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Conn. man arrested in Times Square bomb attempt

A police car sits outside the former home

A police car sits outside the former home of terror suspect Faisal Shahzad in Shelton, Conn. (May 4, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

A Connecticut man who recently returned from his native Pakistan and paid cash for a Nissan Pathfinder later rigged to explode in Times Square was arrested Monday night at Kennedy Airport as he was trying to board a flight for Dubai, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said early Tuesday.

Holder identified the suspect as Faisal Shahzad, 30, a naturalized American citizen.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and New York City police detectives from the Joint Terrorism Task Force made the arrest at about 11:45 p.m. after Shahzad was identified by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agents at the airport, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. He was attempting to board Emirates Airlines Flight 202.

That flight, which was to depart to Dubai at 11 p.m., finally took off at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Emirates Airlines web site.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said agents were alerted to Shahzad, who is believed to have most recently been living in Bridgeport, Conn., because he was on a watchlist of potential terrorists.

Shahzad is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan on Pearl Street, officials said.

“Tonight’s arrest of Faisal Shahzad is a tremendous victory for the American people,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), ranking Republican member of the Committee on Homeland Security. “This is a vivid reminder of the deadly and continuing threat of Islamic terrorism to the United States and particularly to the people of New York.”

Holder said Shahzad had planned “a deadly attack, had it been successful.”

“It is clear that the intent behind this terrorist attack was to kill Americans,” he said.

Multiple news reports said Shahzad paid cash three weeks ago to buy the Nissan used in Saturday’s attempted bombing.

The Pakistani connection provides possible evidence that the botched bombing in the heart of New York City had international ties. Shahzad was reportedly identified with the help of fingerprints found inside the Nissan, according to an official who has been briefed by investigators.

One official said as many as three people were involved in the purchase of the materials inside the Pathfinder.

Earlier, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said more than one person may have been involved but it was too early to say. “I am not at a juncture to make that sort of determination,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a statement Tuesday praising the investigative work that led to Shahzad's arrest.

“I want to thank the men and women of the NYPD, the FBI, the U.S. attorney's Southern District of New York, customs and border protections and many other agencies in New York, Washington and Connecticut whose focus and swift efforts led to the arrest after just 48 hours of around-the -clock investigation. I hope their impressive work serves as a lesson to anyone who would do us harm.”

Shahzad lived in a two-story gray house on Long Hill Avenue in Shelton, Conn., near Bridgeport, until a year ago, said next-door neighbor Brenda Thurman, 37. She said law enforcement personnel had been at the house, now vacant and in the midst of a foreclosure, early Monday.

Thurman said when she moved in four years ago, Shahzad was already living next door with wife, two young children, a girl and a boy, and his wife’s two sisters. He disappeared last May and the rest of family was gone by July.

Shahzad told Thurman’s husband that he worked on Wall Street. The family didn’t leave the house often, she said, and didn’t mingle with others in the neighborhood much when they did go out. But she said she had some interaction with the family because her daughter played with Shahzad’s daughter.

Just before 5 a.m. Tuesday, officials with the FBI said they had served a search warrant on a house in Bridgeport that they said was connected to the Times Square bombing.

Law enforcement had cordoned off an area around the intersection of Sheridan Street and Boston Avenue around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday. About a dozen Sheridan Street residents were evacuated to a nearby high school, according to a Red Cross official at the scene.

The evacuated residents were allowed back to their homes at roughly 4 a.m., according to the Red Cross official.

With the search complete, FBI officials said the public was safe, but did not precisely explain how the work was related to the investigation or take questions. A section of Sheridan remained cordoned off at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The SUV — rigged with firecrackers, propane tanks, gasoline and a nonexplosive grade of fertilizer — was found emitting smoke and making popping noises as it idled without a driver on busy West 45th Street near Seventh Avenue on what was a warm spring Saturday evening. The explosives did not detonate properly.

On Sunday, a group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the attempted attack, a claim authorities said was not supported by any evidence gathered so far.

The big breakthrough was the discovery of the Nissan’s vehicle identification number, which led to the identification of the registered owner of the SUV, Browne said. That person has been interviewed and is not a suspect, police said.

The VIN discovery “was a pivotal development,” Browne said. "The VIN led us to the registered owner, to the intermediary seller, to the suspect.”

The intermediary seller was a relative of the registered owner, he explained. “He (the suspect) thought by removing the VIN by the window and using the license plate he would avoid detection.”

On a day of fast-breaking developments, the White House called Saturday’s attempted attack an act of “terrorism.” And New York City police officials said they were no longer looking for more video of a man seen changing his shirt near the SUV, as the focus of the probe shifted to the Connecticut man.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the New York City metro area has received about $2 billion in federal anti-terror funding. The Times Square bombing attempt has New York officials calling for even more homeland security funds to prevent another terrorist attack.

Sen. Charles Schumer yesterday called for “hundreds of millions of dollars” to be spent immediately on developing explosive detection devices and technology that, he said, could be installed at major bridges, tunnels, highway toll plazas and other key transportation hubs.

Schumer’s proposal was just one of several new initiatives — including a stepped-up surveillance program in midtown Manhattan — that officials suggest could have helped detect the explosives-packed SUV.

In seeking more help from the federal government, Saturday’s terror scare “maybe will give us the opportunity” to increase anti-terror funding for several measures, said King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security subcommittee. Among the anti-terror efforts both Schumer and King support are full funding for the “Securing the Cities” program to protect against makeshift nuclear devices.

For the past two years, the Obama administration has tried to eliminate that funding. Officials claim the $37 million in unspent funds will carry the program through the year.

They also are pushing for money to improve security — including the installation of more surveillance cameras — in the Times Square area. That plan, based on a program under way in Lower Manhattan, could cost as much as $50 million, King said.

King also wants to “harden” transit tunnels under the Hudson and East River, and to focus on escape routes for passengers in the event of a disaster. Estimates are that could cost as much as $100 million.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t respond directly to Schumer and King’s proposals. But in the past year, spokesman Matthew Chandler said, the DHS has paid out more than $250 million to New York City to fight terrorism and other security threats.

Other experts said Saturday’s failed car bombing should prompt New York officials to call for more counter-terrorism funding. But they said increased spending can only do so much to prevent such attacks.

“Are we spending enough? Probably not. Can you stop a random, isolated incident? No, I don’t think so,” said Joseph King, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former U.S. Customs and Department of Homeland Security official who specialized in counterterrorism.
But Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. terror expert, said spending more money on high-tech devices like body-temperature scanners that can detect explosives underneath clothing probably are worth the investment. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Jenkins said, there have been about 125 deaths from eight terror attacks within civil aviation worldwide — but some 2,500 fatalities from more than a 1,000 local terror attacks using car bombs and similar devices.

Jenkins said post-9/11 anti-terror technology has made significant strides in recent years.

“The technology is there now and it’s been tested,” he said about the explosives detection devices.

Also Monday, President Barack Obama telephoned Times Square vendor Duane Jackson to commend him for his vigilance and for quickly alerting mounted NYPD Officer Wayne Rhatigan of Holbrook about the smoking SUV Saturday.

A White House official said Obama also “plans to call Officer Rhatigan to extend his thanks personally.”

“The president conveyed his appreciation for the first responders and Officer Rhatigan to Mayor Bloomberg in a phone call Sunday and Mayor Bloomberg said he’d extend those thanks over dinner.”

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