NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Pakistani-American admitted trying to detonate a bomb in New York's busy Times Square and receiving bomb-making training in a known Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan, U.S. prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Prosecutors charged Faisal Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, with five counts, including attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and trying to kill and maim people within the United States.
"If successful it could have resulted in a lethal terrorist attack, causing death and destruction in the heart of New York City, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said of the bomb plot.
Shahzad was arrested late on Monday after he was taken off an Emirates plane that was about to depart for Dubai. Hours later, several of his relatives were arrested in Pakistan, security sources said.
Prosecutors have not said when Shahzad will appear before a judge in Manhattan federal court. He faces a life sentence if he is convicted.
The former financial analyst, who had worked in neighbouring Connecticut, was accused of driving a crude homemade bomb of gasoline, propane gas, fireworks and fertilizer into a teeming Times Square on a warm Saturday evening.
The bomb was in a sports utility vehicle that prosecutors said Shahzad bought three weeks ago in Connecticut for $1,300 cash after it was advertised online. The Nissan Pathfinder was found in Times Square with a licence plate from another car.
Street vendors selling T-shirts and handbags alerted police to the smoking and sparking vehicle that had been parked awkwardly with the engine running and hazard lights on near a Broadway theatre where Disney's "The Lion King" is performed.
"We believe that this suspected terrorist fashioned a bomb from rudimentary ingredients, placed it in a rusty SUV and drove it into Times Square with the intent to kill as many innocent tourists and theatregoers as possible," Holder said.
If the bomb had exploded in Midtown Manhattan's "crossroads of the world," many people would have died, experts said.
The case was an underlying negative factor in the stock market as Wall Street suffered its worst day in three months, largely on concerns over Greece and Europe's debt crisis.
A complaint filed in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday said that Shahzad admitted "that he had attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square" and "that he had recently received bomb-making training in Waziristan, Pakistan."
Shahzad travelled to the United States from Pakistan on February 3 and told immigration officials that he had been visiting his parents in Pakistan for the past five months and that his wife remained in Pakistan, the complaint said.
Until June 2009, he had worked for about three years as a junior financial analyst for the Affinion Group, a marketing and consulting business, in Norwalk, Connecticut, the company said.
Shahzad told authorities he acted alone in the failed bombing but investigators are sceptical because of the time he spent in Pakistan, a U.S. law enforcement source said. Sources also said he has two children with his wife.
"Based on our collective experience it's hard to really believe that this is something someone would do on their own. It seems hard to pull off alone. There's a lot we don't know yet," a law enforcement source told Reuters.
While U.S. prosecutors said Shahzad admitted training in Waziristan in northwest Pakistan, an intelligence official in Pakistan said Shahzad received militant training in the nearby town of Kohat. The area around Kohat is a stronghold of Tariq Afridi, the main Pakistani Taliban commander in the region.
The Taliban in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the plot though several officials voiced scepticism about the claim.
A security official in Karachi said they had "picked up a few family members" related to Shahzad in connection with the failed bombing.
Holder said Shahzad provided investigators with useful information but declined to discuss specifics.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said it was the 11th thwarted attack on New York City since hijacked airliners destroyed the World Trade Centre's twin towers on September 11, 2001 killing more than 2,600 people.
An Afghan immigrant who admitted to receiving al Qaeda training in Pakistan, Najibullah Zazi, pleaded guilty to plotting a suicide bombing campaign on Manhattan's subway system last September.
President Barack Obama said the investigation would seek to determine whether Shahzad had any connection with foreign extremist groups.
If links were found between the failed bombing and Pakistan's Taliban, Pakistan could come under renewed U.S. pressure to open risky new fronts against Islamic militants.
Authorities have searched Shahzad's home in Bridgeport, Connecticut and were investigating whether Emirates airline made a mistake in letting him aboard its aircraft. (Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Jeremy Pelofsky, Jeff Mason, JoAnne Allen and Jim Vicini in Washington; and William Maclean in London; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Chris Wilson)