Suspect in custody in failed NYC bomb plot

NEW YORK — A suspect in last weekend's failed car bomb attack on Times Square was taken into custody late Monday while trying to leave the country, a law enforcement official said.

The suspect was identified at midnight Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport and was stopped, said the official, who spoke to the Associated Press early Tuesday on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

The suspect has not been named. He was being held in New York..

Investigators had said they were seeking a potential suspect who had used cash to buy the SUV from a Connecticut man. Two law enforcement officials said that authorities have identified the buyer. One of the officials said that the potential suspect is a man who recently traveled to Pakistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is at a sensitive stage.

The registered owner of an SUV that was parked in Times Square and rigged with a crude propane-and-gasoline bomb told investigators he sold the vehicle to a stranger for cash three weeks ago, a law enforcement official said Monday.

The owner, who lives in Connecticut, was questioned Sunday about his sale of the dark-colored 1993 Nissan Pathfinder to a man he did not know, the official told the Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Officials said the owner, whose name has not been released, is not considered a suspect. But the revelation of the sale led authorities one step closer to whoever was responsible for planting the bomb on a busy Saturday night in the heart of Times Square and emptying it of thousands of tourists.

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne confirmed Monday that investigators had spoken to the registered owner.

The vehicle identification number had been removed from Pathfinder's dashboard, but it was stamped on the engine and axle, and investigators used it to find the owner of record.

"The discovery of the VIN on the engine block was pivotal in that it led to the identifying the registered owner," Browne said. "It continues to pay dividends."

Two law enforcement officials familiar with the probe said investigators considered the vehicle's history one of the best chances for cracking the case. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the probe is at a sensitive stage.

Investigators tracked the license plates to a used-auto-parts shop in Stratford, Conn., where they discovered the plates were connected to a different vehicle.

They also spoke to the owner of an auto sales shop in nearby Bridgeport because a sticker on the Pathfinder indicated the SUV had been sold by his dealership. Owner Tom Manis said there was no match between the identification number the officers showed him and any vehicle he sold.

In New York, police and FBI were examining hundreds of hours of video from around the area and wanted to speak with a man in his 40s who was videotaped shedding his shirt near the Pathfinder.

The video shows the man slipping down Shubert Alley and taking off his shirt, revealing another underneath. In the same clip, he looks back in the direction of the smoking vehicle and puts the first shirt in a bag.

Investigators traveled to Pennsylvania for video shot by a tourist of a different person, but determined they would not release it to the public. They have also received around 120 tips, three of which were considered promising. They also collected forensic evidence from the Pathfinder.

Pursuing every lead

In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the attempted bombing was a terrorist act.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who earlier in the day refused to classify the incident as terrorism, said the bomber intended to spread fear across New York and said investigators had some good leads in addition to the videotape that was released Sunday.

Investigators had not ruled out a range of possible motives, and federal officials said they hadn't narrowed down whether the bomber was homegrown or foreign.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told NBC's "Today" show that no suspects or theories had been ruled out.

"Right now, every lead has to be pursued," she said.

The Pakistani Taliban appeared to claim responsibility for the bomb in three videos that surfaced after the weekend scare, monitoring groups said. New York officials said police had no evidence to support the claims.

The SUV was parked near offices of Viacom Inc., which owns Comedy Central. The network recently aired an episode of the animated show "South Park" that the group Revolution Muslim had complained insulted the Prophet Muhammad by depicting him in a bear costume.

The date of the botched bombing — May 1 — was International Workers Day, a traditional date for political demonstrations, and thousands had rallied for immigration reform that day in New York.

Security had been also been tight in the city in advance of a visit to the United Nations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a nuclear weapons conference.

'Fireball' averted

Police said the bomb could have produced "a significant fireball" and sprayed shrapnel with enough force to kill pedestrians and knock out windows. The SUV was parked on a street lined with Broadway theaters and restaurants and full of people out on a Saturday night.

The SUV was captured on video crossing an intersection at 6:28 p.m. Saturday. A vendor pointed out the Pathfinder to an officer about two minutes later. Times Square, clogged with tourists on a warm evening, was shut down for 10 hours.

The explosive device had cheap-looking alarm clocks connected to a 16-ounce can filled with fireworks, which were apparently intended to detonate the gas cans and set the propane afire in a chain reaction, said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

A metal rifle cabinet placed in the cargo area was packed with fertilizer, but NYPD bomb experts believe it was not a type volatile enough to explode like the ammonium nitrate grade fertilizer used in previous terrorist bombings.

The exact amount of fertilizer was unknown. Police estimated the cabinet weighed 200 to 250 pounds when they pulled it from the vehicle.

To experts in explosives, it seemed to be the work of someone who really didn't know what they were doing.

President Obama telephoned handbag vendor Duane Jackson, 58, of Buchanan, N.Y., on Monday to commend him for alerting authorities to the smoking SUV. The White House said Obama thanked Jackson for his vigilance and for acting quickly to prevent serious trouble.