The car, the keys, the phone: How Faisal Shahzad was caught
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Quick-footed sleuthing combined with extensive detective work helped US investigators identify and arrest Faisal Shahzad, the main suspect in the failed Times Square car bombing plot, in a little over 53 hours.
In the end, it was the car, the keys and the cell phone card that gave Faisal Shahzad away.
It was just over 53 hours between when a smoking car was reported in New York’s Times Square to the moment Shahzad was dramatically ushered out of a plane at New York’s JFK airport.
The 30-year-old Pakistan-born US citizen is the main suspect in the attempted May 1 Times Square car bombing and has been charged with terrorist-related crimes.
On Monday night, US federal agents escorted Shahzad from Emirates Airlines Flight EK202 into a balmy New York night after turning the plane back just as it taxied for a take-off.
For US investigators, the detention came in the nick of time. Shahzad was about to flee the country, having just bought a ticket at JFK airport for Dubai. Investigators believe he was en route to his native Pakistan.
At a press conference in Washington Tuesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder played down questions about the perilously close call. "I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him," he told reporters.
But it certainly was close.
Car bought in supermarket car park
As the charge sheet filed Tuesday in a New York court shows, it was a combination of quick-footed sleuthing, extensive detective work and close coordination between law enforcement departments that led to Shahzad’s arrest.
That, and a car full of "smoking guns".
Shortly after the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder was taken to a forensic lab in New York’s Queens Borough, investigators retrieved the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), the unique serial number located on the underside of all vehicles.
The Pathfinder VIN led investigators to a man who told them he had given the car to his daughter, according to the New York Times.
It was the daughter, identified by the newspaper as “Peggy”, who had placed an ad to sell the car on Craigslist, a popular classifieds web site.
"Peggy" sold the car to Shahzad in a Connecticut supermarket parking lot for $1,300. He paid the full amount in $100 bills, she told investigators, and was not interested in a receipt or in her warnings that the car had some mechanical problems.
No name, but a cell phone number
She also did not know the buyer’s name, but identified him as a man of Middle Eastern or Hispanic origins. But Peggy did have the buyer’s cell phone number – a rich clue for investigators.
The car seller then worked with a sketch artist to generate a draft of Shahzad’s face. Hours later, she was able to identify him from an array of six photographs.
Peggy also told investigators that the buyer arrived at the parking lot in a black Isuzu Rodeo, which he left behind when he drove off in his newly acquired car.
Fertilizers 'for tomatoes'
The hunt Shahzad was heating up. Investigators quickly determined the owner of the second car – the Isuzu – as a certain Faisal Shahzad residing in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Meanwhile, investigators had recovered a set of three keys hanging from the ignition of the Nissan Pathfinder. One was the key to Shahzad’s Isuzu and the other, to his Bridgeport home.
Questioning his landlord, investigators learned that the house owner had noticed a fertilizer bag in the garage while he was collecting the rent. According to the New York Times, Shahzad told his landlord he wanted to grow tomatoes.
Phone records from Shahzad’s prepaid phone card showed a number of calls to Pakistan, including four the morning he bought the car. It also led them to a Pennsylvania fireworks store from where he had bought M88 fireworks, considered a “macho” firecracker among pyrotechnic enthusiasts.
Shahzad was now a marked man. But the New York Times has speculated that federal agents had apparently lost track of him at some point, a lapse that was made up at JFK airport when they dramatically turned back the flight and arrested Shahzad.
When he was arrested, Shahzad told interrogators he had a gun in the car he used to drive to the airport, which law enforcement officials retrieved. He also confessed to receiving bomb-making training in Pakistan’s Waziristan province. Law enforcement officials are now most likely to follow the investigative trail that leads to Pakistan, where Shahzad’s wife and two children currently reside.