NEW YORK — The search to find out who planted a car bomb that fizzled out in crowded Times Square took an international turn Monday as law enforcement officials said they were seeking a potential suspect who had recently traveled to Pakistan and had used cash to buy the SUV from a Connecticut man.
Authorities identified the buyer of the SUV used in the botched bombing after interviewing the registered owner of the vehicle. One of the officials told The Associated Press that the potential suspect is a man of Pakistani descent who recently traveled to Pakistan.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is at a sensitive stage.
The registered owner of an SUV that was parked in Times Square and rigged with a crude propane-and-gasoline bomb told investigators he sold the vehicle to a stranger for cash three weeks ago, a law enforcement official said Monday.
The owner, who lives in Connecticut, was questioned Sunday about his sale of the dark-colored 1993 Nissan Pathfinder to a man he did not know, the official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Officials say the owner, whose name has not been released, is not considered a suspect in the bomb scare. But the revelation of the sale leads authorities one step closer to whomever was aiming for mass carnage on a busy Saturday night in the heart of Times Square and achieved only streets emptied for hours of thousands of tourists.
New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne confirmed Monday that investigators had spoken to the registered owner.
The vehicle identification number had been removed from Pathfinder's dashboard, but it was stamped on the engine and axle, and investigators used it to find the owner of record.
"The discovery of the VIN on the engine block was pivotal in that it led to the identifying the registered owner," Browne said. "It continues to pay dividends."
Two law enforcement officials familiar with the probe said investigators considered the vehicle's history one of the best chances for cracking the case. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the probe is at a sensitive stage.
Investigators tracked the license plates to a used auto parts shop in Stratford, Conn., where they discovered the plates were connected to a different vehicle.
They also spoke to the owner of an auto sales shop in nearby Bridgeport because a sticker on the Pathfinder indicated the SUV had been sold by his dealership. Owner Tom Manis said there was no match between the identification number the officers showed him and any vehicle he sold.
In New York, police and FBI were examining hundreds of hours of video from around the area and wanted to speak with a man in his 40s who was videotaped shedding his shirt near the Pathfinder.
The video shows the man slipping down Shubert Alley and taking off his shirt, revealing another underneath. In the same clip, looks back in the direction of the smoking vehicle and puts the first shirt in a bag.
They traveled to Pennsylvania for video shot by a tourist of a different person, but determined they would not release it to the public. They have also received around 120 tips, and three of which were considered promising. They also collected forensic evidence from the Pathfinder.
In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Saturday's attempted bombing was a terrorist act.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who earlier in the day refused to classify the incident as terrorism, said the bomber intended to spread fear across New York and said investigators had some good leads in addition to the videotape that was released Sunday.
Investigators had not ruled out a range of possible motives, and federal officials said they hadn't narrowed down whether the bomber was homegrown or foreign.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told NBC's "Today" show that no suspects or theories had been ruled out.
"Right now, every lead has to be pursued," she said.
Barry Mawn, who led New York's FBI office at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has since retired, said suspects could range from those sympathetic to the interest of U.S. enemies to a domestic terrorist to a disgruntled employee who worked in Times Square.
The Pakistani Taliban appeared to claim responsibility for the bomb in three videos that surfaced after the weekend scare, monitoring groups said. New York officials said police have no evidence to support the claims.
The SUV was parked near offices of Viacom Inc., which owns Comedy Central. The network recently aired an episode of the animated show "South Park" that the group Revolution Muslim had complained insulted the Prophet Muhammad by depicting him in a bear costume.
The date of the botched bombing – May 1 – was International Workers Day, a traditional date for political demonstrations, and thousands had rallied for immigration reform that day in New York.
Security had been also been tight in the city in advance of a visit to the United Nations by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a nuclear weapons conference.
Police said the bomb could have produced "a significant fireball" and sprayed shrapnel with enough force to kill pedestrians and knock out windows. The SUV was parked on a street lined with Broadway theaters and restaurants and full of people out on a Saturday night.
The SUV was captured on video crossing an intersection at 6:28 p.m. Saturday. A vendor pointed out the Pathfinder to an officer about two minutes later. Times Square, clogged with tourists on a warm evening, was shut down for 10 hours.
The explosive device had cheap-looking alarm clocks connected to a 16-ounce can filled with fireworks, which were apparently intended to detonate the gas cans and set the propane afire in a chain reaction, said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
A metal rifle cabinet placed in the cargo area was packed with fertilizer, but NYPD bomb experts believe it was not a type volatile enough to explode like the ammonium nitrate grade fertilizer used in previous terrorist bombings.
The exact amount of fertilizer was unknown. Police estimated the cabinet weighed 200 to 250 pounds when they pulled it from the vehicle.
To experts in explosives, it seemed to be the work of someone who really didn't know what they were doing.
Chris Falkenberg, president of Insite Security, which works with Fortune 500 companies, said the device, as described by authorities, "doesn't differ much at all from 'The Anarchist Cookbook'" – the underground 1971 manual for homemade explosives.
He said revelations that the fertilizer used could not have exploded suggested "this is amateur hour. My kids could build a better bomb than this."
President Barack Obama telephoned handbag vendor Duane Jackson, 58, of Buchanan, N.Y., on Monday to commend him for alerting authorities to the smoking SUV. The White House said Obama thanked Jackson for his vigilance and for acting quickly to prevent serious trouble.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister, Deepti Hajela, Ula Ilnytzky and Jim Fitzgerald in New York; Darlene Superville and Pete Yost in Washington; and John Christoffersen in New Haven, Conn.