Questions on airport drama in Times Square plotBy Michael Amon, Tom Brune, Anthony M. DeStefano, Robert E. Kessler, Elizabeth Moore and Pervaiz Shallwani
May 5, 2010
A fast-moving investigation that ended with the arrest of Faisal Shahzad in the Times Square attempted car bombing drew questions Tuesday about how he was able to board a flight bound for Dubai and whether the armed suspect had eluded investigators' surveillance efforts for several hours Monday evening.
Shahzad, a naturalized citizen who returned to Connecticut in February after receiving explosives training in Pakistan, apparently managed to duck investigators tracking him on Monday, said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
By the time Shahzadwas found again, at 11 p.m. Monday he was at Kennedy Airport and onboard the flight that was leaving in minutes. He was then removed from the plane and arrested - 53 hours after the attempted bombing on Saturday, investigators said.
Said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: "Clearly the guy was on the plane and shouldn't have been. We got lucky.""The FBI lost him," said King, recently named the House Republican chief spokesman on national security. "He got on the plane and was not detected."
That allegation was not directly addressed at a Washington news conference yesterday, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said authorities were never in danger of losing the suspect.
On Monday, Shahzad had been placed on the federal no-fly list, but the notification that the Transportation Security Administration had sent about it to the airlines had not arrived in time to trigger an automatic alert by 11 p.m. when he boarded the plane, a federal official said.
The Customs and Border Patrol officials discovered his intentions to leave the United States when they received the passenger manifest from Emirates airline.
Last night, The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration played down the fact that Shahzad, a U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, had made it aboard the plane. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wouldn't address that point, other than to say U.S. Customs officials, once they confirmed Shahzad was aboard the Dubai flight, prevented the plane from taking off. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the security system has fallback procedures in place for times like this, and they worked.
Asked if investigators lost Shahzad, FBI New York Field office spokesman Richard Kolko said, "This was a complicated and fast-moving investigation . . . We are not going to discuss specific operations."
Held on terrorism charges
Shahzad, 30, was being held yesterday on federal terrorism and weapons of mass destruction charges. A gun - a .9mm Kel-Tec folding rifle purchased legally in Connecticut - was found in the trunk of his Isuzu Rodeo parked at the airport.
Holder said Shahzad admitted his involvement in the bombing attempt and was providing "useful information." Holder said the bomb-laden sport utility vehicle left in Times Square would have caused "death and destruction" in the heart of New York City's tourist center.
"It is clear that this was a terrorist plot aimed at murdering Americans in one of the busiest places in our country," Holder said.
Shahzad's arraignment in federal court was postponed until later this week because he is cooperating with authorities, officials said. Shahzad was initially questioned without being informed of his right to remain silent under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, said John Pistole, the FBI's deputy director.
Shahzad later was taken away from the airport and was read his rights and continued talking, Pistole said.
According to court records, calls from Pakistan were placed to a prepaid Verizon Wireless phone card used by Shahzad just before he bought the 1993 Nissan
Pathfinder later found parked in Times Square, loaded with explosives, according to court records. After his arrest, Shahzad told investigators that he received bomb training in Waziristan, a lawless tribal region in Pakistan known as a haven for terrorists and the Taliban.
President Barack Obama said the FBI is investigating potential ties between Shahzad and terrorist groups. A Pakistani security official told Reuters that members of Shahzad's family were detained but it was not clear if they had been charged.
Court records yesterday opened a small window onto a complex investigation involving cash transactions, stolen license plates and legally purchased bomb ingredients. The plot unraveled over a period of about 53 hours, each piece of evidence bringing them a little closer to Shahzad.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the first breakthrough came simply enough when Det. John Wright crawled under the Pathfinder and found its identification number around 7:30 a.m. on Sunday. The car's license plates, while not reported stolen, were registered to another vehicle in a repair shop, police said.
Evidence leads to suspect
The VIN number enabled investigators to find the owner of record, a 19-year-old Bridgeport woman, who told detectives that afternoon that she sold the car on April 24 to a Hispanic or Middle Eastern man who responded to an Internet advertisement and paid in 13 $100 bills.
But investigators were still unsure who the buyer was and had only a prepaid wireless cell phone number used to respond to the car ad. The phone records for that number contained no names but were revealing nonetheless: four phone calls to the number from Pakistan, according to court records.
Through undisclosed means, investigators discovered the Pakistani phone number was "associated" with Shahzad, court records show. Pistole said that the U.S.
Customs and Border Patrol agency reviewed Shahzad's "extensive overseas travel," which "fully identified" him by Sunday night.
On Monday morning before 11 a.m., investigators showed the woman who sold the Pathfinder six pictures, according to court records and an official. She picked out Shahzad's mug shot without hesitation.
By 3 p.m. that day, Shahzad was under surveillance and on the no-fly list, law enforcement officials said.. He then evaded surveillance, King said, and then drove in his black SUV from Bridgeport to Kennedy Airport on Monday night.
Law enforcement officials said yesterday agents were on the lookout for Shahzad on flight manifests at regional and international airports - but his name appeared at the last minute because he booked his ticket just before the flight and paid in cash.
Emirates airline officials said they contacted law enforcement about Shahzad after he paid cash, a red flag.
"The bottom line is, we were able to identify, locate and detain Mr. Shahzad," Pistole said at yesterday's news conference with Holder.