From news service reports

NEW YORK — A law enforcement official said today that a suspect in last weekend’s failed car bomb attack in Times Square was taken into custody while trying to leave the country.

The official spoke to The Associated Press early this morning on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
The suspect has not been named. He is being held in New York.  

Law enforcement officials say the suspect is a Pakistani who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and bought the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder used in the failed car bomb three weeks ago and paid cash.

Meanwhile, an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force on Monday took over the investigation  amid growing indications that authorities are focusing on an international connection, U.S. officials and law enforcement sources said.

Investigators and agents also were scouring international phone records showing calls “between some of the people who might be associated with this and folks overseas,” according to a U.S. official who has discussed the case with intelligence officers.

Investigators also uncovered evidence – a piece of paper, fingerprints or possibly both – that also indicates international ties, according to a federal official briefed on the investigation. The material points to “an individual who causes concern to (investigators) who has overseas connections, and they are looking for him,” the official said.

An overseas angle does not necessarily mean that the incident was planned or financed by al-Qaida or another organized group, investigators said. “Think smaller,” said one senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Even as investigators emphasized that the probe is in its early stages and little is definitively known, they pursued what Obama administration officials characterized as a flood of new leads, both foreign and domestic. The Pathfinder’s registered owner, for example, told investigators that he sold it several weeks ago to a stranger, in a cash transaction through Craigslist.

On a day of fast-moving developments from Manhattan to Washington, President Obama was repeatedly briefed on what a senior administration official called “a very active investigation.” Attorney General Eric Holder said in the morning that it was too early to designate the failed bombing as an attempted terrorist incident. By afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was calling it just that.

“I would say that was intended to terrorize, and I would say that whomever did that would be categorized as a terrorist,” Gibbs said, sharpening the administration’s tone.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she and Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman were briefed Monday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“The Secretary told us that federal, state, and local investigators are working around the clock but do not yet know if this was an attempted terrorist attack,” Collins said. “We do know that improvised explosive devices … are a weapon of choice for terrorists and that this incident bears some similarities to the attempted nightclub attack in the United Kingdom in 2007.”

Differences also emerged over the significance of a surveillance video that caught a man in his 40s changing his shirt in an alley and looking over his shoulder near where the Pathfinder was parked. New York City police officials characterized the man as acting suspiciously, but multiple federal law enforcement officials said he may not be the focus of the investigation.

“It looks like he was just taking off his shirt because he was hot,” said one law enforcement official. Investigators were seeking to find another person captured on video running north on Broadway away from the area where the smoking sport utility vehicle caused an evacuation of Times Square.

The SUV was captured on video crossing an intersection at 6:28 p.m. Saturday. A vendor pointed out the Pathfinder to an officer about two minutes later. Times Square was shut down for 10 hours.

Police said the bomb would have created a fireball that likely would have killed or wounded many people, making it the most serious bombing attempt in the United States since the Christmas Day attack aboard a commercial flight bound for Detroit.

The growing evidence of terrorist connections in the Times Square case led the New York-based terrorism task force to become the lead agency in the investigation, which had been overseen by the New York Police Department, a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. That indicates that the failed bombing is being investigated as a terrorist incident with international connections, the official said.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Richard Kolko of the New York field division said in a statement Monday night that the “FBI JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) and NYPD are working this case jointly and have been since the beginning.”

The New York police force, known for its expertise in terrorism matters, is represented on the task force and will remain heavily involved in the probe, officials said.

In the rear of the SUV, police found a makeshift bomb made up of three tanks of propane similar to those used in backyard barbecues; two jugs of gasoline; dozens of M-88 firecrackers; and a metal gun case holding 100 pounds of fertilizer that police said was incapable of exploding.

Officials cautioned that the international focus did not mean that other possibilities, such as domestic terrorism or an individual acting alone, were being ruled out.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.