Race to Track Clues in TimeBy DEVLIN BARRETT, EVAN PEREZ And SEAN GARDINER
Wall Street Journal
May 5, 2010
From the moment a makeshift car bomb popped and fizzled in New York's Times Square on Saturday night, it took investigators 53 frenetic hours to find the man accused of the crime—and by the time they caught up to him he was minutes from leaving U.S. soil.
Federal agents raced Monday to stop a midnight flight to the Middle East once they learned their prime suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was on board. The plane was boarding but hadn't left the gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport when Mr. Shahzad was taken into custody.
Agents reached Mr. Shahzad minutes before the flight's scheduled departure. "I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him," Attorney General Eric Holder said. U.S. officials said that even if the plane had departed with Mr. Shahzad aboard, they could have ordered it to return.
The clock began ticking for investigators the moment a street vendor noticed a rusty 1993 Nissan Pathfinder parked askew, its engine running and smoke billowing behind its tinted windows.
Inside, authorities found a makeshift, malfunctioning bomb, sparking an official reaction that paralyzed midtown Manhattan for hours and sent the nation's counterterrorism apparatus into high gear.
Within about 24 hours, investigators had traced the crudely fashioned device built of alarm clocks, fireworks and fuel back to a handful of possible suspects, including Mr. Shahzad, a financially strapped 30-year-old husband and father.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Mr. Shahzad had recently returned to Connecticut from a months-long stay in Pakistan. He had a ticket back to Pakistan when he was removed from the Monday night flight.
The car bomb was a dud, and that was part of the reason for Mr. Shahzad's relatively quick capture. Because the vehicle that carried the device had not exploded, it was relatively easy to locate an identification number.
By late Sunday, less than 24 hours after the bomb was discovered, authorities had tracked the vehicle to a college student in Connecticut who had recently sold it to a man for cash.
The seller didn't know the man's name, but she did have an email message from him, which gave authorities Mr. Shahzad's cellphone number. A review of the man's phone records gave agents reason to worry he might have been acting in concert with people overseas.
By late Sunday, according to officials, Mr. Shahzad's name was one of several considered key to the case, and authorities were looking for him.
By about 11 a.m. Monday, investigators suspected that Mr. Shahzad was the man who drove the bomb-laden Pathfinder into Times Square. Finding him became the investigation's top priority.
Agents staking out his last known address spotted him at about 3 p.m. Monday returning home from a store, according to a police official. They didn't move in to arrest him.
As they hung back, a handful of news organizations arrived in the neighborhood, according to people familiar with the case.
At some point, Mr. Shahzad slipped away from his home without investigators noticing, three federal officials confirmed. Why or how the suspect snuck away isn't clear.
One concern being raised among law-enforcement officials is that the media presence in the neighborhood may have tipped off Mr. Shahzad and prompted him to sneak away. "When there's a satellite truck down the street, what do you expect?" one official said.
"This was a textbook investigation," said Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. "The only error I could see was that he appears to have escaped surveillance for several hours." Mr. King said too much information about the suspect had leaked out anonymously on Monday, and suggested that may have tipped off Mr. Shahzad.
FBI Deputy Director John Pistole downplayed any chance that Mr. Shahzad could have gotten away. "The bottom line was, we were able to identify, locate and then detain Mr. Shahzad," he told reporters Tuesday.
An official familiar with the investigation denied that FBI leaks caused the media presence. "Why in the world would the FBI tell the media where he lived?" the official said. "There's nothing more damaging to an ongoing investigation than a premature disclosure."
In another close call, Mr. Shahzad's name was added Monday afternoon to the internal government list of people not permitted to fly out of the country. But Mr. Shahzad had already made a flight reservation by the time his name was put on the list, so it didn't immediately register with airline security.
He arrived at the airport Monday evening and paid for his ticket in cash, officials said, leaving behind his car with a 9mm inside.
At that point, one of the changes in airport security procedures put in place since a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane helped authorities zero in on the fleeing suspect before the flight could leave.
In that case, alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a U.S.-bound flight in Amsterdam even though U.S. intelligence officials had some information about him.
Since then, customs personnel have accelerated their checking of flight manifests against the so-called "no-fly" list. That quicker turnaround helped authorities spot Mr. Shahzad's name before the flight had taken off, officials said.
Once he was in custody, officials questioned him and he provided valuable information, according to Mr. Holder.
Over a period of hours, according to an official, Mr. Shahzad described his journey within the past year to Pakistan for explosives training. But he said he acted alone in the attempted attack in Times Square, officials said.