U.S. counterterrorism officials fanned out across two continents to unravel the failed Times Square bombing Wednesday, but they have been unable so far to link the suspect to any terrorist group or training camp, law enforcement officials said.
Faisal Shahzad was cooperating with authorities for a third day, but investigators remained uncertain whether they were dealing with a single, angry man or a larger international plot. The Obama administration, meanwhile tried to close a security gap that allowed Shahzad to board an airplane while FBI agents closed in, despite his being on the government’s “no-fly” list.
Shahzad has claimed, authorities say, that he was trained at a camp in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region. That has stoked fears that Saturday’s nearly catastrophic bombing was part of an international plot.
If Shahzad was part of a larger organization, it would serve as a reminder that nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, foreign terrorists are still trying to strike on U.S. soil. Like the unsuccessful Christmas Day airline bombing near Detroit, the Times Square plot could be flaunted by terrorists, even in failure.
And if an attacker operated alone, the plot would raise questions about how investigators can prevent an assault when there are few warning signs, the prime suspect has no known ties to terrorists and the methods are crude.
Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, said Wednesday they had not verified the statements they said Shahzad had made that he was trained in Pakistan for the attack. The Waziristan region is home to several terrorist and militant organizations.
The Pakistani Taliban originally claimed responsibility for the Times Square bomb attempt, but officials have said there was no evidence that was true. One counterterrorism official said Wednesday such a link was plausible but not confirmed. Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told CNN on Wednesday that his group did not train Shahzad.
If a link were to be established, it would be represent a significant operational leap for the group, which has never struck the U.S.
But there were signs suggesting Shahzad may not be strongly linked to a group. The Times Square car bomb — a potent but haphazard stash of propane, fireworks and gasoline — did not demonstrate the kind of explosives training that terror groups in Waziristan normally provide ahead of a bombing operation, officials said. If Shahzad was trained, they said, he was trained quickly or poorly.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Wednesday at a congressional hearing in Washington that Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, apparently put his plan in motion in March, a month after returning from a stay in Pakistan.
Shahzad bought a gun in Connecticut that month, Kelly said. And March 8, he was captured on video buying fireworks from a Matamoras, Pa., store. But they were consumer grade and not nearly powerful enough to detonate a bomb, said Bruce Zoldan, president of Phantom Fireworks.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs applauded what he called a seamless investigation by many agencies that tracked down Shahzad after the bomb was discovered in an SUV in the busy Times Square area on Saturday. Nonetheless, the administration tightened restrictions on airlines, forcing them to check the no-fly list more regularly.
Authorities added Shahzad to the list shortly after noon Monday, after making him their prime suspect. Shahzad tried to leave the country that night, reserving a ticket on his way to John F. Kennedy International Airport and paying cash on arrival. Because airlines have been required to check the no-fly list for updates only every 24 hours, Gibbs said, Emirates airline officials didn’t spot the late addition of Shahzad’s name. He was on board the plane when a Customs and Border Protection official spotted his name on a passenger list and he was arrested.
The administration changed the rules Wednesday, ordering airlines to check the no-fly list every two hours in such cases.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Tom Hays, Larry Neumeister, Colleen Long and David B. Caruso in New York, John Christoffersen in Bridgeport and Shelton, Conn., Larry Margasak, Kimberly Dozier, and Julie Pace in Washington, Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa., Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Adam Schreck in Dubai, Eric Tucker in Shelton, Dave Collins, Stephen Singer, Pat Eaton-Robb and Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., and the AP News Research Center in New York.