U.S. officials: No credible evidence that terrorists trained Shahzad

McClatchy NewspapersMay 6, 2010 

WASHINGTON — No credible evidence has been found so far that the Pakistani-American man accused in the Times Square bombing plot received any serious terrorist training from the Pakistani Taliban or another radical Islamic group, six U.S. officials said Thursday.

"There is nothing that confirms that any groups have been found involved in this for certain," one U.S. official told McClatchy. "It's a lot of speculation at this point."

Faisal Shahzad may have, at the most, had "incidental contact" with a terrorist organization, and he may have been encouraged to act, said one of the officials, who declined to elaborate further.

Four U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials and two other U.S. officials with knowledge of the case spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss classified intelligence or the ongoing investigation publicly.

According to a five-count criminal complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday, Shahzad admitted after his arrest on Monday to receiving bomb-making training in Waziristan, a part of Pakistan's tribal area bordering Afghanistan, during a five-month trip to his homeland that ended in February.

According to the criminal complaint, Shahzad admitted that he'd parked a Nissan SUV loaded with propane tanks, gasoline canisters, fertilizer and fireworks coupled to two alarm clocks in New York's Times Square on Saturday evening and fled.

The vehicle began smoldering, but failed to explode. Shahzad was apprehended on Monday night on a Dubai-bound Emirates flight at John F. Kennedy Airport that he'd been allowed to board even though his name was on the "no fly" list.

The U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials, however, said that the bungled nature of the bombing and the trail of clues that led the FBI to him suggest that he never received even rudimentary terrorist training or instructions on how to evade arrest.

Nor has any credible evidence been uncovered verifying his story of being trained in Waziristan, they and the other U.S. officials said.

"We've seen nothing suggesting that Shahzad received even minimal training, and everything about what he did suggests otherwise," one U.S. official said.

The official cited, among other things, the would-be bomber's use of the wrong kind of fertilizer and the fact that he made little or no effort to conceal his identity or that of the vehicle he used.

Another U.S. official said that Shahzad hadn't even removed the plastic caps on the propane tanks' valves before he abandoned the vehicle.

Nor does it appear that he made plans to escape after leaving the car in an illegal parking space where it was sure to attract attention in an area that one U.S. official said "has about the heaviest police and surveillance presence of any public space in this country."

Several news reports on Thursday, though, said that U.S. officials had gathered "mounting" evidence that the Pakistani Taliban had trained Shahzad.

"Officials said that after two days of intense questioning of the bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, evidence was mounting that the group, the Pakistani Taliban, had helped inspire and train Mr. Shahzad," The New York Times reported.

However, Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, said Thursday that it could be "weeks or months" before U.S. investigators are able to corroborate all aspects of Shahzad's tale, saying they have to interview detainees and other people in Pakistan.

"If he went to a (training) camp, it is a lengthy process," Kolko said. "Everything has to be checked."

"Did somebody encourage him to try to do this? That's possible, given where he was and for how long and his financial circumstances," a third U.S. official said. "But did anybody show him how to do it? Nothing we know points in that direction, and I don't know why some people are talking as if we had something solid. Inspired, maybe. Trained? Not in any serious sense of the word."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs Thursday dodged questions about whether links had been found between Shahzad and foreign extremist groups.

"This is a rapidly developing, ongoing investigation. And if there are developments that need to be made public, they'll likely be done so through the Department of Justice," he said.

Shahzad, 30, is the son of a retired senior air force commander from Mohib Banda, a village near Peshawar, the main city in violence-torn northwestern Pakistan. He came to the U.S. in 1998 on a student visa and became an American citizen last year.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that Shahzad was providing investigators with valuable information.

"Mr. Shahzad is continuing to cooperate with us," Holder said.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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The federal criminal complaint against Shahzad

Check out McClatchy's nation security blog: Nukes and Spooks

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