By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A02
The would-be Times Square bomber pleaded guilty Monday, surprising even prosecutors in a court appearance in which he warned of more attacks and accused the United States of "terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people."
Calling himself "a Muslim soldier," Faisal Shahzad admitted that he tried to detonate an explosives-packed Nissan Pathfinder on May 1 in one of the busiest intersections in New York. He provided new details of his motives and his politics, saying he chose the warm Saturday night because there would be more people outside to kill.
"It's a war," Shahzad told a judge in Manhattan federal court. If the United States does not get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries controlled by Muslims, he said, "we will be attacking U.S.," adding that Americans "only care about their people, but they don't care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die."
Shahzad had been scheduled for a routine arraignment after being indicted Thursday in the failed attack, but his lawyer told prosecutors on Monday that Shahzad wanted to enter a plea, law enforcement sources said. He did so without a plea agreement and faces a mandatory life prison term when he is sentenced Oct. 5. A lawyer for Shahzad declined to comment Monday night.
If Shahzad's plea took prosecutors by surprise, the sentiments he expressed before Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum did not. As soon as he was taken into custody May 3 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, onboard a flight to Dubai, the Pakistani-born Shahzad told agents that he was motivated by opposition to U.S. policy in the Muslim world, officials said.
"One of the first things he said was, 'How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan,' " said one law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the interrogation reports are not public. "In the first two hours, he was talking about his desire to strike a blow against the United States for the cause."
The guilty plea, which came less than two months after Shahzad's arrest, was an extraordinarily quick conclusion to a case that dramatized what the government calls the growing threat of homegrown terrorism. Fourteen U.S. citizens have been charged with terrorism offenses in federal courts this year, and such cases can take years to prosecute.
Justice Department officials hailed the rapid developments and said they showed that the criminal justice system can handle complex terrorism investigations -- an argument that Republican critics of the Obama administration's approach rejected as recently as last week. "Faisal Shahzad plotted and launched an attack that could have led to serious loss of life, and today the American criminal justice system ensured that he will pay the price for his actions," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said that New York City, a perennial terrorism target, must not relax its guard. "In admitting his guilt today, Shahzad reminded us of the uniquely serious threat that our city faces every single day," Bharara said.
Legal experts gave the Obama administration credit for a law enforcement triumph, but said that Shahzad's near-success in detonating the device -- along with his comments in court -- gave the investigation a more mixed legacy.
"The plus for the American justice system is somewhat counteracted by the fact that he was able to use a courtroom as a platform for propaganda," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "We need to take his warnings seriously. Terrorists were able to get someone into one of the most hardened targets in the country: the middle of Midtown Manhattan."
The Obama administration has said the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attempted attack, and the indictment of Shahzad said that he received $12,000 from that organization to carry out the plot. He has been cooperating extensively with federal agents, and one law enforcement official said he provided "plenty of actionable information from which we conducted subsequent action, and that continues."
Three men in Massachusetts and Maine suspected of supplying money to Shahzad have been detained on immigration charges, and officials have said that stemmed partly from Shahzad's cooperation.
In court, Shahzad provided new details of the plot. The Associated Press reported that Shahzad said he packed his vehicle with three separate bombs, hoping to set off a fertilizer-fueled bomb packed in a gun cabinet, a set of propane tanks and gas canisters rigged with fireworks to explode into a fireball. He said he expected the bombs to begin going off after he lighted a fuse.
"I was waiting to hear a sound, but I didn't hear a sound," he said. "So I walked to Grand Central and went home."