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Pakistan assures cooperation in Times Square bomb case

The country says it will help bring to justice any collaborators, and four suspected members of a banned militant organization have been arrested and are being questioned there.

May 07, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano, David S. Cloud and Alex Rodriguez | Tribune Washington Bureau and Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington and Karachi, Pakistan — Senior Obama administration officials said Thursday that they had obtained assurances from Pakistan that it would help bring to justice any collaborators in last weekend's attempted Times Square bombing, and that suspect Faisal Shahzad continued to provide information about militant activities in that country.

"We are pushing all the right buttons that you would expect us to push to try to understand what happens in Pakistan and how that related to the actions taken by the American citizen last weekend," said Philip J. Crowley, an assistant secretary of State. "We're trying to understand and trace what did this individual do when he was on the ground in Pakistan, who did he meet, and what are the implications of those actions."

Meanwhile, a senior intelligence official said U.S. officials thought that Shahzad might have admired a radical Muslim cleric who has been linked to two other recent domestic terrorism incidents — the shootings at Ft. Hood and the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day.

The investigation has not turned up evidence so far that Shahzad was in contact with Anwar Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric known for fiery anti-U.S. sermons who is now thought to be in Yemen, and intelligence analysts consider it unlikely that the two men had a relationship, the official said.

But "U.S. intelligence analysts believe Shahzad may have admired him and bought into Awlaki's message," the official said. He would not divulge what evidence had been found suggesting Shahzad was familiar with the cleric's sermons.

Pakistani officials said Thursday that they had arrested and were questioning four suspected members of the banned militant organization Jaish-e-Muhammad. Shahzad, a 30-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, told investigators he had recently received bomb-making training in Pakistan.

One of those arrested, Sheikh Mohammed Rehan, allegedly drove with Shahzad from Karachi to Peshawar in July. CNN reported Thursday that authorities questioned but did not arrest Shahzad's father, Bahar Ul Haq, a former Pakistani air force officer.

Pakistani authorities also conducted several raids in the North Karachi and North Nazimabad neighborhoods in search of other Jaish-e-Muhammad members who may be connected with the Shahzad case, a police official there said. One of the raids was at an apartment building where it was believed Rehan lived.

Jaish-e-Muhammad, which is thought to have set up military training camps in the country's volatile tribal areas along the Afghan border, has recently formed strong ties with Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials who are investigating Shahzad's time in Pakistan said there were indications he might have had contact with the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, a violent militant group known mainly for attacks against the Pakistani government.

One counter-terrorism official said they had not been able to conclude that the plan to bomb Times Square was conceived by the Pakistani Taliban or that Shahzad received training from its operatives.

"Connections to the Pakistani Taliban are plausible, but it's important for a complete picture to develop before reaching a final conclusion," the official said. "We're not there at this point."

But one official said this week that it was possible the Times Square attempt may have been a response to the escalating U.S. drone campaign against Pakistani militants.

At the White House, President Obama met with top military and diplomatic staff members for more than an hour, and again in the afternoon with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Afterward, advisors refused to repeat earlier pronouncements that Shahzad was a lone operator, though they declined to say which terrorist groups or militants he might have been connected with in Pakistan.

Even as they press for help from Pakistan, however, administration officials are not entirely sure what they would do with suspects once they had them in custody. Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, said he did not know if suspects would be brought back to the U.S. and charged in the federal court system, or whether the Pakistani government would prosecute them.

"This is a rapidly developing, ongoing investigation," Gibbs said.

On Capitol Hill, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. told a Senate subcommittee that three days after Shahzad's arrest, the suspect is still providing valuable information to FBI and counter-terrorism agents.

"Mr. Shahzad is continuing to cooperate with us," Holder said. "We will continue to pursue a number of leads as we gather intelligence relating to this attempted attack."

Christi Parsons and Ken Dilanian of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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