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U.S. analyzes glitches in Times Square car bomb manhunt

Officials move to plug holes in the system that almost let suspect Faisal Shahzad fly out of the country, and look at whether investigators should have been alerted to Shahzad sooner.

May 06, 2010|By Ken Dilanian and Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The federal government began requiring airlines Wednesday to recheck no-fly lists every two hours, an effort to patch a hole in the security net that allowed the man suspected of putting a bomb in Times Square to board a jetliner hours after being barred from air travel.

The new rules were designed to correct a glitch that marred an otherwise successful law enforcement operation that caught Faisal Shahzad 53 hours after authorities say he drove a bomb-laden SUV into one of the world's major tourist centers.

"This is a success story, as far as I'm concerned," said Ralph Basham, who was commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and head of the Secret Service during the George W. Bush administration. "In my opinion, this was at warp speed, the way they were able to bring this thing to a close."

Rep. Jane Harman, the California Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said: "I understand there were glitches, but that's why we have a layered system. They got the guy."

Still, huge questions lingered in the wake of the failed attack, including what allegedly prompted Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistani American who had built a stable, suburban life with his wife and children in Connecticut, to turn to extremism.

Government officials and terrorism experts also were pondering whether anything could or should have alerted authorities to Shahzad, who was pulled aside in February for special screening by customs officials because he had spent time in Pakistan.

"We've got to find out a lot more about his connections in Pakistan, his travel records, who he may have been traveling with … whether or not authorities had information about those people and whether we may have missed connections that way," said Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009.

Looking forward, experts said local and federal officials had to refocus on the types of threats they are likely to encounter in the future.

"I'm unwilling to call this a failure, but at the same time, we need to understand there's been a basic shift in strategy about how they're going to come at us, and I think we need to learn from that," said Frances Townsend, who was the senior counterterrorism advisor to former President George W. Bush.

American-based extremists "understand you don't need a big, complicated attack to have an impact," she said. "You can have a dramatic political and economic impact with a failed moron."

Although a naturalized American citizen, Shahzad had family and friends in Pakistan and traveled there extensively. Investigators are trying to determine whether he had ties to extremist groups.

Several people who had contact with Shahzad have been arrested in Pakistan, including a member of Jaish-e-Muhammad, an Al Qaeda-allied militant group, intelligence sources in Karachi said Wednesday.

Shahzad has been charged with terrorism, attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, and explosives violations, but has not yet appeared before a federal judge for arraignment. It was not clear when a hearing would be held. A scheduled appearance was canceled Tuesday in part because of Shahzad's continuing cooperation with investigators.

In a criminal complaint, U.S. authorities said Shahzad acknowledged that he traveled to the Waziristan region in the Pakistani tribal region for training in bomb-making. The complaint did not specify whether Shahzad went to North or South Waziristan, but both regions long have been strongholds for the Pakistani Taliban.

The saga began Saturday night, when a Times Square vendor alerted two police officers to a smoking 1993 Nissan Pathfinder on the southwest corner of 45th Street and Broadway. The officers called in the bomb squad, which defused the makeshift device.

A vehicle identification number on the engine block started investigators down a trail that led to Shahzad.

After investigators pieced together his identify, Shahzad's name was placed on the no-fly list at 12:39 p.m. Monday, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

But he was able to buy a one-way ticket with cash around 7:30 p.m. and later to board an Emirates airliner headed to Dubai. The plane was scheduled to take off at 11 p.m. Monday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who review every airline passenger manifest 30 minutes before departure, matched his name and other details with information from the no-fly list and pulled him off the plane after calling it back to the gate.

"As we saw with Faisal Shahzad … the airline is responsible for manually checking the name against the no-fly list within 24 hours," a Department of Homeland security official said. "In his case, the airline seemingly didn't check the name, and the suspect was allowed to purchase a ticket and obtain a boarding pass."

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