What The Bomb Squad Found In Shahzad's SUV

Guest

James Cavanaugh, retired bomb special agent in charge of the Nashville field division, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen from Pakistan, was identified by customs agents at JFK airport and arrested as he tried to make a flight to Dubai. Some of the most damning evidence against Shahzad was found in his SUV, abandoned in New York City's Times Square.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The man arrested in connection with last weekend's failed car bomb in Times Square appears in federal court today. Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen from Pakistan, was arrested yesterday on a flight to Dubai. The plane was actually taxiing toward the runway when FBI agents called it back to the gate at JFK Airport.

Shahzad faces charges related to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. And Attorney General Eric Holder says the suspect admitted his involvement and is giving information to investigators. In a briefing at the White House earlier today, President Obama said that justice will be done.

President BARACK OBAMA: This incident is another sobering reminder of the times in which we live. Around the world and here at home, there are those who would attack our citizens and who would slaughter innocent men, women and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda. They will stop at nothing to kill and disrupt our way of life. But once again, an attempted attack has been - failed.

ROBERTS: Investigators continue to search for Shahzad's possible ties to terrorist groups. Eight people have reportedly been arrested in Pakistan in connection with the case.

But some of the most damning evidence against Shahzad was in his SUV. With the vehicle still intact and packed with alarm clocks, batteries, propane tanks, fireworks, wires, gasoline, fertilizer, bomb squad technicians have more clues to work with. So how do bomb squads assess a situation like this one, especially when the explosive doesn't detonate?

If you've worked on a bomb squad or have questions about the Times Square bomb, give us a call; 800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Joining us now from his home in Nashville is James Cavanaugh. He's a retired special agent in charge of the Nashville Field Division with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He has investigated car bombs and other explosives. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAMES M. CAVANAUGH (Special Agent in Charge, Division Management Team, Nashville Field Division, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives): Hello, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Are you keeping dry there in Nashville?

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Well, thankfully the rain stopped and the sun's out, so it's going to get better.

ROBERTS: So when a bomb doesn't go off, it must leave all sorts of clues behind for investigators.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, for bomb investigators, when you get to the scene of a bomb or bombing, it's a whole lot nicer for everyone if the bomb didn't detonate. And it's a whole lot more great for the investigation to be able to have evidence to physically deal with.

You know, in most crime-scene processing - like we see on "CSI," and like you deal with in everyday police work - in most of those crime scenes, the evidence is not destroyed. Someone may be shot and there's a bullet and there's blood spatter and there's signs of a struggle or someone may be knifed or there's a robbery and there's video or whatever, but bombs are unique in the - in their -the act in itself destroys the evidence, generally.

Now, in the case - in Times Square, obviously, we had an ill-conceived contraption, and it malfunctioned. So sometimes we get that; bombs malfunction. Sometimes, we actually get bombs that malfunction and kill the bomber. So it's a very hazardous profession, to be a bomber. And in this case, we had a malfunction, but it left a, you know, gold mine of evidence for the investigators that allowed them to get - quickly get to Faisal and arrest him. I like to say it wasn't a trail of bread crumbs, really. It was a trail of bread trucks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVANAUGH: And you could get there pretty quick because he - you know, one thing that stuck out, Rebecca, in the New York Times' case, was he went to great pains to take the VIN number off the car.

ROBERTS: The vehicle identification.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Right. The vehicle identification number. And the reason that's so significant is in the '93 World Trade Center case, the bombing, an ATF agent and a New York City Police bomb squad detective went down into the basement of the World Trade Center in '93 and looked at the crater - a huge crater, down there from the blast - and they said that the axle that was in the vehicle that was carrying the bomb, let's get the number off the axle. That quickly led to the rental car company, and the suspects were rounded up pretty quick, Ramzi Yousef and - who was a cousin of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

ROBERTS: Well, indeed, the vehicle identification number led to this suspect as well. He had obscured it up top in the windshield, but it was on the engine block.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Right, that's exactly right. And in addition, in the Murrah building bombing in '95, right after the first World Trade Center bombing, everybody learned and everybody ran with their hair on fire, calling investigators to the truck axle from the Ryder truck, which was blown two blocks away, and got the VIN number - which led to the place in Kansas where McVeigh and Nichols rented the truck. So it's become a great tool.

Now, this guy tried to, you know, obscure it, get it - take it off but of course, it's other places of the car. So that was a break and they exploited it, and they're going to exploit these forensics when we hear about a bird's nest of wires inside this gun locker, and a pressure cooker. There's going to be skin cells all over the place. There's going to be hair. There's going to be maybe even some blood for, you know, when you're dealing with wires and wire cutters. And there's certainly going to be fingerprints, fingerprints in the car, sweat. I wouldn't be surprised at all if DNA is pretty common throughout that vehicle. So they use the DNA to tie to the suspect - or suspects. I think you might have multiple players here, and that remains to be seen.

ROBERTS: And without giving our listeners a bomb-making tutorial, if - we've heard reports of different explosive devices, wires, alarm clocks, firecrackers. What do you think this was - device was trying to do?

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Well, I think this indicates that the bomb - or bombers - had a lot more desire than they had ability, a lot more desire than they had technical ability. You can almost picture them - him; it could be him alone, but it may be others - working over this thing, and almost working themselves up to a lather. They have a grandiose plot. As Churchill said one time, you know, about a bomber, his purpose is to save the world; his method is to blow it up.

And so these fanatics are lathering over making this bomb. They are almost as if - to them, it's the atomic bomb, and they're going to place it in this epicenter of American life, which is Time Square, and just create this awful carnage. I mean, they're going to kill innocent people for their aims. And so, you know, that's sort of what consumes them, is their desire to extract that pain and agony. And I guess that's lucky for us because their technical ability, in this case, suffered tremendously from -

ROBERTS: So it wasn't a very good bomb?

Mr. CAVANAUGH: No, this was - I described it as a Rube Goldberg contraption. You know, basically, it's a lever with a shoe tied on it that kicks a ball, that rolls down a hill that knocks a pin off a shelf, that falls down and breaks the glass and - it's just not going to really reliably work. And that's lucky for us, and lucky for America, and lucky we were able to wrap them up pretty quickly.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, if you are the bomb squad guy who gets there while the car is still smoking - you know, it hasn't gone off yet - what do you do? How do you defuse a bomb like that?

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Well, it makes it actually worse for the bomb squad people, I think, because what happens is it's so dangerous because of just the way it's configured, and it's likely that this thing malfunctions when it was being delivered. So I - the investigators may know since they interviewed him at the airport, but was he going to actually drive it into the center of Times Square, park it in front of a theater, or was he going to drive it to the Viacom building?

You know, it's an interesting thing for investigators. The car is parked askew at the curb; it's running; the lights are on; yet there's two clocks so you have timers. If you have timers, you have time. You can set them whenever you want, so what's the hurry? So it seems like - it's possible that as he was going, maybe the thing functioned - or malfunctioned, or maybe he lit a fuse and the firecracker started.

And this is a guy that whoever was driving the truck - whether it was Faisal or someone else, you know - is a guy who wants to be a terrorist. But when the firecrackers start going off, well, maybe not that much. So he hightails it out of there and, you know, tries to make his escape, which is much different than we see with al-Qaida, where suicide is part of the operational planning and actually almost necessary to make the thing go through the way they want it to; they benefit so much from the suicide.

And of course, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was a suicide bomber dispatched by al-Qaida, and even Mutallab was a shoe bomber - was a bomber on the airplane in Detroit who had made connections with al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. So - but they were both suicide attackers. So I think this one is a little bit different. It could be some foreign connections and influence. While it doesn't seem like it's al-Qaida, it could be. We don't have all the answers, obviously, but...

ROBERTS: Why do you say you think more than one person might have been involved?

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Well, there's some logistics here. I mean, there's some logistics. There's a car. There's a plate. There's an effort to take the VIN number off. There's propane cylinders, gas cans. There's wires. There's clocks. There's ammonium nitrate. There's pressure cookers. So there's a lot of logistics going on. It doesn't mean one person could not have done it. But you know, sometimes when you get things this elaborate, you might have more than one.

You know, I was the deputy commander on the D.C. sniper case and, you know, a lot of times during that case, people thought it was just one, and it turned out to be two. And sometimes, two or more can encourage each other and keep the plot going. And the thing with this case, too, is there may be other accomplices that could be in Pakistan, that are only supporting through money, encouragement, email, you know. It could be also support from afar. So we'll just have to wait and see.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one, quick call. This is Mary Jane(ph) in Oakland, Mary Jane, welcome to the program.

MARY JANE (Caller): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Go ahead.

MARY JANE: My question or comment is - relates to an early part of the - your conversation. I was really dismayed when I read in the newspaper this morning that they disclosed the whole issue of where to find VIN numbers on vehicles. I think people who do these things learn by their mistakes. And so it's kind of like you're handing them, you know, oh, by the way, you missed this one. Next time, you better do a better job and find all the VIN numbers, because I'm sure there are books that would tell them that.

And so I am concerned that in a situation like this, that in an effort to make the public feel safe, perhaps too much information is being handed out. And I know this would come up at trial, but perhaps it could be behind closed doors, blah, blah, blah to kind of ensure that the government knew investigators have an advantage over those that are trying to do these kinds of things.

ROBERTS: Mary Jane, thank you for your call. And James Cavanaugh, I'm afraid we are out of time. Thank you so much for joining us. Stay safe there in Nashville.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: James Cavanaugh is a retired special agent in charge of the Nashville field division with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He joined us from his home in Nashville.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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