REUTERS - A car bomb defused in New York’s Times Square was a potential terrorist attack, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Sunday, but officials held off identifying who may be responsible.
The Taliban in Pakistan said it planted the crude device made of propane, gasoline and fireworks to avenge the killing in April of al Qaeda’s two top leaders in Iraq as well as U.S. interference in Muslim countries.
The claim could not be immediately verified but security analysts urged caution, saying there could be links to Islamist groups or to a domestic cause in the United States.
Police, tipped off by a street vendor, found the bomb in a sport utility vehicle in Times Square when the entertainment and shopping area of Midtown Manhattan was packed with tourists and theater-goers on a warm Saturday evening.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” Napolitano told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “We’re treating it as if it could be a potential terrorist attack.”
Police were examining security camera footage for clues after the SUV was recorded traveling in the area, as forensics experts pored over the vehicle and the bomb parts.
Senior FBI and police officials were due to hold a briefing at 3 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Sunday.
Napolitano and other officials have not specified whether the suspects could be Americans or foreigners. Police have said no motive or suspect has been identified.
“The odds are quite high that this was a lone wolf,” Senator Chuck Schumer told CNN, speculating that the suspect could be sympathetic to an Islamist or domestic group.
New York and its 8 million people have been on high alert since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 when airliners hijacked by al Qaeda militants toppled the World Trade Center’s twin towers, killing more than 2,600 people.
Last year, police said they thwarted a plot to bomb the New York subway system. Two men have pleaded guilty in that case.
Times Square was evacuated on Saturday evening but largely reopened just after 5 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Sunday with a heavy police presence. Broadway officials said all shows did go on, although some began late.
“A few years ago I used to be nervous. Now it doesn’t faze me,” said Amy Grossman, a New York teacher waiting in line for theater tickets on Sunday morning.
Similarities between the attempted attack in Times Square and another in London in 2007 included a vehicle abandoned in a crowded area with the intent of causing mass casualties, said Sajjan Gohel, director for international security at the London-based research company Asia Pacific Foundation.
“Was this done by an established group or, as in the London case, by self-radicalized people?” Gohel said, adding security camera footage could be the key. “Are the investigators in the U.S. able to quickly develop a logistical trail?”
Napolitano told ABC News there was no evidence the incident in Times Square was “anything other than a one-off” and that the bomb “doesn’t look like it is a very sophisticated one.”
“It lends itself to the idea that this was a low capability group or even a lone individual,” said Henry Wilkinson, senior intelligence analyst at London-based security company Janusian, noting improvised bombs go wrong even for established groups.
“It’s worth recalling the trend in radicalization in the USA,” he added. “It does not look like a prototypical al Qaeda attack. But again it’s early days.”
The deadliest home-grown attack in the United States killed 168 people in 1995 when a truck bomb planted by Timothy McVeigh and another right-wing extremist exploded at a federal building in Oklahoma City.
NO IDEA WHO OR WHY
“We have no idea who did this or why,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told an early morning news conference.
Bloomberg said a T-shirt vendor noticed “an unoccupied suspicious vehicle” and alerted a police officer on horseback, who saw the dark-green Nissan Pathfinder had smoke coming from vents near the back seat and smelled of gun powder.
The bomb was found around 6:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Saturday inside the vehicle parked on 45th Street and Broadway with its engine running and hazard lights flashing, officials said. It had Connecticut license plates that were from another vehicle.
The bomb squad removed and dismantled three propane tanks, consumer grade fireworks, two filled five-gallon (19-litre) gasoline containers, two clocks, batteries in each of the clocks, electrical wire and other components.
A locked metal box resembling a gun locker was also removed and taken to a safe location to be detonated.
“This wasn’t make believe. This wasn’t a false alarm,” said Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano. “This was the real deal—to hurt people.”
New York police said they had searched transit hubs, landmarks and other sensitive areas after the Times Square bomb was discovered but did not find anything suspicious.
Security analyst Ben Venzke called the Times Square bomb “a significant terrorist event” and said Islamist militants have promoted the value of using propane canisters in attacks but he warned it was too early to determine who was responsible.
“It may have been the work of a jihadist group such as al Qaeda or just as easily could have been the work of a domestic group or individual with no connection to any jihadist agenda,” said Venzke, head of Virginia-based IntelCenter.