Monday, May 3, 2010

NY Bomb Plot Investigation Widens/ Suspect is Pakistani descent

The Guardian,

US authorities are seeking a US man of Pakistani descent whom they suspect bought the vehicle used in Saturday's attempted car bombing in New York City's Times Square.

Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, the Associated Press news agency said the man, who recently travelled to Pakistan, was a Connecticut resident who apparently paid cash for the four-wheel-drive vehicle rigged with a crude propane-and-petrol bomb.

The registered owner of the vehicle had told police on Monday that he had sold it three weeks ago without any paperwork to a man in his late 20s or early 30s.

The information on Monday comes as the hunt for the person or people behind the botched bombing widens.

A green Nissan car used for Saturday's botched Times Square bombing was sold through an advertisement on the popular website Craigslist for between $1,300 and $1,800 in cash three weeks ago, investigators have established.

The sports utility vehicle's registered owner told police that he offloaded the 1993 car to a Middle Eastern or Hispanic looking man aged around 29 or 30, although formal paperwork for the transaction was never completed.

CBS News reported last night that the buyer of the vehicle paid for it in $100 bills. The keys were exchanged in a brief meeting at a Connecticut shopping centre between two strangers. Licence plates on the car were stolen from a truck at a junk yard, also in Connecticut.

Investigators increasingly believe that the crude car bomb, which failed to detonate, was the work of a plot involving multiple people and that it may have had international links. New York's police commissioner, Ray Kelly, admitted the city had been lucky to escape disaster.

"If it [the bomb] had detonated, it's my judgment that it would have caused casualties, there would have been a significant fireball," said Kelly. "I'm told the vehicle itself would have at least been cut in half."

The car, parked in the heart of Manhattan's theatre district, was packed with propane gas, petrol and fireworks strung together with a rudimentary timer operated by a pair of cheap alarm clocks.

Two T-shirt vendors raised the alarm when they noticed the car had been abandoned with its hazard lights flashing and its keys in the ignition, and police swiftly evacuated the area.

Police travelled by helicopter to Pennsylvania to visit a tourist who took a brief video image of a man running north up Broadway at around the time of the bombing. They also want to track down a white man, aged around 40, who was captured on closed circuit television removing a sweatshirt in Shubert Alley, a pedestrianised cut-through, near the scene.

Releasing a 20-second video clip, Kelly said the man appeared to be acting "furtively".

Saturday's incident was at least the 11th foiled terrorist plot in the US since the 9/11 attacks. One theory is that the target of the Times Square bomb was the media group Viacom, whose headquarters are nearby.

The US company caused controversy by broadcasting on its Comedy Central network an episode of the cartoon South Park which poked fun at Islamic sensitivity over images of the prophet Muhammad by showing him dressed in a bear suit.

"It's out there as one theory," said Janet Napolitano, secretary of US homeland security. But she added that it was "speculation" at this stage.

Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said car bombs had been unusual in the US in recent years, with the bombing of an Oklahoma City government building in 1995 being the last successful large-scale attack of its type.

"We haven't had a vehicular bomb in the US for quite some time, although they're not a new thing," said Hoffman. "Puerto Rican independence groups used them back in the 1960s and 1970s."

On Sunday, a group called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the Times Square bomb, posting a video on the internet alleging that the attack was to avenge recent killings by US drone aircraft along the Afghan border.

But yesterday a spokesman for the group disowned the video, while experts said TTP has previously declared responsibility for events it had nothing to do with.

"These types of messages aren't directed towards an audience in the US as much as to a local audience," said Hoffman. "Whether truthful or not, they serve the group's own propaganda purposes."

Times Square was shut down for 10 hours following the discovery of the bomb at 6.30pm local time on Saturday. Detectives took to the stage at the end of Broadway musicals to ask for witnesses to any suspicious activity. Thousands of tourists were prevented from returning to their hotels in the densely crowded district.

On Monday, Times Square was returning to normal with hotdog stalls back in place, traffic squeezing through narrow gaps and almost every street reopened.

Reuters) - The failed car bomb in New York's Times Square increasingly appears to have been coordinated by several people in a plot with international ties, The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing unnamed Obama administration officials.


White House officials also characterized the incident on Saturday night as attempted terrorism for the first time, dramatically stepping up their description of the intended attack.

"Anybody that has the type of material that they had in a car in Times Square, I would say that that was intended to terrorize, absolutely," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a White House briefing. "And I would say that whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist, yes."

The Post cited a U.S. official who, recounting a conversation with intelligence officials, said, "Don't be surprised if you find a foreign nexus ... They're looking at some tell-tale signs and they're saying it's pointing in that direction."

Officials cautioned that even if the investigation pointed toward an international link, rather than domestic or anti-government organizations, that did not mean al-Qaeda or a similar group was involved, the Post said.

New York police interviewed the owner of the vehicle on Monday and scrutinized more video tapes from the incident that rattled New Yorkers and forced the evacuation of Times Square, which was packed with thousands of tourists.

The investigation was still trying to identify a thin, white man in his 40s who was caught on video near the car that had been packed with propane gas tanks, plastic containers of gasoline, firecrackers and non-explosive fertilizer.

Authorities called the device amateurish, saying it generated smoke but failed to explode while the car was parked awkwardly in a packed Times Square with its engine running and hazard lights flashing.

The bomb could have set off a deadly fireball that would have blown out windows at the so-called crossroads of the world.

Though the identity of the would-be bomber has eluded investigators, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed that those responsible would be arrested.

"We have made really substantial progress. We have some good leads," Holder told reporters in Washington, referring to the man in the video. "We are following a number of other leads as well."


The 19 seconds of video released by police showed the man removing a dark shirt worn over a red shirt, stuffing it into a bag and then walking away with the item. He is seen glancing at least twice over his shoulder.

Earlier, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the man on the video may have been innocently changing his shirt.

Speaking on CNN, Kelly also said police planned to release later on Monday a second videotape, taken by a tourist and showing a man running near the scene at about the time of the incident.

New York and its 8 million people have been on high alert since the September 11 attacks in 2001 in which airliners hijacked by al Qaeda militants toppled the World Trade Center's twin towers, killing more than 2,600 people.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America" program, reiterated on Monday that there was "no legitimate evidence" of a link to al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other group in the Times Square incident.

Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said it was unclear whether the failed attack was staged by a single person or a group.

The Taliban in Pakistan said on Sunday it planted the bomb to avenge the killing in April of al Qaeda's two top leaders in Iraq. Kelly said there was "no evidence" to support the claim.

Security at U.S. East Coast airports was boosted after the Times Square incident to counter possible vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices at airports and crowded public spaces, a Department of Homeland Security official said.

Markets, however, appeared to brush off the car-bomb attempt, the latest in a series of security scares that have frayed the nerves of New Yorkers.

Michael Cheah, senior portfolio manager at SunAmerica Asset Management, described it as an "isolated incident" that was not likely to spark any Treasury market reaction.

(Additional reporting by Will Dunham and Deborah Charles)

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao)

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