By Anne E. Kornblut, Jerry Markon and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A01
A man was arrested late Monday night in connection with the failed Times Square bombing, administration officials said. The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Pakistan, allegedly purchased the sport utility vehicle that authorities found packed with explosives in New York on Saturday night.
He was arrested by Customs and Border Patrol agents at JFK International Airport as he tried to board a flight to Dubai. Authorities became aware of his identity Monday afternoon.
An FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had taken over the investigation Monday amid growing indications of a possible international connection, U.S. officials and law enforcement sources said.
Shahzad, who lived in Connecticut, is believed to have used cash to purchase the Nissan Pathfinder that was set ablaze but failed to detonate Saturday night on a tourist-crowded block in Midtown Manhattan.
Investigators and agents also were scouring international phone records showing calls "between some of the people who might be associated with this and folks overseas," according to a U.S. official who has discussed the case with intelligence officers. Investigators uncovered evidence -- a piece of paper, fingerprints or possibly both -- that also indicates international ties, according to a federal official briefed on the investigation. The material points to "an individual who causes concern to [investigators], who has overseas connections, and they are looking for him," the official said.
An overseas angle does not necessarily mean that the incident was planned or financed by al-Qaeda or another organized group, investigators said. "Think smaller," said one senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Even as investigators emphasized that the probe is in its early stages and little is definitively known, they pursued what Obama administration officials characterized as a flood of new leads, both foreign and domestic. The Pathfinder's registered owner, for example, told investigators that he sold it several weeks ago to a stranger, in a cash transaction through Craigslist.
On a day of fast-moving developments from Manhattan to Washington, President Obama was repeatedly briefed on what a senior administration official called "a very active investigation.'' Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in the morning that it was too early to designate the failed bombing as an attempted terrorist incident. By afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was calling it just that.
"I would say that was intended to terrorize, and I would say that whomever did that would be categorized as a terrorist," Gibbs said, sharpening the administration's tone.
Differences also emerged over the significance of a surveillance video that caught a man in his 40s changing his shirt in an alley and looking over his shoulder near where the Pathfinder was parked. New York City police officials had characterized the man as acting suspiciously, but multiple federal law enforcement officials said he may not be the focus of the investigation.
"It looks like he was just taking off his shirt because he was hot," said one law enforcement official. Investigators were seeking to find another person captured on video running north on Broadway away from the area where the smoking sport-utility vehicle caused an evacuation of Times Square on a crowded weekend night.
Police said the bomb would have created a fireball that likely would have killed or wounded many people, making it the most serious bombing attempt in the United States since the Christmas Day attack aboard a commercial flight bound for Detroit.
The growing evidence of terrorist connections in the Times Square case prompted the New York-based terrorism task force to take the lead in the investigation, which had been overseen by the New York Police Department, a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. That indicates that the failed bombing is being investigated as a terrorist incident with international connections, the official said.
FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko of the New York field office said in a statement Monday night that the "FBI JTTF [Joint Terrorism Task Force] and NYPD are working this case jointly and have been since the beginning." The New York police force, known for its expertise in terrorism matters, is represented on the task force and will remain heavily involved in the probe, officials said.
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 a metal gun case holding 100 pounds of fertilizer that police said was incapable of exploding.
Some officials cautioned that the international focus did not mean that other possibilities, such as domestic terrorism or an individual acting alone, were being ruled out. Nor did it mean, they said, that international ties automatically constituted a well-formed plot.
One federal law enforcement official, for example, said international communications don't necessarily "get you to an international plot, a multi-organizational plot."
"We're just not there," the official said.
The nature of the possible international connection also remained murky.
The Pakistani Taliban had asserted responsibility for the attempted bombing in a video posted on YouTube, but New York police and federal investigators have said no evidence had surfaced linking the group to the bomb.
On Sunday night, a second video was posted by apparent representatives of the Taliban, showing the group's commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, promising to launch attacks in the United States.
Mehsud, who U.S. and Pakistani authorities initially believed was killed in a January drone strike, was recorded saying, "The time is very near when our fedayeen will attack the American states in their major cities . . . in some days or a month's time."
The video is marked with the logo of the Pakistani Taliban's official media wing, Umar Studios, and appears to be credible, according to Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism consultant at Flashpoint Partners.
Staff writers Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.