INSIDE STORY: THE CAPTURE OF NEW YORK TIMES SQUARE BOMBER
Officials in the United States and Pakistan sought to determine the origins and scope of the plot.
The young woman in Bridgeport who last month sold Mr. Shahzad the rusting 1993 Nissan Pathfinder prosecutors say he used in the failed attack did not remember his name. But she had his telephone number.
That number was traced back to a prepaid cellular phone purchased by Mr. Shahzad, one that received four calls from Pakistan in the hours before he bought the S.U.V.
It was 53 hours and 20 minutes from the moment the authorities say Mr. Shahzad, undetected, left his failed car bomb in the heart of Manhattan until the moment he was taken off a plane at Kennedy Airport and charged with trying to kill untold numbers of the city’s residents and tourists.
“In the real world,” said the New York police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, whose detectives investigated the case with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “53 is a pretty good number.”
In the most basic calculus, the success of the investigation of the attempted car bombing in Times Square is measured by the authorities only one way: a suspect was caught and charged, and now faces life in prison if convicted.
But based on interviews and court records, those 53 hours included good breaks, dead ends, real scares, plain detective work and high-tech sophistication. There were moments of keen insight, and perhaps fearsome oversight.
The police detectives and federal agents of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, for instance, interviewed the occupants of 242 rooms of the Marriott Marquis and 92 staff workers. They spoke to theatergoers from the stages of two Broadway plays to determine if anyone had glimpsed a man fleeing the Pathfinder shortly after 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
They did a 24-hour street canvass and fanned out to Pennsylvania and other places to talk to manufacturers of the bomb’s components: two clocks, three propane tanks, gas cans, a gun box, M88 firecrackers.
But according to several people with knowledge of the investigation, federal agents who had Mr. Shahzad under surveillance lost him at one point, a development that probably allowed him to make it to the airport and briefly board the plane bound for the Middle East.
Spokesmen for the F.B.I. in New York and Washington would not comment on any possible lapse in surveillance.
If the lapse occurred, it was not final, or fatal. Mr. Shahzad, according to court papers, confessed to trying to set off a bomb in Times Square shortly after he was taken off the plane.
The route to that capture began in Midtown Manhattan, just off Broadway on a warm night of high drama.
At 6:28 p.m. on Saturday, the authorities say Mr. Shahzad steered his newly acquired Pathfinder west on West 45th Street, in Times Square, a move caught on film by a police security camera as it crossed Broadway.
He bailed out seconds later. Then a street vendor — wearing an “I love New York T-shirt” — waved down a mounted officer, who saw the white smoke collecting inside the still idling vehicle and made a call that got the bomb squad there by about 7 p.m.
It took the bomb squad, according to court papers, eight hours of work simply to render the S.U.V. safe enough to approach. Once the authorities did, they found keys hanging from the ignition. Hours later, after they towed the car to a Queens forensic garage, they found an even more important clue when a police Auto Crime Unit detective crawled underneath the vehicle.
“The break in this case took place when a New York City detective was able to go under the vehicle and get the hidden VIN number,” Mr. Kelly said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday. “This identified the owner of record, who in turn, as we know, sold it to the suspect.”
It had been something of a feat to get the city’s most senior officials to the scene of the attempted bombing.
Mr. Kelly had been in Washington, for the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, when his cellphone rang. At 8 p.m., he walked over to where his boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, was sitting and spread the news. At 10:55 p.m. the two men left, taking the mayor’s private jet and touching down at 12:20 a.m. at La Guardia Airport.
Fifteen minutes later, the two men, still in fancy suits, were inside a drab storage area of a building on West 44th Street, pulling up folding chairs with police and F.B.I. investigators around a Formica table and reviewing X-ray photos of the Pathfinder’s contents.
And soon, investigators fanned out to find the driver.
All Sunday afternoon, the agents and police searched for the Pathfinder’s owner of record — a man they knew had bought it used from a lot in Connecticut. By 6 p.m., they found the man, in Bridgeport. He said it was his daughter they needed.
“I give it to her,” the man, Lagnes Colas, said in an interview, noting that she had decided to sell it recently so she could get a better car.
Within 20 minutes, the investigators were talking with his daughter, Peggy.
She said she met on April 24 with a man who answered her online advertisements. He bargained the price down to $1,300 from $1,800, she told investigators. He paid with $100 bills. He looked Middle Eastern or Hispanic. And it was, investigators learned, a strange transaction: one conducted in a supermarket parking lot, without paperwork or receipts, and involving a man who explained that a bill of sale was unnecessary and who seemed uninterested in the vehicle’s long-term prospects.
Mr. Shahzad, according to court papers, “inspected the interior seating and cargo area” but not the engine. He was told the chassis was not in good shape, but he bought it anyway.
“I thought maybe he might bring the car back,” Mr. Colas said in an interview.
The investigative trail was warming up.
Later Sunday, a sketch artist was brought in from the Connecticut State Police to work with Ms. Colas on a portrait of the man who had bought the S.U.V. The work was promising.
On Monday, police and federal agents were back. Now, they had photographs of six men. She picked out the one of Mr. Shahzad, the court papers said.
Meanwhile, officials dug through Verizon Wireless records to learn more about the number she provided, one they found was attached to a prepaid phone activated April 16.
Though they declined to say precisely how they tracked such an anonymous number, they established not only that Mr. Shahzad was the buyer of the Pathfinder, but also that he got four phone calls from a Pakistani number associated with him in the hour before he made his final calls to arrange the purchase of the vehicle, according to the papers.
But there was more. The records had logged a call made by Mr. Shahzad’s disposable cellphone on April 25, the day after he bought the Pathfinder. It was to a rural Pennsylvania fireworks store, “that sells M-88 fireworks,” the court papers said.
Such fireworks were a part of the bomb in the Pathfinder: the would-be detonator.
On Monday, F.B.I. agents spoke to Mr. Shahzad’s landlord in Bridgeport, the court papers said. In an interview, the landlord, Stanislaw Chomiak, 44, said his tenant had signed a one-year lease for a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor around three months ago.
“He said he’d recently come from his country,” Mr. Chomiak said.
Soon after interviewing the landlord on Monday, investigators first “got eyes on” Mr. Shahzad, according to law enforcement officials. He was in another car, one registered in his name, returning to his apartment from the grocery store.
Exactly how long investigators had him under surveillance is unclear. But officials said investigators watched him come home and go inside his house. He emerged later to get back in his car, headed south.
It seems clear, according to interviews with a variety of officials, the investigators must have lost track of Mr. Shahzad at some point. He made it all the way down the jetway and into his seat.
Before the plane pulled away from the gate, though, investigators had caught up with him. He was taken out of his seat and into custody.
The 53 hours of work and uncertainty were over.
Last week, before the Times Square incident, I was talking with a former U.S. intelligence officer who worked extensively on jihadi cases during several overseas tours. He said that when a singleton of Shahzad’s profile — especially a U.S. citizen — turns up in a place like Peshawar, local jihadi groups are much more likely to assess him as a probable U.S. spy than as a genuine volunteer. At best, the jihadi groups might conclude that a particular U.S.-originated individual’s case is uncertain. They might then encourage the person to go home and carry out an attack — without giving him any training or access to higher-up specialists that might compromise their local operations. They would see such a U.S.-based volunteer as a ‘freebie,’ the former officer said — if he returns home to attack, great, but if he merely goes off to report back to his C.I.A. case officer, no harm done.