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Pakistani sought in N.Y. bomb case

Police and FBI agents investigating an attempted car bombing in Times Square are focusing on a man of Pakistani descent who has been living in the U.S., and they are operating under the theory that he did not act on his own, a government official said Monday.

It was not immediately known how long the man had been in the U.S., or whether he was an immigrant or a citizen.

The amount of explosive material inside the SUV left in Times Square on Saturday — which included about 100 pounds of fertilizer as well as a large metal gun box, firecrackers, cans of gasoline and three propane tanks — suggested that it took two people to prepare it, especially in secret, the official said.

However, the official, who declined to be identified because he said the investigation was sensitive and moving fast, described the work as “done with little sophistication.” He also noted that if the assailants were trained by a Middle Eastern terrorist group, it likely “would have been a suicide bombing.”

Attention turned to the man after the vehicle’s previous owner recalled selling it to someone who was either Arabic or Latino.

The Associated Press reported that the buyer was a man of Pakistani descent who had traveled recently to Pakistan and lived in Connecticut, one of three states, including New York and Pennsylvania, that have figured into the investigation.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the incident, but Obama administration officials, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, insisted Monday it was too early to draw any conclusions as to the legitimacy of the claim or to speculate if the attack was a case of domestic or international terrorism.

“No leads are being discarded,” Napolitano said, but added, “This is an open investigation that really is in its beginning stages.”

Holder resisted labeling the attempt a “terrorist incident,” even though he said there could have been a “substantial loss of life” if the bomb had gone off. “We have some good leads,” he said.

Law enforcement officials say they don’t know if the person was an amateur or a seasoned terrorist whose bomb simply malfunctioned. Earlier Monday, police were seeking information on a slim, balding man captured on a surveillance camera as he walked away from the scene in what Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called a “furtive manner.”

Although the video was aired throughout Monday, nobody had come forward to identify the man.

Kelly and the FBI refused to comment on reports that the SUV had been sold about three weeks ago on Craigslist. CNN reported that the transaction took place at a Connecticut shopping center and that the new owner never registered the vehicle. Kelly said the person who would have sold the vehicle was not under suspicion.

“We have spoken to the owner of record, and the owner of record is not a suspect,” he said.

Kelly has said the car bomb, made of easily purchased items, including alarm clocks and gasoline, could have sent a “significant fireball” hurtling through one of the world’s busiest tourist spots. Holder said that whoever was responsible “intended to spread terror across New York.”

The incident, coming months after a foiled plot by Afghan immigrants to blow up New York subways, underscored the vulnerability of heavily policed Times Square, which since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been under close watch by police and scores of surveillance cameras.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said bystanders’ attention and the reaction of police showed the ability of the city to respond to threats, and that the bustling crowds in Times Square showed the city’s resilience. “It’s a sick and despicable act, but New Yorkers are going about their normal activities,” Bloomberg said.

The city returned to work Monday, seemingly unfazed by the idea that a bomber remained on the loose.

Construction workers Danny Pugliese, 35, and Bobby Marshall, 39, had plunked down their lunch at a table in front of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. They said they hadn’t thought much about the incident over the weekend. Marshall and his family had driven from Long Island to Yonkers to attend the christening of Pugliese’s third child.

“If anything, the economy was more of a topic,” Pugliese said. They had talked Monday about the potential of a car bombing in the city, but only briefly. Both electrical workers who specialize in elevators, they had vivid memories of Sept. 11.

“Before 9/11 you saw something funny and you walked by it,” Marshall said. “Now you look and you wonder and you think twice. It’s just part of the city now.”

It was, in fact, two street vendors who first noticed the suspicious SUV and alerted police.

Marshall said it showed that the city’s post-Sept. 11 campaign that urges people to say something if they see something suspicious had worked.

Pugliese, not convinced, said it was the would-be bomber’s ineptitude that saved the day. “He was an amateur and his bomb messed up. We were lucky. Again,” he said.

Hardened as they are to out-of-routine events, some young New Yorkers lost their casual attitude over the weekend.

Cynthia Laker, 49, said her teenage son had come to her Monday morning and asked if she would drive him to school. Normally, he, his siblings and mother take the subway, which runs under Times Square.

Laker, who remembered the nerve-racking months after Sept. 11, when many New Yorkers froze in fear at the sound of low-flying airplanes, refused to get the car out of the garage.

“I told him, ‘Forget it.’ We can’t go there. If we start to react again, what’s the point of living in the city?” she said.

Vinnie Gorham, a bike messenger who pedals across Manhattan, agreed. Watching out for danger, be it potholes, distracted pedestrians or terrorism, was all in a day’s work for New Yorkers like him.

“I’m so caught up in what I do and on the move, I hardly think about the worst that could happen,” said the wiry, 45-year-old biker before slinging a silver messenger bag over his shoulder and taking off.

tina.susman@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Ken Dilanian in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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