Would-Be Bomber Operated Under The Radar
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And Im Renee Montagne.
We're going to hear, now, more about the man charged with driving a car bomb into New York's Times Square and how he came to be linked to that planned attack.
The search started, of course, with the discovery last Saturday night of an SUV loaded with the propane, gasoline and fertilizer bomb that was supposed to explode. NPR has learned from officials close to the case that Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old Pakistani-American charged in the case, had not previously raised any red flags.
Counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, has been following the investigation and is with us now, to help understand why he went unnoticed. Good morning.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Well, Dina, the court papers released yesterday said that Faisal Shahzad had admitted not just to driving the car bomb into Times Square, but also attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. But is it really so surprising that American authorities didnt know about him before? I mean do they know who attends these secret camps?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, Shahzad has ended up showing a lot of the imperfections in the U.S. counterterrorism system. You know, it'd be nice to think that law enforcement has a handle on people in this country who might want to do us harm. But the truth is there's no really a good way to do that.
There are essentially three ways that potential terrorists come to law enforcement's attention. They're either caught making calls to known terrorists, who law enforcement is already tracking. Secondly, they're spotted in a place like Pakistan attending these camps either by foreign intelligence or Pakistan intelligence and they get flagged. Or they end up getting swept up in some sort of domestic surveillance program here in this country. And in Shahzad's case, he managed to skirt all three.
You know, The New York Times is reporting this morning that a man who bought an apartment from Shahzad, claims that the Joint Terrorism Task Force had talked to him about Shahzad in 2004. And that was about the time that Shahzad had petition for a change in his immigration status. He'd just married an American woman.
I think that if officials did come to check out Shahzad, it was in relation to that. Because what we understand is that he really previously had not raised any red flags.
MONTAGNE: And what do authorities say they know about why he allegedly did attempt to do this bombing?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's still a lot of unknowns when it comes to this case. Remember, I mean basically it's about three days old at this point, so we dont know Shahzad's motive. I mean we know he lost his job. We know his house was in foreclosure, and that he'd taken his wife and family to Pakistan, just a short time after he became a naturalized citizen last year.
But what we dont know is did he return to Pakistan to get a fresh start after being here for 15 years, and then fall prey to terrorist groups who saw his citizenship as an easy way for him to come here and attack? Or did he actually go to Pakistan fully intending to come back to the U.S. and launch something like this? Thats still unclear. I think we're going to find that out, however, in the coming days, cause he's talking.
MONTAGNE: Well, in the criminal complaint released yesterday, laying out the investigation, it did seem that there are a lot of things that he was very careful about to cover his tracks. And then there's this great sloppiness.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I know. This happens all the time. Right? For in these cases, there's never the perfect murder. I mean, for example, he left the SUV in Times Square running with the hazard lights on. Right? But the keys were in the ignition in order for the car to keep running. But they didnt just include his car keys. They included his house keys, keys to another car he owned, all kinds of things that made it really easy for investigators to bring the case back to him.
Investigators say they found the same fertilizer, explosives and other evidence linking him to the bomb in a garage behind his house. Another example: he went to all the trouble to buy this SUV off Craig's List and pay cash for the vehicle. And all he did was look, apparently, at the cargo bed in the interior and never really looked at the engine. And then if the seller asked him if he wanted to bill of sale so he could register the car, he said no - I've got my own license plates for the vehicle, and he sort flashed these stolen plates he had.
It reminded me a little bit of hints you always see after the case is over, like in the 9/11 case. Some of the 9/11 attackers apparently told their flight instructors I dont need to learn how to land the plane. I mean, this is less drastic but there are those sorts of things that always come up.
MONTAGNE: Well, Dina, we just have really just a few seconds. But also, on the other side, he came under surveillance once he was linked to the SUV and then still managed to get on a plane going to Dubai.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In a word, they lost him. For a very short amount of time, the people who were tracking him lost him. And about the time that they lost him, they picked him up again at JFK. Thats the reason why Attorney General Holder said he wasnt worried that he had slipped their noose.
MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.
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