Did Faisal Shahzad Nearly Get Away?

A police bomb squad unit removes incendiary materials from a Nissan Pathfinder parked in New York's Times Square Saturday, May 1, 2010.
On May 1, 2010, two alert street vendors saw a Nissan Pathfinder with smoke coming out of it parked near Times Square in Manhattan. They told police, and the bomb squad was able to disarm the explosives-packed car bomb before it did any harm. The FBI built and blew up a mock-up of the device to show that, had it detonated as planned on the crowded road in Times Square, the toll in human lives could have been significant.

Updated: May 5,  9:25 AM ET

The Federal complaint against Faisal Shahzad documents that the Pakistani-American tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square and received bomb-making training in Waziristan, Pakistan. Shahzad was tracked as a suspect since late Sunday night, and was added to a no-fly list as a possible terrorist. 

Yet, the Times Square bombing suspect managed to board Emirates flight 202 to Dubai on Monday night. Shahzad was arrested by U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) officials before it left the gate, but after the plane plane was fully boarded and the door closed.

Most curious is how Shahzad, a suspected and potentially dangerous car bomber who was being tracked by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies since late Sunday, was able to drive to crowded Kennedy Airport, with a loaded 9mm handgun with extra clips in the car. It appears that the FBI and others watching Shahzad lost track of him for a period of time as he made his way toward the airport in Long Island.  

When asked about Shahzad's movements, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "I was here all yesterday and through much of last night and was aware of the tracking that was going on. And I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him."

In 2007, a similar domestic terrorism incident occurred in the UK.  Two explosives-filled Mercedes were discovered in major tourist areas of London, near Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. Police were able to disable the car bombs. The day after the car bombs were discovered in London, a Jeep Cherokee loaded with propane gas was driven into a terminal at Glasgow International Airport. The perpetrators of the Mercedes and Jeep car bombs were an Iraqi doctor and Indian aeronautical engineer.  

Upon arriving at the airport Monday night around 7:30 PM ET, with no luggage, Shahzad purchased his ticket to Dubai. Shahzad's name didn't come up on a no-fly list at the airport. The addition of his name to the list on Monday at  about 12:30 PM ET had not yet propagated throughout the computer systems used by the government agencies and the airlines, explained Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano during a press conference Tuesday.

However, his cash purchase of a ticket raised red flags with Emirates Airline. The airline said it notified U.S. government officials about Shahzad's the last-minute ticket purchase, but it's not clear if the information was shared before the suspected bomber was apprehended. The Department of Homeland Security said that the agency was not contacted by the airline, and that CBP agents made the final check. Administration officials chimed in that Emirates Airline systems weren't updated with U.S. intelligence information with sufficient frequency.  

When asked in a press conference how a name very well known in the law enforcement community could board a plane to Dubai, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "There's a process going back and looking at all that happened. I think it is important to understand that the system is built with necessary and built-in redundancy so that if a name is added and a carrier misses the added name, that Customs and Border Patrol, once a manifest is locked, runs those names through a center and can identify anything that a carrier may have missed."

Napolitano said that CBP applied a "be on the lookout" type of alert to prevent Shahzad from fleeing. CBP agents recognized his name on the passenger manifest about 30 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure, AP reported. The agents then captured him in his seat before the plane left the gate.  

The failure of the computer systems--the no-fly list--to detect Shahzad brings up memories of  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He was charged with boarding a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb hidden in his underwear, and became the post-9/11 example of how the computer systems, and human intelligence, can fail to operate effectively.  

Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abjua, Nigeria, several month earlier that his son had fallen under the influence of "religious extremists" in Yemen.

The information about Abdulmutallab's extremism was shared with U.S. intelligence officials, and his name was added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database (TIDE), which includes over 500,000 names. But, he was not added to a no-fly list that could have prevented his boarding the flight to Detroit.

Following the Abdulmutallab incident, President Obama ordered a thorough review of the watch lists and other elements of the strategy applied to reducing the risk of domestic terrorism. The new system created after the Christmas Day bomber fiasco is designed to raise red flags on those whose names do not appear on "no fly" lists by examining suspicious travel patterns and other activity.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) made a further change to the system on Wednesday, announcing a new requirement for airlines related to new additions to the no-fly list. Airlines currently are required to re-check the no-fly list within 24 hours. The new rule requires checking within 2 hours of being notified electronically of an "expedited" no-fly addition, such as Shahzad.

The dramatic capture of Shahzad yielded a better result than in the case of Abdulmutallab. It's an indicator that despite problems with propagating electronic information more rapidly, intelligence coordination is improving. But, it's still a mystery as to how Shahzad managed to get so close to getting far away.

More on the Times Square Bomb Attempt

CBSNews.com Special Report: Terrorism in the U.S.

Shahzad Appeared to be Family Man, Neighbors Say

Faisal Shahzad's Near Escape

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Times Square Link could Force Pakistan's Hand

Shahzad Tried to Return to Pakistan

Gun Found in Bomb Suspect's Car, Sources Say

NYC Bomb Investigation Focus 

Bomb Suspect: How Was He Caught?

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.