Probe in failed Times Square attack focusing on Pakistani Taliban

Three more people are in custody after raids related to the failed bombing May 1 in Times Square. Their arrests follow that of Faisal Shahzad, who is suspected of carrying out the attempt.
By Jerry Markon and Spencer S. Hsu
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Federal investigators focused Tuesday on the possible involvement of the Pakistani Taliban in the failed Times Square bombing as they pieced together clues and charged a suspect who was pulled off an airplane as he headed to his native Pakistan, according to court documents and law enforcement sources.

Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen arrested late Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport, admitted his involvement in the plot, authorities said, and told FBI agents he received bombmaking training in a region of Pakistan known as a militant hotbed. Shahzad, who became a naturalized citizen last year, is from a military family in Pakistan, where he spent five months before returning in February to his home in a leafy, quiet neighborhood of Shelton, Conn.

His reported confession, combined with a series of phone calls he received from Pakistan after purchasing the Nissan Pathfinder used in the attempted bombing, has led investigators to zero in on the Pakistani Taliban connection as "a leading theory," a federal law enforcement official said.

"It's a leading line of inquiry," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the international probe is in its early stages. "There are only a few organizations in Pakistan that could provide training, and the Pakistani Taliban is . . . one that has an ax to grind with us." Pakistani Taliban claims of responsibility for Saturday night's attempt, which investigators had played down, are being reevaluated, said the official, who added that al-Qaeda involvement "is a leap at this point."

The focus on a group that had been considered uninterested in launching attacks outside Pakistan or Afghanistan pointed up the gravity of an incident that authorities characterized as a potentially deadly strike against the United States, albeit with an unsophisticated homemade device that failed to detonate. Even as officials praised the rapid law enforcement response, the incident resurrected the controversy over the Obama administration's handling of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. Critics said the suspect in that case should have been placed in a military, rather than civilian, court.

Speaking at a news conference at which the government announced five felony counts against Shahzad, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, "It is clear that this was a terrorist plot aimed at murdering Americans in one of the busiest places in our country." Shahzad was charged with attempting to detonate the sport-utility vehicle that was set ablaze on a tourist-crowded block in Midtown Manhattan and trying to kill bystanders and destroy property.

The charges in federal court in Manhattan came on a day of familiar political and law enforcement rituals. Obama administration officials, seeking to navigate the perilous politics of terrorism, detailed their intensive involvement in Shahzad's apprehension and emphasized that he was providing useful intelligence to authorities. Some Republicans questioned whether key clues had been missed.

"Like the Christmas Day bomber, we were lucky that both of these folks were incompetent -- they couldn't trigger the explosives," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.

Multiple U.S. law enforcement officials said Shahzad had attracted no significant law enforcement attention before the attempted bombing. "He was not on the radar," one official said.

Also triggering debate was the decision to read Shahzad his "Miranda" rights against self-incrimination. The Miranda issue rose to prominence after the Nigerian suspect in the Christmas Day incident, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, stopped cooperating with authorities after being read his rights. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said Shahzad should not have been afforded that constitutional right "until we find out what it's all about."

But administration officials said Shahzad, who, like Abdulmutallab, was initially responsive to questioning under a "public safety exception" to the Miranda rule, continued to cooperate after his rights were read to him. They also pointed out that Shahzad is a U.S. citizen and must be tried in civilian, not military, court.

Officials canceled Shahzad's scheduled appearance in Manhattan federal court amid his reported dialogue with agents. It was unclear whether a lawyer had been appointed for him; he is scheduled to face a judge on Thursday at the earliest.

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