Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The Department of Homeland Security has ordered airlines to check the federal "no fly" list more quickly to close a loophole that nearly allowed the man accused of plotting to bomb New York's Times Square to flee the country.
Faisal Shahzad was able to purchase a last-minute ticket from Emirates airlines and board a Dubai-bound airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport late Monday night. Customs agents pulled him off the plane and arrested him just before the flight was to take off.
Shahzad, 30, was charged Tuesday with terrorism and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in the botched attempt to detonate an explosives-packed SUV on Saturday. Although he told investigators that he acted on his own, court papers stated that Shahzad also said he had recently received bomb-making training in Pakistan's militant-controlled tribal areas.
Pakistan Connection Scrutinized
The criminal complaint filed in Manhattan Federal Court says Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, said he received training in that country's volatile North Waziristan region along the border with Afghanistan.
Investigators are trying to verify Shahzad's statements. They say the crude, ineffective car bomb did not demonstrate the kind of explosives training terror groups normally provide ahead of a bombing operation.
Shahzad grew up in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. in 1998. He returned to the South Asian country for several months last year. His statement on terrorism training focuses attention on whether he was acting in concert with one of Pakistan's many militant organizations.
Pakistani government sources told NPR's Julie McCarthy that Muhammad Rehan, a man described as a friend of Shahzad's, was among several people arrested Tuesday in North Nazimabad, an area of Karachi. Sources say Rehan was picked up from Masjid-e-Batha, a mosque known for its links to the radical group Jaish-e-Muhammad.
According to local published reports, Rehan told investigators that he had rented a truck and drove with Shahzad to the northern border city of Peshawar, where the two stayed for 16 days in July 2009.
Details about whom Shahzad might have come into contact with and where he traveled during what he told investigators was a five-month trip remain murky. But Syed Riffat Hussain, an expert on militancy at Pakistan's Quad-i-Azam University, said it is still too early to speculate whether he might be directly associated with a specific militant group.
"We know that he received training, but who his trainers were and who his sponsors were, we do not know," Hussain said. "We have a very wide variety of militant groups operating."
In a video message on Sunday, the Pakistani Taliban said it was behind the failed Times Square attack. U.S. officials quickly doubted the claim, but Shahzad's arrest and alleged trip to Waziristan have given it credence.
Immediate Changes To No-Fly-List Policy
Authorities said Shahzad was added to the federal no-fly list early Monday afternoon, only hours before he boarded the Dubai-bound Emirates flight in New York.
Until now, airlines had been required to check the list 24 hours prior to any given outbound flight. Emirates apparently failed to check the latest version that included Shahzad's name even though it had been electronically notified of a change on the list.
Homeland Security officials said that effective immediately, airlines must check the list against their passenger manifest within two hours of being notified of any changes. The government is moving to take over responsibility to check the no-fly lists from airlines, a process that is expected to be completed for international flights by the end of the year.
A Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the policy change, said airlines could be fined if they don't comply.
Investigators had Shahzad under surveillance after identifying him through the previous owner of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder used in the botched attack, when he nearly slipped away.
Authorities initially planned to arrest him at his Connecticut home but lost track of him, two people familiar with the probe said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the breach in surveillance.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly played down the slip on the morning TV talk shows Wednesday, telling ABC's Good Morning America that "it's not unusual in an investigation" to briefly lose track of the target.
Kelly later told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that Shahzad bought a gun in Connecticut two months ago and that the weapon was later found in the car he left at JFK airport.
Things Appear To Unravel
Shahzad's family in Pakistan is said to be among the country's elite: His father was a retired air vice marshal in the country’s air force. The family, described as well-off, reportedly moved to Karachi from the Northwest Frontier province in the 1990s. Local media reports say Shahzad’s father-in-law, Iftikhar Mian, has been detained for questioning, but that could not be independently verified.
Shahzad arrived in the U.S. in late 1998 on a student visa. He got a degree in computer science in 2000 and an M.B.A. in 2005 at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and was hired by Affinion Group, which does brand-loyalty marketing. Shahzad married an American woman, Huma Mian, and had two small children. He became a U.S. citizen last year.
That's when things appear to have begun to unravel. A spokesman for Affinion confirmed that Shahzad quit his job voluntarily in May 2009. The family’s $273,000 home in Shelton, Conn., was foreclosed on after he fell behind on his mortgage payments. He also was being sued for back utility payments, NPR has learned.
Shahzad traveled to Pakistan that summer. It wasn't clear whether his wife and children joined him on the trip or arrived later.
In court papers, investigators said Shahzad returned to the U.S. on Feb. 3, moved into an apartment in a low-rent section of Bridgeport, then set about acquiring materials and an SUV he bought with cash in late April. They said that after his arrest, Shahzad confessed to rigging the bomb and driving it into Times Square.
Case May Put Pressure On Pakistan
Analyst and author Ahmed Rashid believes Shahzad's apparent links to North Waziristan will complicate Pakistan’s efforts to crack down on militants. The army has launched an offensive to dislodge militants from South Waziristan, but its counterterrorism strategy has avoided a full frontal assault in North Waziristan.
"This guy is obviously going to be linked to either Lashkar-e-Taiba or North Waziristan,” Rashid said, referring to a large militant outfit that runs training camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. “So on either count, wherever he's linked, there's going to be enormous pressure" on Pakistani officials to crack down on such groups and the regions where they operate.
Pakistan's chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, declined to comment Wednesday on reports that Shahzad had been to Waziristan.
The country's military establishment has argued that it must carefully choose how it quashes militancy, insisting that its troops, equipment and resources are limited. The subject has been a perennial source of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Officials in Pakistan have assured the U.S. that they will provide full cooperation. A government source in Islamabad told NPR that the Pakistani government is pursuing the possibility of a joint probe with American officials.