Another day, another scare in a cautious New York
NEW YORK (AP) – Police cleared the streets around Times Square on Friday and called in the bomb squad to dismantle what turned out to be a cooler full of water bottles. Earlier in the day, police were called in to check a suspicious package that turned out to be someone’s lunch.
Since a Pakistani-American tried unsuccessfully to set off a car bomb in the heart of the city last weekend, false-alarm calls are up dramatically, nerves are jangled, and media and law enforcement are rushing to the scenes to make sure the reports aren’t something bigger.
More than 600 calls came in since Saturday’s attempted car bombing of a busy street near Times Square – about 30 percent higher than normal, police said.
“This is something that happens fairly regularly,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday. “I think to a certain extent, people are becoming more suspicious, more vigilant. … We understand that’s what happens, and we’re prepared to respond.”
Bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad remained in custody and did not appear in court Friday. Kelly said he continued to cooperate, while Gen. David Petraeus debunked theories that Shahzad had help, saying he apparently worked alone and did not have contact with foreign terror groups.
On Friday, cable news channels went live with images of the false alarm on Times Square, focusing in on the light green cooler as police officials hauled it away from the area. Police don’t know who left the cooler behind. The streets opened within an hour, and workers weren’t told to evacuate.
“It was exciting, but it seemed a little silly, after all – a cooler that somebody left there,” said psychiatrist Thor Bergersen, of Newton, Mass., who watched the drama from the eighth floor of the Marriott Marquis hotel.
But Times Square vendor Walter “Candyman” Wells said the constant scares aroused more suspicion.
“I think they’re testing us, whoever is doing this,” Wells said Friday, sitting on a stool near his table of T-shirts. “They’re playing chess with us right now, but they ain’t gonna win.”
A day earlier, authorities pulled an Emirates airlines plane back from the runway after spotting a passenger’s name they mistakenly thought to be on the “no-fly” list. Two passengers were released within an hour. On Wednesday, the bomb squad looked at an empty truck reeking of gasoline on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge; nothing dangerous was found inside.
The city also has ramped up security on its sprawling subway system, checking bags and stationing more officers there. The subway remains one of the biggest security worries after a plot to bomb it was foiled last year.
The jumpiness has even spread to events only tangentially connected to New York, such as a false-alarm bomb scare in Portsmouth, N.H., on a Maine-to-New York bus. Authorities responded by blocking off streets, evacuating homes and businesses, surrounding the bus with police, and calling in sharpshooters and an armored vehicle.
“We have a bus that’s en route to New York City. We have an incident that occurred in New York City not too long ago. I think it was an appropriate, measured response,” Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland said.
Shahzad, who was pulled off a Dubai-bound plane at Kennedy Airport on Monday and hasn’t appeared in court, continues to cooperate with investigators, Kelly said Friday. Police have surveillance images of Shahzad around Times Square and video that shows his car traveling to the spot where they say he left the smoking SUV rigged with a gasoline-and-propane bomb.
Kelly declined to discuss what Shahzad is telling investigators.
“This individual is cooperating. In these types of situations, you let the information flow, so to speak,” he said.
Law enforcement officials have said they are trying to find links between Shahzad and possible financing sources, including the Pakistani Taliban, which has both claimed responsibility for and denied roles in the botched bombing. A money courier is being sought who may have funneled the 30-year-old budget analyst cash, an official told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
But Petraeus on Friday said Shahzad apparently operated as a “lone wolf.” Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement Friday to the AP that Shahzad was inspired by militants in Pakistan but didn’t necessarily have direct contact with them.
But investigators believe Shahzad had some bomb-making training in Pakistan as he claimed to investigators, a senior military official told the AP.
The official said it is not clear where in Pakistan Shahzad trained, nor what quality of training he received. The failed bomb appeared to be poorly built, investigators said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
Investigators believe Shahzad also may have been inspired by fugitive al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, according to the senior official. The cleric’s Internet sermons are popular among extremist Muslims. However, the investigators have not been able to establish that Shahzad had direct communications with the cleric, an American citizen hiding in Yemen.
Half a world away, New Yorkers who spend every day in Times Square said the recent headlines and bomb scares had made them jumpy, though not enough to switch up their routines.
Alioune Niass, a Senegalese vendor, was in the square on Saturday evening, hawking New York photographs, when the smoking SUV was found.
“Anyone could wrap a bomb in a trash bag and add it to this pile; nobody would think it’s a bomb,” said Niass, pointing to a huge mound of black plastic bags sitting on the curb. “On Saturday, I almost died.”
But Wesley Weddington, a 51-year-old Army veteran selling “I Love New York” T-shirts, felt confident.
He pointed to the heavy police presence that has become common as the scares continue: “This is the safest place today other than the White House.”
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