A huge investigation has begun in New York as security forces try to work out who was responsible for leaving an “amateurish” but potentially devastating car bomb close to Times Square, causing tens of thousands of revellers to be evacuated from the city's busiest tourist district on Saturday night.
Last night, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing in a statement on an Islamist website.
Police acting on a tip-off from a local T-shirt vendor discovered an illegally-parked Nissan SUV packed with propane tanks, petrol, fireworks and two battery-powered alarm clocks a few blocks north of the always-bustling square. Though smoke was already pouring from the vehicle, the device failed properly to detonate.
The big question is now whether the attempted attack was carried out by an isolated extremist or little-known domestic militia, or whether it instead represents an attempt by al Qaida to once more bring fear to the streets of the city where it carried out the September 11 attacks almost nine years ago.
In a one-minute video allegedly released yesterday by the Pakistani Taliban, the group said the attack was revenge for the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud and the recent killings of the top leaders of al Qaida in Iraq.
The video was uncovered by the US-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors militant websites.
“We are taking this very seriously. We are treating it as a potential terrorist attack,” said the US Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, on CNN yesterday, adding that detectives have recovered forensic evidence, including fingerprints, from the vehicle.
A police officer on horseback first discovered the bomb shortly after 6.30pm on Saturday, one of the busiest times of the week in the area known as “the intersection of the world” because of its traffic-clogged streets and tourist-filled pavements.
The car, which had its engine on and hazard lights flashing, was awkwardly parked on 45th street, just north of Times Square and adjacent to several Broadway theatres which were starting to fill up for the night. It smelled strongly of gunpowder and had smoke billowing from air vents near to its back seats.
As police and firefighters flooded the area, evacuating several major buildings, bomb squad officers broke the SUV's windows and used a robotic device to observe the bomb. They discovered that it had malfunctioned while in the process of detonating.
The car contained three propane tanks of a kind usually used for powering gas barbecues, together with two five-gallon cans of petrol, several over-the-counter fireworks, and two alarm clocks which had been adapted with batteries and electrical wire. After it was eventually declared safe, surrounding streets were reopened at around 5.30am.
“We are very lucky. Thanks to alert New Yorkers and professional police officers, we avoided what could have been a very deadly event,” said the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Police have obtained security videos of the car driving to the scene, but have so far not got hold of footage of it being parked.