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How an ordinary American became a terror suspect

An image of terror suspect Faisal Shahzad is seen on a tv screen as US Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Deputy Director of the FBI John S. Pistole and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly hold a briefing regarding the investigation into the Times Square attempted bombing, in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2010.


He liked to jog, worked as a financial analyst, and was raising two young daughters in a working-class neighbourhood a train ride away from New York City.

From the outside, it looked like a life of ordinary struggles - like many other Americans, he had trouble paying the mortgage - but behind closed doors, something had begun to go very wrong.

On Monday, U.S. authorities charged Faisal Shahzad with terrorism and other crimes for allegedly attempting to detonate a car bomb on a busy street in the heart of Times Square. The unfolding plot stretches from small-town Connecticut to the lawless northwest provinces of Pakistan, where Mr. Shahzad is said to have received explosives training.

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A 30-year old man born into an elite Pakistani family, Mr. Shahzad wasn't on the radar screen of law enforcement agencies until Monday, when they pulled him off a Dubai-bound jet at New York's John F. Kennedy airport.

According to the indictment filed in Federal Court in Manhattan, he confessed to carrying out the failed attack. If the allegations are proven, he will join a select group which is particularly disquieting for U.S. authorities: American citizens who have embraced radical Islam and plotted violence against their country.

Investigators zeroed in on Mr. Shahzad after determining he had purchased the beat-up Nissan Pathfinder carrying the bomb for $1,300 in cash about ten days ago. By Monday, he was headed for Islamabad via Dubai before being intercepted minutes before his plane headed for the runway.

But the investigation of the fizzled bomb attack didn't go off without a hitch.

After identifying Shahzad through the previous owner of the SUV, investigators had him under surveillance when he nearly slipped away.

Authorities initially planned to arrest him at his Connecticut home but lost track of him, two people familiar with the probe told The Associated Press. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the breach in surveillance.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly played down the slip on the morning TV talk shows Wednesday, telling ABC television that "it's not unusual in an investigation" to briefly lose track of the target.

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Shahzad was able to purchase a last minute ticket from Emirates airlines and board a Dubai-bound airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport late Monday night.

But Emirates airlines apparently failed to check the latest version of the terror watch list that included Shahzad's name.

Customs and Border Protection officials saw Shahzad's name on the list of passengers 30 minutes before the flight was to take off. They pulled Shahzad off the plane and arrested him before the plane left the gate.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano credited customs officials with recognizing Shahzad's name on a passenger manifest and stopping the flight. Agents apprehended him on the plane.

A Homeland Security official says the government will now require airlines to check updated no-fly lists within two hours of being notified of changes to the list.

The 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.

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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.

The son of a senior Pakistani air force officer, Mr. Shahzad came to the U.S. eleven years ago and became a citizen just last year. He returned to Pakistan for a five-month spell that ended in February, court documents said.

Until he allegedly drove a Pathfinder packed with propane tanks and gasoline into Times Square on a warm Saturday evening, there was little in Mr. Shahzad's story to suggest a potential threat.

Arriving on a student visa in 1999, he first attended Southeastern University in Washington, D.C.He soon transferred to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in computer science.

He was a competent if unremarkable student, returning to the university for an MBA, which he completed in 2005. By then, in an American rite of passage, become a homeowner.

To purchase the two-story grey colonial in the small town of Shelton outside Bridgeport, he took out a mortgage of $218,000 (U.S.). He married a woman named Huma Mian, an American citizen, and became an American himself in 2009.

According to the Wall Street Journal, he worked for three years at Affinion Group, an international marketing firm, where he was a junior financial analyst.

Last summer, things began to change. The family left their house in Shelton. In September, the bank began foreclosure proceedings.

More importantly, at some point last year, Mr. Shahzad returned to Pakistan for an extended stay. According to court documents, he admitted that he had received bomb-making training in Waziristan, a region known to be an epicentre of extremism.

His father is a retired air vice-marshal in the Pakistani military who lives in an upscale suburb of Peshawar, a city on the edge of the militant-infested tribal area, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kifyat Ali, a relative of Mr. Shahzad's, told media gathered in Peshawar that he visited his family there whenever he was in the country. "We are shocked," said Mr. Ali. "He had no connection with any political party or jihadi group."

According to one security official, Mr. Shahzad also has a brother and other relatives settled in Canada.

As the probe into the Times Square bomb widened, Pakistani authorities detained individuals in the port city of Karachi, where Mr. Shahzad is believed to have spent his formative years. "At this stage, people are just being rounded up. Anyone who knew him," said one senior Pakistani official. "We're chasing everything down."

According to the charges filed yesterday, Mr. Shahzad returned to the U.S. in early February but his wife remained behind in Pakistan. In mid-April, he responded to an online ad for a weathered 17-year old Nissan Pathfinder, meeting the seller in the parking lot of a Connecticut supermarket.

In the last ten days, U.S. authorities said, he used a prepaid cellular telephone to call a fireworks store and also to receive a series of calls from Pakistan. Inside the smouldering Pathfinder, authorities found M-88 fireworks, propane tanks, gasoline, bags of fertilizer, and two alarm clocks.

Mr. Shahzad is reportedly co-operating with the authorities. Besides exposing the mechanics of the attack, they will probe the psychology behind it. Finding out what and who abetted his embrace of extremism will be critical to preventing similar attacks in the future.

Saeed Shah is a freelance writer for The Globe and Mail

With files from Associated Press

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