WATERTOWN, Mass. — Two Pakistani men suspected of providing money to Times Square car bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad were arrested by the FBI in a string of Thursday morning raids across the Northeast, law enforcement officials said.
The searches in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey were the product of evidence gathered in the investigation into the Times Square bomb attempt two weeks ago, but there was “no known immediate threat to the public or any active plot against the United States,” FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz said.
Three people were arrested on suspected immigration violations: the two Pakistani men in the Boston area and one person in Maine, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brian Hale said. All three arrests are administrative and not criminal, he said. The three were not immediately charged with any terrorism-related offences.
The two Boston-area men had a “direct connection” to Shahzad, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, said a top Massachusetts law enforcement official. They are believed to have provided money to him, but investigators weren’t sure whether they were witting accomplices or simply moving funds, as is common among people from the Middle East and Central Asia who live in the U.S., said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
“These people might be completely innocent and not know what they were providing money for, but it’s clear there’s a connection,” the official said.
Authorities are now trying to determine the source of any money that might have been moved to the Boston-area men.
“That’s the focus of the ongoing investigation,” said the official.
Another law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said one of the men had overstayed his visa and that the government had already begun proceedings to remove the other man from the country; he was awaiting a ruling from an immigration court. The official was not authorized to release details and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Police cordoned off a small house in Watertown, a suburb about 16 kilometres west of Boston, and a neighbour reported seeing an FBI raid there.
A Mobil gas station in Brookline, another Boston suburb, also was raided. The entrances and exits to the station were cordoned off by yellow tape, and FBI agents were going in and out of the building. Agents also searched a silver Honda in the parking lot, removing items from the vehicle and loading material into an SUV.
Marcinkiewicz said the arrest in Maine was part of the investigation into the Times Square bomb plot, but said she had no additional details about the arrest.
“They’re all connected, but the specifics to Maine I don’t specifically what they were doing,” she said. “But in their operation, they came across somebody who was in violation of immigration laws,” she said.
Homes were searched in Centereach and Shirley, N.Y., both on Long Island, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Ashim Chakraborty, who owns the home in Centereach, said FBI and police came to his home Thursday morning seeking to question a couple — a Pakistani man and an American woman —who have lived in the basement apartment for the past 18 months.
The woman, who did not identify herself, was still in the basement Thursday afternoon, telling reporters only, “Drop dead, I’m an American.”
In New Jersey, the FBI searched a home in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a print shop in Camden, N.J., said FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver in Philadelphia.
Two brothers, Muhammad Fiaez and Iqbal Hinjhara, live at the Cherry Hill condominium, Fiaez said. He said his brother owns the print shop.
Authorities arrived at their home at 6 a.m., Fiaez said, questioned him and his brother on how long they have lived in the U.S. and on the business. After questioning, the FBI told Fiaez he wasn’t of interest to them.
Shahzad has been in custody at an undisclosed location since his arrest on May 3 from a Dubai-bound plane at Kennedy Airport. He has waived his right to an initial court appearance and will appear in court as soon as he is finished talking with investigators, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Thursday in White Plains, N.Y. Federal investigators say he has told them he received weapons training in Pakistan.
Elias Audy, 61, of Boston, is listed at the owner of the Mobil station. He was seen by reporters leaving the business afterward and had no comment.
Shahzad, 30, is accused of trying to detonate a bomb-laden SUV in Times Square on May 1. Police said the bomb had alarm clocks connected to a can filled with fireworks apparently intended to detonate gas cans and propane tanks.
The vehicle smouldered but didn’t explode. Federal agents, tracing Shahzad through the SUV’s previous owner, caught him two days later on a plane bound for the United Arab Emirates as it was departing New York’s Kennedy Airport.
There was no immediate comment from Pakistan on the raids Thursday.
Islamabad has said it was too early to say whether the Pakistani Taliban, which operates from the country’s lawless northwest tribal region, was behind the Times Square plot although the U.S. said it found a definite link. But Pakistan promised to co-operate with the investigation and has detained at least four people with alleged connections to suspect Faisal Shahzad.
Vinny Lacerra, 50, who lives across the street from the house raided in Watertown, said he was in his living room about 6 a.m. when he heard somebody say, “FBI! Put your hands up!”
Lacerra said he looked out his windows and saw 15 to 20 FBI agents with their guns drawn surrounding the house.
About 15 minutes later, the agents went inside and came out with one man handcuffed and took him down the street, he said. He also said he saw an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I was surprised to see this, because this is what you see on TV,” Lacerra said.
There was no indication that Audy, the gas station owner, was a target of the terror probe.
Audy was born in Lebanon, and came to the United States at 19 to study at the University of Houston in Texas and then at Northeastern University in Boston near his brother, according to the website of a used car dealership Audy also owned.
“He’s very, very philanthropically minded as a businessman, very involved in his community,” said Harry Robinson, executive director of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce.
Robinson said Audy has a wife and family and has been a longtime U.S. resident. Robinson also said he was not only involved in the chamber, but the local Rotary club.
Shahzad had been living in Connecticut. William Reiner, FBI spokesman in Connecticut, there were no search warrants served in the state Thursday as part of the investigation.