Who's Behind the Times Square Bomb Scare?

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Craig Ruttle / AP

Times Square was void of pedestrians just south of 46th Street in New York City on May 1, 2010, after police closed streets to investigate the suspicious SUV

Updated: May 3, 2010, 7:45 a.m. E.T.

Just about 24 hours after an abortive attack on New York City, its gritty, crowded target, Times Square, was flooded with tourists who were almost unmindful of the muggy spring weather and the TV trucks and cop cars parked along the sidewalks and large pedestrian triangles. On the corner where an SUV loaded with timers, propane tanks and fireworks smoked and then gave off an explosion, all that remained was the shattered Plexiglas that overlaid a poster of Michael J. Fox promoting Values.com. On the opposite corner was one of the area's perennial apocalyptic evangelists wearing a sign on his head that warned "The end is at hand."

Not today. And certainly not on Saturday evening. A T-shirt vendor selling his wares in front of the SUV was reportedly among the first to call the cops to report suspicious smoke. Identified in some press reports as Lance Orton, a Vietnam veteran, he and his stall were not on the corner of 45th Street and 7th Avenue the day after. "He's a wanted man — by the press," says Rallis Gialaboukis, who sells hot dogs across from Orton. Gialaboukis was there on Saturday night too, and was evacuated around 6:30 p.m., as the green Nissan Pathfinder began to give off pops. The area, which includes a huge hotel on one side and the theater where Disney's The Lion King is performed on the other, was emptied by police in order to dismantle the bomb and tow the suspected car away. Some tourists who weren't allowed back into their rooms slept on the streets.

Who planted the tricked-up SUV in the very section where Times Square narrows to a choke point, where Broadway meets up with 7th Avenue in the virtual center of Manhattan? The issue was muddied when the Pakistani Taliban said they were responsible, but the Pakistani government was quick to pour cold water on the Islamic militants' claim. "We do not have any credible or verifiable information about Pakistani involvement at this stage," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a presidential spokesman, "but we condemn terrorism anywhere and everywhere." A senior security official who spoke to TIME not only dismissed the claim but went as far as to compare it to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud's boast that his group was behind a lone gunman's rampage at an immigration office in Binghamton, N.Y., in April 2009. That attack killed 13 people; the assailant was Jiverly Wong, a Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese descent who committed suicide after carrying out the slaughter. Nothing known about Wong suggested anything close to a Taliban link. And on Monday morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on ABC's Good Morning America that there was no "legitimate" evidence that foreign terrorists were connected to the Times Square event.

The New York Police Department too seemed to have put the Taliban on the lower end of its list of suspects. Still, no one dismissed Islamic terrorists completely out of hand. After all, on Friday two New Yorkers were indicted on charges that they attempted to send computers and other supplies to help al-Qaeda modernize. And other reports pointed out that the crude bomb in Times Square seemed to resemble the car bombs that were defused in London in 2007 outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub. British authorities later arrested a number of Iraqis with alleged links to al-Qaeda over the incident, which was apparently part of larger bombing plots, including a fiery but abortive attack on Glasgow Airport.

Instead, the focus appeared to be on domestic terrorism — with leads taking police from Connecticut to Pennsylvania. At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said investigators were examining videotape that showed a white man in his 40s leaving what would be the scene of the crime in a rather furtive way. In the clip, he's seen looking back in the direction of the smoking vehicle while shedding a shirt and stuffing it into a bag. Police were hoping to interview the tourist who took the video. Kelly confirmed that the NYPD and FBI were examining "hundreds of hours" of security videotape from around Times Square, and Bloomberg said there was a "high probability" that law enforcement would capture whoever was behind the plot, with all city agencies working together, along with federal agencies. Police identified the registered owner of the dark-colored Pathfinder and were looking to interview him. The car didn't have an easily visible vehicle identification number, and its license plates came from a vehicle found in a repair shop in Connecticut.

The explosives were unsophisticated. The popping sound was caused by fireworks, the presumed ignition for the explosive substance, which appears to have been 100 lb. of fertilizer found in a gun locker — but it turned out to be of the non-explosive variety. Otherwise, the car would have been cut in half and there would almost certainly have been casualties on the crowded street. The mention of fertilizer rekindled memories of the attack on Oklahoma City, masterminded by Army vet Timothy McVeigh. Carried out with a truckload of fertilizer, the April 19, 1995, incident killed 168 people, making it the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until al-Qaeda's suicide missions against Washington and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

But what government target would McVeigh-like attackers have been trying to destroy? Some reports point out that an Army recruiting office is a couple hundred feet away from the corner where the Pathfinder was illegally parked. And the office has been targeted before: in March 2008 the Armed Forces Career Center between 43rd and 44th streets was damaged by a small explosive device. There have been no arrests in the case.

The area has been the scene of other kinds of violence lately. About a month ago, police arrested 54 people who were part of a riot that terrorized the area and led to four people being shot. In December 2009, police shot and killed a man who had opened fire on Broadway shops with a machine pistol.

Still, Times Square is already shaking off the latest incident as well as the earlier ones, speeding back to the unbridled commerce that makes it the bustling, slightly seamy tourist wonderland where, as the song "42nd Street" goes, "the underworld can meet the elite." While the vendors near the area where the incident occurred were forthcoming about the incident on Saturday night, others on Broadway and 7th Avenue were downright ornery when pestered by reporters. "If I had to answer all the questions people had, I'd lose business," said one. Others didn't quite know where the incident took place. "I think it was 47th Street," said a merchant, pointing away from his store. Meanwhile, theatergoers were gushing into the street after the matinee performance of The Lion King. And Duane Jackson, another Vietnam vet, who has a stall across the street from where Orton sells T-shirts, could be heard on the phone talking to a friend about how the national Vietnam veterans' organization could take advantage of the heroic spotlight it now had.

With reporting by Omar Waraich / Islamabad