Saturday, May 08, 2010

Shahzad: The Rube Goldberg of Terrorism

This little video of Rube Goldberg made in 1940 digresses into a seriously silly demonstration of the power of gasoline. It's a plug for the petroleum business -- but it also suggests a critical failing of the Time Square bomb, of which gasoline cans were a part: liquid gasoline burns, as the video says, "like a candle." It's vaporized and compressed gasoline that explodes.

Faisal Shahzad may have returned from Pakistan to Connecticut on a mission of mayhem earlier this year, but the more we know about the way he planned and executed the attempted bombing of Times Square, the more hapless and incompetent he appears.

Test Runs

As we read in the U.S. attorney’s complaint against Shahzad, he bought the Pathfinder for $1,300 cash in the parking lot of a supermarket out in Connecticut on Saturday, April 24. According to one of my best law enforcement sources, who does not want to be identified more specifically than that, there was no paperwork and there were no records of the transaction in the hands of the seller. Shahzad might have gotten away for quite a while without being traced as the buyer if he had not made the fatal mistake of calling the seller back to check the last time the car had had its oil changed. But more about that later.

On Wednesday, April 28, according to my source, Shahzad drives the rusty Pathfinder into Manhattan to recon the route he would take later and the traffic situation around Times Square. He then drives back out to Connecticut.

On the evening of Friday, April 30, Shahzad drives his Isuzu Trooper, registered to him, into the city and parks it just a few blocks from Times Square, on West 38th between 8th and 9th Avenues. His plan was to use it as his getaway car the following night. He locked it up tight, then went to Grand Central and took the train back out to Connecticut.

The Night of the Would-be Bombing

On Saturday, May 1, Shahzad drove the Pathfinder to Manhattan and headed up the FDR Drive, turned off on 49th, drove a block or so and stopped. As it happens, he was near the United Nations, which is probably not the smartest place to pull over, not least because he was on candid camera. He checked the cargo in the back of the Pathfinder, and may have set the timer going. He then drove to 2nd Ave. and turned left, went four blocks and turned right onto 45th. He took that straight across town, crossed Broadway and pulled over, leaving the emergency lights flashing and the keys in the ignition, as if he were just running an errand. He had tinted the windows after he bought the car and he may have hoped that anyone passing by would think there was still someone inside it. Of course, the tinting also hid the cobbled-together bomb from public view.

In fact, Shahzad headed straight for his Isuzu on 38th Street. (He may have gone through Shubert Alley between 45th and 44th, but the cops say he was not the man caught on CCTV who stripped off a black shirt to reveal a red one and seemed to be looking furtively behind him. ) Then, a surprise. As my source put it, “When he gets to 38th Street, I don’t know what he says to himself, but probably it was ‘Oh, shit!’ He realizes that he left the keys to the Isuzu on the ring of keys that he left in the Pathfinder.” So the “getaway car”  remains parked just where it was and, once again, takes a train back to Connecticut. He may also have been wondering by that point why he hadn’t heard an explosion.

On Sunday, apparently still secure in the idea he’d covered his tracks, Shahzad came back into town to pick up his Trooper. It is not clear to me whether he had a second set of keys – he may have called AAA or a similar group to help him. Anyway, a minor point. He got into the car, got it going and drove back out of town.

By then, however, the NYPD and FBI were exploring the wealth of evidence Shahzad had left behind in the unexploded Pathfinder. After several hours in which the bomb squad took apart the device, apparently modeled on plans by Rube Goldberg, the Pathfinder was loaded onto a flatbed truck and carted out the NYPD forensic lab in Queens.

What my guy calls “the Eureka moment” came when a detective who specializes in “auto crime” was called in to try to I.D. the vehicle. The dashboard VIN, or vehicle identification number, had been removed, but the detective crawled underneath and identified one on the bottom of the engine block. Because of his experience with stolen cars and chop shops, he was able to say right away that the engine belonged to the car (a 1993 model – the engine might have been changed), and once that I.D. was made, law enforcement computers kicked into high gear.

The Follow-Up

The VIN quickly led to the registered owner in Connecticut, who told police he’d asked his daughter to handle the sale, and she’d put it on Craigslist. She had been the person who met with Shahzad in the parking lot to make the cash transaction. She said she didn’t really know his name and she didn’t think she had any contacts for him.

But because Shahzad had called her a few days later to ask about the last oil change, the cops found his number in her mobile. Even though he’d used a prepaid throwaway phone, they reportedly pulled up the records of the numbers called from the throwaway and linked one to Shahzad. All this would have been on Sunday, so essentially within the first 24 hours. “We closed in on him,” said the source.

Now, there’s been some confusion in the press about when or whether the case was moved somehow from the NYPD to the FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Force. My guy says this is misleading, that the FBI and JTTF were involved all along, from the first briefings on the scene on Saturday night.

As the focus of the investigation and surveillance of Shahzad moved to Connecticut, the NYPD was not directly involved and my source said he did not have much to add to accounts that the Feds may have lost track of him for a while.

The latest Newsweek story on the case, based on reporting by Mark Hosenball, myself and Ron Moreau and Sami Yousufzai in Pakistan, gives this account of what happened:

By Monday, Shahzad was under surveillance by the feds at his Bridgeport apartment. But maybe a little too much surveillance. FBI agents no longer wear regulation white shirts and snap-brim hats as they did in J. Edgar Hoover's day, but Shahzad's neighborhood was soon crawling with burly men in SUVs. Equally noticeable, reporters—tipped off by law-enforcement sources to expect a big bust—began showing up in the area. Something may have spooked Shahzad, because he apparently slipped out the back and—undetected despite all the surveillance—got into his car and drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

According to my source, the Feds had the number of the cell phone Shahzad still used after ditching his throwaway, and they were monitoring it on Monday as he headed for JFK, which may be one reason Attorney General Eric Holder claimed he wasn’t worried about losing him. It is also worth noting that the longer they could monitor that phone, if indeed they were doing so, the more likely they could trace Shahzad’s connections. Conceivably, they wanted to see who he would call when he thought he was safe on board the plane – but that’s just guesswork, and it may be far too kind to the Feds, who just screwed up. A last-minute check of the flight manifest by the Customs and Border Protection guys at JFK turned up Shahzad. They stopped the plane and made the collar.

Shahzad did not seem surprised. “Are you the NYPD or the FBI?” he asked. Actually, it was the CPB.

No comments: