By Scott Wilson and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; A01
The car bomb discovered in Times Square would probably have killed or maimed many people, police officials and federal investigators said Sunday as they began assembling evidence collected from the homemade device, video surveillance footage and the vehicle itself to determine who attempted the attack on a warm spring evening in the heart of New York City.
Investigators acknowledged that much about the bombing attempt, the most serious in the United States since the Christmas Day incident aboard a commercial flight bound for Detroit, remains a mystery. That includes whether an organized group or a determined individual was responsible and whether an intelligence review will turn up clues that pointed to a possible attack.
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at an afternoon news conference that the bomb found in a Nissan Pathfinder on Saturday night was "a sober reminder that New York is a target for people who want to come here and do us harm." He said the device would have sent up a fireball from the center of a popular tourist landmark known to have symbolic importance for militant groups at war with the United States.
In a statement, police said the other components still were "certainly capable of producing human casualties and broken windows but not enough to take down a structure," according to NYPD bomb squad experts.
The Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility in a video posted on YouTube. Kelly and federal investigators said no evidence had surfaced linking the group to the bomb.
On Sunday night, a second video was posted by apparent representatives of the Pakistan Taliban, this one showing its commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, promising to launch attacks in the United States, according to Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant at Flashpoint Partners.
Mehsud, who U.S. and Pakistan authorities initially believed was killed in January drone strike, was recorded saying, "The time is very near when our fedayeen will attack the American states in their major cities." He adds: "Our fedayeen have penetrated the terrorist America, we will give extremely painful blows to the fanatic America . . . in some days or a month's time."
The video is marked with the logo of the TTP official media wing, Umar Studios, and appears to be credible, Kohlmann said.
Investigators poring over hundreds of hours of surveillance video from New York identified a man Kelly described as white and in his 40s, who appeared to be acting suspiciously in an alley near the bomb's location. Police also identified the owner of the Pathfinder but did not release his name.
"Obviously, it wasn't an accident," Kelly said. "It was somebody who brought this to the location to send a message, to terrorize people in the area."
As the investigation unfolded, the White House said President Obama was closely monitoring its progress as he toured the Gulf Coast to assess the threat posed by the widening oil spill. Administration officials said Obama was notified of the incident Saturday evening as he attended the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, soon after vendors alerted police to the locked and smoking Pathfinder parked in a bustling Times Square.
"We're going to do what's necessary to protect the American people, to determine who is behind this potentially deadly act, and to see that justice is done," Obama told reporters in Venice, La.
The warning triggered a police response that Obama praised for its speed and efficiency. In the rear of the SUV, police found a makeshift bomb made up of three tanks of propane similar to those used in backyard barbecues; two jugs of gasoline; dozens of M-88 firecrackers, which are legal for purchase in some states, and metal gun case holding 100 pounds of fertilizer that police said was incapable of exploding.
The search for suspects extended to airports. Transportation Security Administration officials began additional screening Sunday of passengers boarding domestic and international flights from the Boston, New York and Philadelphia areas. The measure was likened to draping a secure "perimeter" around areas within easy driving distance of potential suspect or suspects fleeing New York, another U.S. official said.
The TSA earlier Sunday stepped up security at airports along the East Coast.
A federal law enforcement official who is an expert on explosives noted that the propane tanks had not been twisted open, meaning that it would have taken longer for the fire in the car to heat up to the degree needed to ignite the fuel. Still, New York police investigators said the car bomb would have torn the car apart and caused "sizable" deaths and injuries if it had detonated.
Also of interest is the triggering mechanism, which Kelly described as a can filled with 20 to 30 M-88s. Investigators were also studying alarm clocks and batteries that appeared to be part of the device. After reviewing footage from scores of video cameras, police think the car entered the area at 6:28 p.m. and within minutes was discovered by vendors.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that tracks extremist Web sites, a YouTube video allegedly released by the Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing. The clip included English subtitles and audio purportedly voiced by Qari Hussein Mehsud, whom officials describe as the organizer of the group's suicide-bomb squad.
SITE said the video states that the attack was retribution for the recent killing of two al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq and for U.S. military actions in Pakistan, particularly the assassinations conducted by U.S. drone aircraft. Terrorism analysts cautioned that the group might be asserting responsibility for propaganda value.
"Over the past week or so, every faction, from al-Shabaab in Somalia on down the list, has issued statements mourning the deaths of these guys in Iraq, saying, 'We're going to avenge them, vengeance is coming,' " Kohlmann said.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said Sunday that FBI investigators are following "the history of the vehicle," but that the effort has "turned up nothing" definitive. Fingerprints and a vehicle identification number were recovered. The license plate had apparently been taken from another vehicle; it was traced to a Connecticut auto shop, whose owner is not under suspicion.
Officials noted that the attempted car bombing took place about one block from the headquarters of Viacom, which owns the Comedy Central cable channel. Last month, the channel's animated program "South Park" received threats from Islamist groups after an episode that portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a satiric light.
Staff writers Colum Lynch and Tomoeh Murakami Tse in New York, Anne E. Kornblut aboard Air Force One, and Jerry Markon, Greg Miller, Sandhya Somashekhar, Joby Warrick, and Josh White and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.