BROOKLINE, Massachusetts – Federal agents have arrested three Pakistani men suspected of funneling money to the failed Times Square car bomber during a series of raids across the northeastern United States.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that "at least three arrests" had been made in searches across the region and that the suspects were linked to Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born US citizen alleged to have planted the May 1 bomb.
Officials stressed that the arrests were made on immigration charges and did not indicate any new threat. Holder said it remained unclear whether the men knew the funds they provided through their services would serve terror purposes.
"These individuals have not been charged with any terrorism violations, but are being held for alleged administrative immigration violations," Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd told AFP.
However, Holder described the development as a "significant step" in the probe into Shahzad, who was arrested May 3 as he attempted to fly from New York to Dubai.
Shahzad traveled to Ronkonkoma, a suburban Long Island, New York community, in the days before his botched bombing attempt to collects thousands of dollars in cash, including funds that helped finance his plan, The New York Times reported.
The Washington Post said Pakistani authorities had arrested a man with ties to the Taliban in Pakistan who admitted to helping Shahzad and said the umbrella group known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was behind the foiled attack.
But officials told the Post there were inconsistencies between the two suspects' accounts.
Holder said the Pakistani Taliban, which early on claimed the bombing plot, was "responsible for this attempted attack" after US officials were initially skeptical about the claims.
During a surprise visit to police headquarters in New York, President Barack Obama praised officers for their effectiveness in tracking down Shahzad, calling the NYPD's counterterrorism work "a model for the country."
Shahzad paid 1,300 dollars for the Nissan SUV he allegedly packed with propane tanks, gasoline, fertilizer and a malfunctioning, home-made detonator.
The Connecticut resident, who had left his job and was bankrupt with his home in foreclosure, owned a second vehicle allegedly parked as a get-away car and was renting an apartment.
Officials would not say where the transactions took place, but US media cited locations in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, in addition to two raids in Massachusetts.
In the Boston suburb of Brookline, police, FBI and immigration officers swarmed over a Mobil gasoline station, an AFP reporter said. Helicopters hovered over the quiet street and police taped off the facility.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were among those present, along with uniformed and plainclothes personnel.
Another raid took place at a home in Watertown, west of Boston.
Local resident Vincent Lacerra described dramatic scenes as FBI agents brandishing weapons yelled for his neighbor to surrender.
"I heard a loud shout: 'FBI, FBI, get your hands up!' They screamed at the top of their lungs," Lacerra told AFP.
"There were 15 to 20 FBI agents wearing bullet proof vests. It looked like they had shotguns. They had long barrels."
The suspect emerged about 15 minutes later with officers, his ankles and wrists cuffed. The FBI then hauled computers, papers and other belongings from the house, Lacerra said.
Authorities have been interrogating Shahzad since his dramatic arrest at JFK Airport in New York, as his Dubai-bound plane was about to take off from the tarmac.
The discovery of the crude bomb inside a parked car in crowded Times Square prompted an evacuation of the popular tourist spot and a massive manhunt that culminated 53 hours later in Shahzad's arrest.
He faces five terror-related charges, and Holder said he had provided "useful information" to interrogators since his arrest.
The 30-year-old son of a retired Pakistani Air Force officer apparently has not asked for a lawyer. He has yet to appear in court after waiving his right to a speedy arraignment.
The attempted attack left residents, visitors and authorities in Times Square jittery, with several "suspicious packages" that later turned out to be harmless sparking false alarms.
US aviation officials also changed security regulations, shortening the amount of time for airlines to check updated "no-fly" lists, after Shahzad was able to board his flight despite having been added to the list.
© AFP 2013