NEW YORK (Reuters) - The failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square increasingly appears to have been coordinated by several people in a plot with international ties, The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing unnamed Obama administration officials.
White House officials also characterized the incident on Saturday night as attempted terrorism for the first time, dramatically stepping up their description of the intended attack.
“Anybody that has the type of material that they had in a car in Times Square, I would say that that was intended to terrorize, absolutely,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a White House briefing. “And I would say that whoever did that would be categorized as a terrorist, yes.”
The Post cited a U.S. official who, recounting a conversation with intelligence officials, said, “Don’t be surprised if you find a foreign nexus ... They’re looking at some tell-tale signs and they’re saying it’s pointing in that direction.”
Officials cautioned that even if the investigation pointed toward an international link, rather than domestic or anti-government organizations, that did not mean al-Qaeda or a similar group was involved, the Post said.
New York police interviewed the owner of the vehicle on Monday and scrutinized more video tapes from the incident that rattled New Yorkers and forced the evacuation of Times Square, which was packed with thousands of tourists.
The investigation was still trying to identify a thin, white man in his 40s who was caught on video near the car that had been packed with propane gas tanks, plastic containers of gasoline, firecrackers and non-explosive fertilizer.
Authorities called the device amateurish, saying it generated smoke but failed to explode while the car was parked awkwardly in a packed Times Square with its engine running and hazard lights flashing.
The bomb could have set off a deadly fireball that would have blown out windows at the so-called crossroads of the world.
Though the identity of the would-be bomber has eluded investigators, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed that those responsible would be arrested.
“We have made really substantial progress. We have some good leads,” Holder told reporters in Washington, referring to the man in the video. “We are following a number of other leads as well.”
The 19 seconds of video released by police showed the man removing a dark shirt worn over a red shirt, stuffing it into a bag and then walking away with the item. He is seen glancing at least twice over his shoulder.
Earlier, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the man on the video may have been innocently changing his shirt.
Speaking on CNN, Kelly also said police planned to release later on Monday a second videotape, taken by a tourist and showing a man running near the scene at about the time of the incident.
New York and its 8 million people have been on high alert since the September 11 attacks in 2001 in which airliners hijacked by al Qaeda militants toppled the World Trade Center’s twin towers, killing more than 2,600 people.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program, reiterated on Monday that there was “no legitimate evidence” of a link to al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other group in the Times Square incident.
Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said it was unclear whether the failed attack was staged by a single person or a group.
The Taliban in Pakistan said on Sunday it planted the bomb to avenge the killing in April of al Qaeda’s two top leaders in Iraq. Kelly said there was “no evidence” to support the claim.
Security at U.S. East Coast airports was boosted after the Times Square incident to counter possible vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices at airports and crowded public spaces, a Department of Homeland Security official said.
Markets, however, appeared to brush off the car-bomb attempt, the latest in a series of security scares that have frayed the nerves of New Yorkers.
Michael Cheah, senior portfolio manager at SunAmerica Asset Management, described it as an “isolated incident” that was not likely to spark any Treasury market reaction.
(Additional reporting by Will Dunham and Deborah Charles)
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao