very white, very conservative corporations behind them, while the more traditional “roach coach” is likely to be owned by individual brown people.

  2. OrionATL says:

    this is just nuts!

    but then, when you create a bureaucratic institution or division with “security” as a dominant professional concern, you always run the high risk of that institution behaving foolishly, wasting large sums of money, being authoritarian or brutal, and improperly suppressing liberties.

    this is true for any government system, any nation, any time period.

    our constitution and its enforcers, the federal judges, is supposed to be a counter-balance to this inevitable misconduct.

    but between having being stuffed by the republican party with right-wing authoritarians on the one hand, and having a full complement of cowardly justices whose first obligation seems to be to protect themselves and their branch of government on the other,

    security bureaucracy misconduct has become a no-risk, full-time business in the good ole u.s. of a.

  3. What Constitution? says:

    Those Homeland guys, always thinkin’. I’m certain we need to be protected against people who might have a flammable/explosive cannister of propane in their vehicle. But wait — I remember once hearing something about another flammable substance called, um, “gasoline”. What if the Terraists start utilizing modes of transportation which contain significant amounts of that substance? It might be stored in a, how do you say, “gas tank”? Or even a “Five gallon can”? And placed in a vehicle capable of moving around a city or on streets? Get outta here! No wonder Ford Motor Company is suspect. Gonna need a bigger computer.

  4. Arbusto says:

    Don’t tell me the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Bureau, a wholly owned subsidiary of the CIA, has a NYFD desk too?

  5. lefty665 says:

    @What Constitution?: Yeah, yeah, but if you put wings on it, it’s already been done. It’s derivative and so 2001.:) The scary part is that you’ve given the geniuses at DHS a new threat to obsess over. Thanks a lot What Constitution, next thing you know we’ll be taking off our gas tanks before getting on the highway to drive to work. It’ll be all your fault.

    Biological warfare on the other hand may be a slipperier and stealthier (SBD) threat. It builds off already proven Roach Coach technology that’s been honed, perfected and in place for decades…. E. coli, Salmonella, Lysteria. Bribe a few sanitarians and you’ve got weapons of ass destruction that can turn a profit. It’s a Repub twofer, it makes money and it gets Gubmnt off the backsides of the Amurican people by reducing regulation. Hoist on their own perturd if you will. It could give Wall Street a profoundly new appreciation of what it means to be an asshole.

    Thanks WC for the opportunity to play off your riff:)

  6. marksb says:

    Late to the party here, and are there any more tacos?

    I once upon a time owned a propane filling business. It’s hard as hell to blow up a tank. These tanks are made of welded steel and require some serious impact to puncture and release the gas, and then it’s usually a point puncture and you get (if there’s a flame near) a torch. You can do it, sure, but it takes some serious explosive action and you still have to get very lucky. WC is correct–gasoline tanks are way more practical as explosive devices.

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