How FBI Caught a Terrorist Nearly 54 Hours After He Set off a Bomb in an SUV at the 'Crossroads of the World'
On May 1, 2010, a beautiful spring evening at the Crossroads of the World nearly turned into bedlam after a terrorist set off a bomb in Times Square.
Times Square is said to be the “Crossroads of the World,” a tourist attraction in the heart of Manhattan that for generations has brought in folks from all walks of life and from all over the globe to marvel at the twinkling lights, massive billboards and shopping.
Due to its popularity, size and proximity to hundreds of thousands of people at any given moment, Times Square is also a terrorist target.
On May 1, 2010, what was supposed to be a beautiful spring evening at the Crossroads of the World nearly turned into bedlam after a terrorist set off a bomb in Times Square.
The story of what happened May 1, 2010, as told to Inside Edition Digital by the FBI agents who helped crack the case will be featured on CBS series “FBI True” which airs tonight at 9 p.m.
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
Known for its illuminated billboards, location of the dazzling, lit-up crystal ball that drops each New Year’s Eve, Times Square has been an American landmark since The New York Times opened a building in the area in 1904.
Times Square sees over 50 million tourists annually, according to reports, thanks to its proximity to the theater district, shopping and entertainment areas of Midtown Manhattan.
The area stretches from 42nd to 47th street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. While it isn’t a massive area it always heavily packed with pedestrians.
In the 1970s, Times Square became the sight of seedy activity with pornography theaters, prostitution and crime which made the area unsafe for nearly 20 years. By the 1990s, the area had been cleaned up, making it family friendly and safe for tourists.
Following the events of September 11, 2001, Times Square bulked up its security and law enforcement presence as members of the NYPD would be a present sight to keep folks safe from crime and terror.
Richard Frankel, a retired FBI agent, tells Inside Edition Digital, “Times Square in 2010, I believe was actually very safe for the general public. You could walk through, they had gotten rid of the porn and the prostitution that was on the streets, you had these characters who you could take pictures with, and at least at that point, they were very engaging …You could go and people from around the world would come and see Times Square.”
“But it was always considered at that time, a place where people could go, families could walk through, and you were generally safe,” he adds.
A Smoking SUV Leads to a Smoking Gun
On May 1, 2010, as theatergoers were leaving their matinee shows that beautiful spring evening, something went awry in an area filled with thousands of eyes. A street vendor had noticed smoke coming from an SUV that was parked on the side of the road near 45th Street and Seventh Avenue. The vendor, a military veteran, called 911.
Greg Ehrie, a former FBI agent, tells Inside Edition Digital, “in New York, especially, if you see the vendors start to get nervous and leave, something's wrong.”
NYPD and FDNY members quickly responded to the scene and created a perimeter to get everyone out of the area to safety.
“When NYPD and FDNY were done clearing the area, it was a ghost town,” Frankel recalls.
Soon local authorities called in the FBI to come to the scene and address the situation.
“It was a startling moment,” Ehrie says. “It was almost like a movie. As soon as I got under the tape, nothing was moving. And as I'm walking, I realized I'm in the heart of this city and it's been evacuated and it's like the proverbial empty dust, things swirling through the street and not a sound, nobody. And I'm from New York.
“Is this the start of something? Is this the end of something? All these thoughts from an investigative standpoint start to roll through your head,” he adds.
Someone left an SUV filled with explosives in the heart of Manhattan.
Peter Licata, retired FBI special agent bomb technician, tells Inside Edition Digital that the NYPD bomb squad had called him in to aid in the situation. Licata said that the NYPD removed a bomb-making device piece by piece from the SUV by using a robot so that the FBI could analyze the parts.
“It was [the terrorist’s] attempt to make a destructive device… we believe that we have to treat this thing as it could function as a car bomb, as a vehicle bomb,” he says. “We didn't really determine what it was or assess what it was until after we separated it. We analyzed the parts, the componentry, and then also had our experts down at the FBI laboratory provide us some analysis ... This was fortunately a poorly constructed attempt at an IED.”
Despite the bomb never exploding, authorities still classified it as a terrorist bombing because a fuse was lit to create destruction.
“It was a bombing,” Ehrie says. “It was just the bomb did not operate as it was intended to, thank God.”
Had the bomb gone off, Licata says it would have been “catastrophic.”
“Fortunately, it wasn't. We got lucky that day. He brought a vehicle that he thought was going to function full of explosives down there to do some significant damage. He, fortunately for everybody, didn't build it the right way,” he adds.
Licata said that thanks to repetitive training, all of the law enforcement agencies involved in the case knew exactly what to do, but it was still a scary situation.
He says that he and other agents had to be “like a duck,” by looking calm on the surface but underneath paddling vigorously to stay afloat and do your job.
“The public, because they can still see. The media's there. You guys have great cameras. You don't want the public, you don't want your boss, and you don't want the people that you're responsible for seeing you confused, lost, fog of war. So you have to use your training, your experience, ask questions amongst your peers, talk about it in order to maintain a level of calmness of any scene that I've been to,” he says. “You're sweating. Anybody that says they weren't, for any device that they've ever responded to, that they didn't have an ounce of concern or they didn't think about fear or something bad could happen, they're lying. Because those are the people I don't want to work with.”
Ehrie jokes with Inside Edition Digital, saying if he see’s Licata get nervous, it is time to worry.
“He's the guy who literally picks the wire to cut. So if he's sweating and getting nervous, I'm like, I'm really upset and he never gets nervous,” he said.
The Hunt to Find a Terrorist
Agents were able to make Times Square safe and defuse the bomb.
The chase was on to find out who did this.
FBI agents traced the SUV to a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan named Faisal Shahzad, who was living in Connecticut. He had purchased the SUV a few weeks earlier.
The then-31-year-old was a married man and father of two children. He was a student at the University of Bridgeport, going for his master's degree in computer science as well as working part-time to make a living, according to the FBI.
“Not a dumb guy, not somebody who was living in his parents' basement, and that's kind of what you would always expect a lone wolf to be,” Frankel says. “This was something that he was really focused on and that people didn't know it. People around him didn't know he was doing this, but he had traveled to Pakistan, he had learned how to build a bomb, and he had enough of a technology and engineering background that he did his best in developing the bomb.”
Nearly 54 hours after the call was made to 911 that an SUV was smoking, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers identified Shahzad at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, on May 3.
Authorities say Shahzad had planned to fly to Dubai to get a connecting flight to Pakistan and meet up with his family, however, FBI agents and NYPD officers arrested him.
Ehrie recalls that “it was interesting when we first put hands on Mr. Shazad, when he was first arrested, he was almost too easily giving up that, ‘No, I'm just disaffected. I'm just angry. I'm only alone.’ And it struck me and my fellow special agents a little too quick.”
The FBI had raided Shazad’s Connecticut home, where they found bomb-making contraband and devices and came to understand how he was radicalized by the Taliban.
“All evidence at that point indicated that this was just somebody who somehow is self-radicalized. But something, that intuition, that instinct took over for all our investigators and said, ‘There's something more here.’ And we started to pull apart forensically the life and talk to him,” Ehrie adds.
Ehrie says that as Shazad was being interviewed, the FBI felt "there's something more to this. And that's where we found out that no, there was direction from an overseas element, that there were connections to a terror tie, that this was actually an act that had been instructed or guided by an overseas terrorist group, in this case, the Pakistani Taliban.”
Shazad was not on the FBI’s radar prior to the May 1, 2010, attempted bombing, which is why agents say it made him the perfect person to carry out this mission for the Taliban.
“Remember, the commonality there, is these groups use people. They find people who either have some kind of challenge in their life or are looking for something and they take full advantage of it. In this case, what we believe or what we know, what we put together now is Mr. Shazad was disaffected, was not happy with his life, was trying to rediscover his religion, went back and it was recognized by these group," Ehrie says. "We don't know exactly who, but they brought him in and they played upon that and they said, ‘You're right. You can strike back. You need to do this for your religious beliefs. You need to do this for your country.’ And it resonated with him. In a lot of ways, although my sympathy is not there, they took advantage of him,” Ehrie adds.
The FBI agents who spoke to Inside Edition Digital said securing the safety of New Yorkers, the quick dismantling of the bomb and the arrest of Shazad came down to great teamwork among all levels of law enforcement that day.
“This is one of the best cases that we did in the FBI, in my opinion, during my time and what I was able to touch. I'm sure there were other great cases coming out of other field offices and before and after my time in the FBI, but this is one that I put up there as one of our top cases because even though Faisal 'was successful' because he lit the fuse, no bomb went off and we were able to track him down in 54 hours, and the task force worked the way it was supposed to,” Frankel says.
Shahzad plead guilty to 10 felony charges related to the attempted bombing. In October 2010, a judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his crimes.
“FBI True” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.
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