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Pakistani Taliban behind Times Square bombing attempt, White House says

The U.S. citizen who attempted to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square on May 1 was trained and funded by a Pakistani militant group that works closely with Al Qaeda to plot attacks against the U.S., top Obama administration officials said Sunday.

“We’ve now developed evidence that shows that the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack,” Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We know that they helped facilitate it. We know that they probably helped finance it. And that he was working at their direction.”

The assertion was repeated by senior White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, who said it appeared as though 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad was “operating on behalf of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the TPP.”

“It’s a group that is closely allied with Al Qaeda,” Brennan said on " Fox News Sunday.” “They train together, they plan together, they plot together. They are almost indistinguishable.”

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A government source who is close to the investigation said Sunday that the Pakistani Taliban instructed Shahzad to always pay cash and never ask for or receive receipts for his transactions. “He was told to leave no paper trail at all,” said the source, who requested anonymity because FBI interrogations are still underway with the suspect.

“He paid cash for his gun, and he paid cash for the van he acquired,” the source said. “He was told to be very careful about not letting anything track back to him. No receipts, and no paper. No nothing.”

He added that officials are trying to determine how much Taliban money was provided to front the operation, who put up the funds and how it was paid out to Shahzad.

Brennan said the Pakistanis had so far “been very cooperative” in the investigation.

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“There are a number of terrorist groups and militant organizations operating in Pakistan, and we need to make sure that there’s no support being given to them by the Pakistani government. We will continue this dialogue,” he said. “The Pakistanis understand the seriousness of this, and we are going to continue to interact with them, but also maintain pressure on them and inside of Pakistan.”

Officials were still investigating the extent of Shahzad’s connection to the Pakistani Taliban, but believed he was trained during his visits to Pakistan. Brennan said he could not comment on whether the group recruited Shahzad — a Pakistani-born naturalized U.S. citizen — because his American passport allowed him to travel easily between the two countries.

Holder and Brennan defended the administration’s anti-terrorism strategy, although Holder said for the first time that he would be recommending changes to the Miranda rules that warn suspects of their rights.

Holder defended the way Shahzad was interrogated in the hours after his capture. Authorities interviewed Shahzad for hours before reading him his Miranda rights, employing what’s called the “public safety” exception. But, Holder said, the rule, which allows interrogators to obtain information about immediate threats, is outdated in the age of international terrorism and may not provide agents with the “necessary flexibility.”

“I think we have to give serious consideration to at least modifying that public safety exception, and that’s one of the things we’re going to be reaching out to Congress to do — to come up with a proposal that is both constitutional but that is also relevant to our time and the threat that we now face,” he said.

Shahzad was arrested as he tried to flee the country on a flight to the Middle East late Monday, 53 hours after an SUV packed with explosives was discovered in Times Square. Although Obama administration officials initially described Shahzad as a lone wolf, since his arrest a fuller picture of his connection to militants has emerged. Shahzad appears to have been radicalized during his time living in the U.S. and allegedly contacted the Pakistani Taliban via the Internet.

The Pakistani Taliban, which initially took credit for the Times Square plot but then retracted the claim, is often described as an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban and has largely been known to be focused on attacking the Pakistan government. The Times Square plot indicates that the group has broadened its reach and goals.

A leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mahsud, was the target of multiple drone strikes last year. Mahsud is reportedly the architect of a series of suicide bombings and raids on markets, mosques and security installations in the latter half of 2009 and is believed to be involved in attacks against the Pakistani government and Americans.

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Asked whether the attempted bombing was specifically motivated by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Brennan said only that the TPP has “targeted U.S. interests and Pakistani interests in Pakistan. They have threatened to carry out attacks against us, including here in our cities. So this is something that has been on their agenda, and they are determined to carry out those attacks.”

Mahsud appeared last month in a video threatening to plot attacks in American cities. Holder said intelligence authorities had been skeptical of the group’s previous claims.

“We didn’t think that necessarily was their aim,” he said on “This Week.” “We certainly have seen with the Shahzad incident that they have not only the aim, but the capability of doing that, and that’s why they have taken on, I think, a new significance in our anti-terror fight.”

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com


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