U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder holds a press conference at Department of Justice headquarters regarding the investigation into the recent attempted Times Square car bombing May 4, 2010 in Washington, DC. Faisal Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan was arrested in connection with the case while on board a flight leaving the country.
Among the myriad of questions surrounding the arrest of the man police say drove a bomb-laden SUV into a packed Times Square on a warm Saturday night with the intent to kill Americans, at least one continues to confound: How'd he get on the plane?
Faisal Shahzad, a Pakastani-born U.S. citizen, was hauled off a flight to Dubai – moments before takeoff -- though he was on a federal no-fly list. He was arrested late Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and federal authorities say he has admitted to plotting the attack. He was charged Tuesday with terrorism and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials said Tuesday there were at least two cracks in the system – the security protocol of the government and the airline -- that nearly enabled Shazhad to slip through, according to The New York Times.
Amid burgeoning questions over how Shahzad boarded the plane despite being on the no-fly list, a Homeland Security official said Wednesday the government will now require airlines to check updated no-fly lists within two hours of being notified of changes.
Authorities put out a note to airlines early Monday afternoon cautioning them to check no-fly lists and then updated Shahzad's information, including his passport number and other details, at about 4:30 p.m., according to the Times. But it appears Emirates didn't check the updated list – because Shahzad bought a ticket and got on the plane.
The Homeland Security official says that until now, airlines have been required to check for updated lists every 24 hours. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on this change.
When updates are made to the no-fly list, notifications to airlines instruct them to check the updated list. The official says airlines could be fined if they don't comply.
Authorities connected Shahzad to the foiled plot via various leads, including a disposable cell phone, the Craigslist seller from whom he bought the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder he configured to blow up and a set of keys he left in the SUV's ignition that included keys to a second car and his Connecticut home.
Yet more than 24 hours after federal authorities linked him to the foiled attack, Shahzad boarded a plane headed for Dubai. How was he permitted to get on?
Sources said investigators, who had been trailing Shahzad for hours Monday after he was spotted coming out of a store near his Bridgeport home around 3 p.m., lost track of him for a period of time. It wasn't clear how long.
Shahzad called in a reservation for an Emirates flight to Dubai by cell phone while en route to the airport and paid for the ticket in cash before boarding the plane, authorities said. Thus, investigators didn't know he was planning to flee the country until customs officials got a final passenger manifest moments before takeoff.
Also, Emirates did not respond to a midday electronic notification telling all airlines to check the no-fly list for a newly added name, reports the Times. That's how Shahzad managed to reserve a flight and purchase his ticket without getting flagged.
While federal authorities applaud the quick, diligent investigation that allowed them to arrest Shahzad before he could flee, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among those who wondered about the time lapse between when authorities confirmed Shahzad's identity and when they arrested him, and acknowledged that fortuity played a role.
"Clearly the guy was on the plane and shouldn't have been," the mayor said. "We got lucky."
Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference yesterday that he was aware investigators were tracking Shahzad and, "I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him."
Officials say they didn't have substantial evidence to arrest Shahzad when they first learned he may be connected to the failed attack. An FBI spokesman declined to speak to the Times on when or how he managed to shake surveillance Monday afternoon.
A spokeswoman declined to comment on allegations Emirates failed to check the no-fly list before takeoff, but the airline said in a statement obtained by the Times that, "Emirates takes every necessary precaution to ensure the safety and well-being of its passengers and crew and regrets the inconvenience caused."
Officials say there's at least one measure they can implement rather immediately to prevent such security lapses from occurring again.
The Transportation Security Administration will assume the responsibility of comparing final passenger lists against no-fly lists, according to the Times. The agency is already reviewing the lists domestically, and by the end of the year, will do the same for domestic flights, officials told the paper.