Federal law enforcement officials offered no explanation Tuesday for how the suspect in the failed Times Square bombing was allowed to board an international flight despite being hunted by the FBI and placed on the government no-fly list.
At a news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder said the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, had admitted trying to set off a car bomb in crowded Times Square on Saturday. He faces terrorism and weapons of mass destruction charges, Holder said.
"Based on what we know so far, it is clear that this was a terrorist plot aimed at murdering Americans in one of the busiest places in our country," Holder said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Shahzad, a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, was placed on the no-fly list as authorities closed in. She credited Customs officials for recognizing his name on a passenger manifest and stopping the flight.
But she had little explanation for how Shahzad was able to board the flight with a last-minute ticket. Passengers on the no-fly list should not be allowed to board a plane.
"I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him," Holder said.
Shahzad's name was added to the no-fly list early Monday afternoon as a result of breaking developments in the investigation, according to a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Counterterrorism officials send electronic notifications to airlines when watch lists are updated, but it is up to the airlines to check the web forum where the notifications are sent. If Emirates airlines had done this, the airline would have been able to flag Shahzad when he purchased his ticket later that night. Because they didn't law enforcement officials were not aware of his travel plans until they received the flight manifest 30 minutes before takeoff, the official said.
Because Customs and Border Protection officials were on the lookout for Shahzad since the early afternoon, they recognized his name on the manifest and ordered the flight to be stopped so they could arrest him. The flight had not left the gate at that point, the official said.
"There's a series of built-in redundancies, this being one of them," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "If there's a mistake by a carrier, it can be double-checked."
The airline could not immediately be reached for comment.