- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) — Days before the failed car bomb in Times Square, a Pakistani-American scouted the bustling district in the same vehicle and then, on a second trip, left a getaway car blocks from his chosen target, a law-enforcement official has told the Associated Press.

Faisal Shahzad, now in custody on terrorism and weapons charges, drove a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder to Times Square from Connecticut on April 28, apparently to figure out where would be the best place to leave it later, the official said Wednesday. He then returned April 30 to drop off a black Isuzu, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

The official said Mr. Shahzad went back Saturday and left the SUV loaded with firecrackers, gasoline and propane, enough to likely create a fireball and kill nearby tourists and Broadway theatergoers had it gone off successfully.

Mr. Shahzad, 30, of Connecticut, admitted to rigging the Pathfinder with a crude bomb based on explosives training he received in Pakistan, authorities say. He was pulled off a Dubai-bound plane Monday and has been cooperating with investigators. No court appearance has yet been scheduled for Mr. Shahzad, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan said Thursday.

Kifyat Ali, a cousin of Mr. Shahzad’s father, has called the arrest “a conspiracy.”

In a city still jittery from the failed car bomb driven into one of its most famous neighborhoods, a truck abandoned near a toll booth to the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge caused alarm late Wednesday when a bridge authority officer believed he smelled gasoline coming from it and saw a man flee the truck. But the truck turned out to be empty and not a threat, the New York Police Department said.

The bridge, formerly called the Triborough Bridge, is a major connector in the city, linking Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. Police were looking to speak to the person who abandoned it.

Mr. Shahzad is believed to have been working alone when he began preparing the Times Square attack, almost immediately after returning in February from his native land, authorities said. They said they have yet to find a wider link to extremist groups or to pin down a motive.

“It appears from some of his other activities that March is when he decided to put this plan in motion,” New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Wednesday. “He came back from Pakistan Feb. 3, 2010. It may well have been an indicator of putting something catastrophic in motion.”

In leaving Times Square on Saturday, he discovered he left a chain of 20 keys including those to the getaway car and his home in Connecticut in the SUV, and had to take public transit, the official told the AP.

Investigators had already started searching for suspects, when he returned to the scene on Sunday with a second set of keys to pick up the Isuzu, parked about eight blocks from the car bomb site, the official said.

Mr, Kelly told a Senate panel that Mr. Shahzad bought a gun in March that was found in his Isuzu at Kennedy Airport, suggesting that he was moving ahead on the bombing plot shortly after returning from Pakistan.

Pakistan Ambassador Husain Haqqani said Wednesday that an investigation into Mr. Shahzad’s links to Pakistan was ongoing. He said an unspecified number of people had been questioned but no one has been arrested or detained in Pakistan. Mr. Haqqani spoke to the AP before an appearance at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Asked whether any connection had emerged between Mr. Shahzad and Qari Hussain Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban’s chief bomb maker who is also in charge of recruiting suicide bombers, Mr. Haqqani said “no such fact had emerged” at this point in the investigation.

“I think it’s premature to start identifying groups and individuals with whom he might have trained,” he said.

Mr. Haqqani added that it was unlikely that Mr. Shahzad or anyone could find a bomb-making facility in the south Waziristan region because that region is now controlled by the Pakistani Army. Mr. Shahzad said he was trained in the region, authorities say.

U.S. officials have also been unable to verify whether Mr. Shahzad trained to make bombs at a terrorist camp in Pakistan.

Mr. Shahzad had previously lived in Shelton, Conn., but got a low-rent apartment in nearby Bridgeport when he returned from Pakistan. His wife and children apparently did not return with him.

Police recovered surveillance video of Mr. Shahzad at Times Square moments after the attack, and he’s seen in other video in Pennsylvania buying fireworks. Neither videotape has been released.

Interviews Wednesday with business owners and police shed light on purchases Mr. Shahzad made of fireworks and a rifle.

On March 8, Mr. Shahzad bought six to eight boxes each containing 36 Silver Salute M88 fireworks from Phantom Fireworks in Matamoras, Pa., said store vice president William Wiemer. Even if used together, the fireworks couldn’t have caused a large explosion, Mr. Wiemer said.

“The M88 he used wouldn’t damage a watermelon. Thank goodness he used that,” said Bruce Zoldan, the company’s president.

Each M88 has an amount of pyrotechnic powder that is less than one-sixth the size of an aspirin, the company said. Fireworks purchased illegally can be up to 1,000 times more powerful, they said.

“There’s no doubt, had he bought this on the black market, that the outcome in New York would have been totally different,” Mr. Zoldan said.

Shelton police said Mr. Shahzad legally bought a Kel-Tec rifle from a dealer after passing a criminal background check and a 14-day waiting period. The owner of the gun shop declined to comment.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa.; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Tom Hays in New York; John Christoffersen and Eric Tucker in Bridgeport, Conn.; Larry Margasak, Eileen Sullivan and Matt Apuzzo in Washington and Chris Brummitt in Islamabad.

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