TOPICS > Politics

Times Square Bomb Plot ‘Aimed at Murdering Americans,’ Holder Says

May 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A Pakistani-American man faces terrorism and weapons of mass destruction charges over the failed bomb plot in New York City's Times Square over the weekend. Jeffrey Brown talks to a reporter for more on the charges and the security implications for the city.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A flurry of action brought the Times Square bombing investigation to a head today. The prime suspect was charged in federal court in New York City, after being arrested late last night.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: This is the man captured at New York’s Kennedy Airport last night, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old American citizen born in Pakistan.

In Washington, today, Attorney General Eric Holder said the suspect has admitted his role in last Saturday’s failed car bombing in Times Square.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: He has been and continues to be questioned by federal agents. As a result of those communications, Shahzad has provided useful information to authorities.

Based on what we know so far, it is clear that this was a terrorist plot aimed at murdering Americans in one of the busiest places in our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shahzad was arrested shortly after midnight aboard this airliner just before it was to take off for Dubai. Moments after the jet pulled away from the gate, federal agents recalled it and took Shahzad into custody. He had been placed on a U.S. no-fly list hours earlier, but, today, Attorney General Holder dismissed suggestions that he almost got away.

ERIC HOLDER: I was here all yesterday and through much of last night, and was aware of the tracking that was going on. And I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him.

KWAME HOLMAN: In Manhattan this afternoon, Shahzad was formally charged with terrorism and use of weapons of mass destruction. Prosecutors alleged he charged he drove this Nissan Pathfinder sport utility vehicle packed with gasoline, propane and fireworks explosives into Times Square Saturday night.

Street vendors saw smoke and alerted police, who then evacuated the area and defused the crude device. Officials at the Justice Department in Washington say it was the SUV that provided a critical clue. They tracked the vehicle to its registered owner, who put the truck up for sale on the Internet and allegedly sold it to Shahzad for $1,300 in cash.

MAN: That honestly scares me, how he lives so close to me.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shahzad recently had returned to Bridgeport, Connecticut, from a five-month stay in Pakistan visiting his wife. Today, investigators continued searching the Bridgeport house for clues.

President Obama said those clues could provide insight into any ties to militant organizations.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The American people can be assured that the FBI and their partners in this process have all the tools and experience they need to learn everything we can. And that includes what, if any, connection this individual has to terrorist groups.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the plot, but U.S. officials were skeptical. Investigators say the accused bomber told them he trained at a terrorist camp in Pakistan and acted alone. And the Pakistani embassy in Washington said he was a disturbed individual.

But intelligence officials in Pakistan said today they have detained several other people in connection with the case. And, back in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cautioned against using the incident as an excuse.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, mayor of New York: I want to make clear that we will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers. All of us live in this city, and among any group, there is always a few bad apples.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York City police said this was the 11th time that a plot to attack the city has been disrupted since 9/11.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we turn first to Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek magazine. He joins us from New York.

Mark, you just came out of the courtroom where charges against Faisal Shahzad are being filed. Describe the scene for us. I gather he himself is not expected to appear today.

MARK HOSENBALL, Newsweek: Well, no, he’s not going to appear today. I have had that authoritatively confirmed to me by officials.

There was about, I don’t know, 20 reporters there. And we just sat there and sat there and sat there for three hours while other cases were called, and then nobody told us anything. Nobody said he’s going to be on. Nobody said he wasn’t going to be on. But, at about 5:00, basically, everybody left, having concluded it wasn’t going to happen today.

I’m told it may not even happen tomorrow. It does appear one of the reasons, at least, is that he’s still talking to investigators, or vice versa.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you did learn, I guess, more today about how the government tracked him down. Tell us what you have learned.

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, you know, the government found — somebody tried to delete or obliterate the vehicle identification number on the SUV that he rigged up with the bomb, but the government examined all the parts of the SUV, and they found this VIN, unique identifier for the vehicle and its parts, on the engine block.

Through that, they traced the last registered owner of the vehicle. Through the registered owner of the vehicle, they were — managed to identify Shahzad as a potential suspect. They ran him down. They did some searches. They found that he had actually taken some precautions to hide his tracks.

He paid for the vehicle in cash. He used, to call Pakistan, a throwaway cell phone that he apparently bought, and also to ring the fireworks store in Pennsylvania where he bought some of the detonating materials for the bomb.

He — when he bought the vehicle, it apparently didn’t have blacked-out windows, but, by the time it was planted in Times Square, it did have blacked-out windows. So he took some precautions to cover his tracks and to conceal the bomb.

But the bomb itself was made ridiculously incompetently. As I — it’s unclear to me to what extent they were tracking him. As I understand it, he was placed on a no-fly list. And then, when he arrived at the airport, they noticed his name on a passenger list for this plane, and they actually grabbed him before he got on the plane, not — not afterwards.

And the reason why they pulled the plane back to the gate after it had taxied away was because they wanted — the FBI wanted to interview two other people on the plane. Shahzad was already in custody, according to the latest account that I have heard.

Not all of that makes complete sense to me, but it’s still interesting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what — what — while a lot of things still — still to be worked out here, but what do we know from the complaint that you were — that was put out in court? And from the reporting today, what more do we know about him and his ties to Pakistan?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, what we know is, as your reporter said, that he’s a Pakistani-born person, apparently came to the United States, was naturalized about a year ago, spent the last five months, roughly, in Pakistan — or — no — spent the last five months late last year in Pakistan, arrived back in the United States with a one-way ticket in February of this year, apparently embarked on this plot.

It says in the federal complaint that he told investigators when he was picked up at the airport that he was trained in bomb-making in Waziristan. It doesn’t say by whom. As you reported, the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for this attack.

And while, indeed, the United States government and various agencies rejected those claims as almost laughable two or three days ago, they now think they’re increasingly plausible, because they’re now saying the guy was in Waziristan. And it’s certainly the case that the Pakistani Taliban operates in Waziristan.

Again, not all the parts fit together neatly yet, but it seems that this picture is building of at least somebody who had contact with a genuine terrorist group abroad, and was trained by them, had some sympathy for them, but maybe not trained so good, and maybe not very competent himself. Maybe this shows something about, you know, when these groups which are — have a history of operating locally try to reach out beyond their local areas of operation, they’re not so good at carrying it out. But, of course, they can get better.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one — and one last piece of the puzzle I want to ask you about is — is in Bridgeport, the investigation that continues into his activities there. What more can you tell us?

MARK HOSENBALL: I don’t really know much about that. I haven’t been up there yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, then I will let you go, then. Thanks for — thanks for joining us.

MARK HOSENBALL: Thank you.