By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; A01
The Pakistani government has arrested a suspect with connections to a Pakistani militant group who said he acted as an accomplice to the man accused of trying to bomb Times Square, U.S. officials said.
The suspect, whose arrest has not been previously disclosed, provided an "independent stream" of evidence that the Pakistani Taliban were behind the attempt and has admitted helping Faisal Shahzad, the main suspect, travel into Pakistan's tribal belt for bomb training.
Officials familiar with the investigation cautioned about inconsistencies in the two suspects' accounts. Federal authorities expanded their search for evidence Thursday, carrying out raids in four northeastern states, and arresting three people suspected of funneling money to Shahzad.
Still, the U.S. determination that the Pakistani Taliban directed the attempted attack is based largely on accounts given by the two men, several U.S. officials said. Authorities have been examining phone records, e-mail and other communication to see whether they contain firmer evidence of links between Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban.
"What they said has been corroborated by other evidence,'' said a senior law enforcement source, who would not specify that evidence, saying it is classified.
The suspect in Pakistani custody "is believed to have a connection to the TTP," said a U.S. intelligence official, using an acronym for the Pakistani Taliban. Clues have added to authorities' understanding of the plot, the official said, but "what is definitely true is that a lot of this comes from the statements of people directly involved."
Assessing the role of the Pakistani Taliban carries significant stakes. A clear link would move the militant group onto an expanding list of al-Qaeda affiliates that pose a direct threat to the United States. It would also put new pressure on the U.S. relationship with Pakistan at a time when President Obama is pushing the country to expand its military campaign against insurgent groups.
In Islamabad, Pakistani security officials said Thursday that they had made no progress in finding concrete or credible evidence linking Shahzad to any Islamic militant activity in Pakistan or suggesting that he had traveled to the northwest and received training from the Pakistani Taliban.
U.S. officials declined to identify the suspect in Pakistan, but said American investigators have had direct access to him, and described him as a facilitator for the Pakistani Taliban.
U.S. investigators have pieced together their understanding of the Times Square plot largely by comparing the man's accounts with those of Shahzad. The broad outlines of their stories have been consistent, officials said, describing Shahzad's arrival in Karachi last year and his travel north to Waziristan for training with elements of the Pakistani Taliban.
But a second U.S. official briefed on the progress of the case said there are some "conflicts, disconnects" in their accounts. The discrepancies center mainly on the details and chronology of Shahzad's travel and training. Officials said the conflicts have raised some questions about the reliability of the suspects' information, but have not cast significant doubt on the overall understanding of the plot.
U.S. officials said they also think Shahzad and the man may have exaggerated their accounts. Both said they met Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud while being brought into the organization's inner core. But U.S. analysts are skeptical that Mehsud, who narrowly survived a Predator strike earlier this year, would risk meeting face-to-face with an unproved American recruit.
Although they acknowledged that the investigation is in its initial stages, Obama administration officials are describing an expansive Pakistani Taliban role. In a TV interview Sunday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that "they helped facilitate it . . . they helped direct it . . . and I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence that shows they helped finance it."
The certainty of Holder's comments prompted a pointed response from Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, who questioned whether such conclusions are premature. After attending a closed-door hearing on the case Tuesday, Bond said, "I am not convinced by the information I've seen so far."
Other U.S. officials said that even as the emerging evidence points to the Pakistani Taliban, it remains unclear whether it was the militant organization or Shahzad who conceived the plot. "The question becomes: precisely whose plan?" a U.S. intelligence official said.
Al-Qaeda affiliates have recently demonstrated a new ability to tailor a plot to a new recruit. The group's offshoot in Yemen allegedly used a Nigerian with a U.S. visa to attempt to take down a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. And the Pakistan Taliban was behind a suicide bombing several days later that killed seven CIA employees near the Afghan city of Khost.
Phone records show a series of calls between Shahzad and people in Pakistan in the weeks before the attempted bombing. Authorities have also uncovered other "circumstantial" evidence that links Shahzad to the Pakistani Taliban, according to the U.S. official briefed on the case. Asked whether phone records show contacts with Taliban figures, the official said: "Nothing conclusive, we have seen no conclusive tie."
Pakistani officials said Thursday that they detained for questioning five people from a mosque in Karachi affiliated with the extremist group Jaish-e-Muhammad. Shahzad, a U.S. citizen who made at least a dozen trips to Pakistan over the past decade, is thought to have visited the mosque during a long stay in the country this year.
Sources in the northwest tribal area said again that the Taliban was preparing to release a video but did not say whether they planned to claim any connection to Shahzad or the attempted bombing. The group originally said it carried out the plot but later said it had no link to Shahzad.
U.S. investigators have focused on how Shahzad -- who quit his job before leaving for Pakistan last year -- paid for the Nissan Pathfinder and explosives he is accused of using in the failed attempt. Officials have speculated that he used informal Middle East money-transfer networks known as hawala, which are difficult to trace.
The three people arrested Thursday -- two in the Boston area and a third in Maine -- were charged with immigration violations.
They "may have provided money to Shahzad but may not have known what they were doing," a federal law enforcement official said. "The question is: Did they provide money, did they facilitate and were they knowing?"
Correspondent Pamela Constable in Islamabad and staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Jerry Markon and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.