Police: Failed NYC car bomber may be white male in his 40s, allegedly caught on tape
Authorities see no evidence to support Taliban’s claim of responsibility; focus shifts to ‘homegrown’ terrorism; DHS says no sign of broader plot
New York police said Sunday they were hunting a man filmed leaving the scene of the attempted car bombing of Times Square as President Barack Obama vowed to track the perpetrators down.
Police announced several strong leads in their attempt to find out who left a Nissan Pathfinder SUV with a spluttering homemade bomb in the middle of the teeming entertainment and theater district.
A claim of responsibility by a Pakistani group Tehreek-e-Taliban was quickly dismissed as speculation mounted that a US-based or “homegrown” terrorist might have been responsible for the scare late Saturday.
“Although a Taliban bomb maker has claimed on the Internet… we have no evidence to support this claim,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Posted on YouTube, instead of the password protected websites where other Jihadist announcements are made, the video said the attempted bombing was in revenge for the recent killing of two, top Al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq, US drone strikes in Pakistan and US treatment of a Pakistani neuroscientist, the SITE monitoring service said.
“Congratulations to the Muslim Ummah on the jaw-breaking blow to Satan’s USA. We, Tehreek-e-Taliban, with all the Pride and Bravery, TAKE full responsibility for the RECENT ATTACK IN THE USA,” an English message on the video said.
There are, however, “significant credibility questions as to authenticity of this video,” said IntelCenter’s Ben Venzke, a private contractor working in support of the US and European intelligence communities.
Saying the video needed to be investigated further, Venzke added that “if the claim is confirmed this would mark the first attack by the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban) against a target in the US, which the group has been threatening to do.”
AFP was unable to independently view the video on YouTube. The video apparently was posted on YouTube early Sunday by Taliban News, but a service message said it had been removed because of a “use violation.”
SITE said the video contained an audio message from Qari Hussein Mehsud, a Tehreek-e-Taliban official, that was played over anti-American images with English subtitles.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city police chief Raymond Kelly have also dismissed the claim the bomb was planted by a foreign terrorist group.
“There is no evidence that this is tied in with Al-Qaeda or any other big terrorist organization,” Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference held in Times Square.
However it remained unclear why the improvised device — comprised of fireworks, propane, gasoline and possibly fertilizer — failed to detonate, despite smoldering after partly catching fire.
On a visit to the oil spill on Louisiana’s coast, Obama said US security services and New York law enforcement would do “what’s necessary” to find the culprit.
“My national security teams have been taking every step necessary to ensure that our state and local partners have the full support and cooperation of the federal government,” Obama said.
Police were sifting through a mass of clues, starting with footage from 82 security cameras in Times Square and the car and bomb, which were hauled to police laboratories in New York.
One sequence of film showed a man that Kelly said was acting in a “furtive” manner and changing his clothes as he walked away from the area.
He was “a white male in his 40s” and “seen shedding a dark colored shirt revealing a red one underneath,” Kelly said.
There was no firm evidence that the man was linked to the car and the footage may be “innocent,” Kelly stressed.
In addition to that footage, Kelly said a tourist passerby had contacted police to say he too “may have got a picture of the individual” caught in the frame while he was filming a nearby mounted policeman.
Another strong avenue was the car itself, which had had its identification marks removed and was carrying license plates to a different vehicle.
The engine was still running and the emergency lights were blinking when the car, emitting smoke, attracted the attention of a nearby street vendor.
The vendor, a Vietnam War veteran, told police, who quickly realized it was not an ordinary car fire and brought in the bomb squad.
“I did a lap around the vehicle. The inside was smoking,” the first officer on the scene, Wayne Rhatigan, told the New York Daily News. “I smelled gunpowder and knew it might blow. I thought it might blow any second.”
As soon as a bomb was feared police evacuated thousands of people from the area, turning the usually crammed streets into a ghost town.
Many tourists were unable to reach theaters or hotels, but Broadway shows managed to go on and were running normally Sunday, a trade group said.
“We are very lucky… (to) avoid what could have been a very deadly event,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Officials said the bomb was terrorism, but remained cautious, declining to say whether the culprit might be US-based or linked to Al-Qaeda or another foreign group.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the FBI, the New York police and the government’s Terrorism Task Force were probing a “potential terrorist attack.”
So far there was no evidence of a broader plot, but law enforcement authorities had been alerted to “stay on their toes,” she said.
Police were checking other cameras that may have captured the vehicle, and more importantly, “people seen driving or leaving the vehicle,” Kelly said.
The bomb, while threatening “mayhem,” according to Kelly, was comprised of the kind of materials available from regular stores. Bloomberg called it “amateurish.”
Kelly described a multi-layered device consisting of two alarm clocks as timers, a pot of fireworks as detonator, two canisters of gasoline, three propane gas tanks and a large box containing what was believed to be fertilizer.
“If this had detonated, in my judgment, it would have caused casualties,” he said. “You have a large number of pedestrians in that area.”
The scare raised tensions across the United States where security forces have been on edge since a young Nigerian allegedly attempted to set off a bomb on a US airliner as it came in to land in Denver, Colorado.
New York City police are on constant alert after a string of terrorist plots and alleged plots in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In December they closed Times Square while inspecting a van at first feared to contain a bomb, but which turned out to be carrying nothing dangerous.
In February, Afghan immigrant and self-confessed Al-Qaeda agent Najibullah Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty to a plot to set off bombs in New York’s subway system. He could be sentenced to life in prison.
Last year, four New Yorkers went on trial in an alleged plot to bomb a synagogue in the city and shoot down military planes.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks when airliners hijacked by Islamist suicide squads slammed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, demolishing both sky scrapers.
Updated from a prior version.