Police combed through a charred SUV and a crude assortment of explosives Sunday for clues to a failed Times Square bombing as a monitoring group reported that the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility for the terrorist threat.
An intelligence monitoring group released a one-minute video allegedly from the Pakistani Taliban, in which it claimed responsibility for the failed bombing in a smoking SUV left parked in the city on Saturday night, clearing thousands of tourists and theatergoers from the city's busiest district.
The US-based SITE intelligence group, which monitors militant websites, said the Pakistani Taliban claims the attack is revenge for the death of its leader Baitullah Mehsud and the recent killings of the top leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Images of the slain militants are shown as an unidentified voice recites the message. English subtitles are at the bottom of the screen.
New York authorities were examining the SUV at a forensic lab for fingerprints and DNA evidence, and had isolated a 200-pound gun locker at a police firing range in the Bronx. They were trying to determine whether the locker, recovered from the SUV, could contain more powerful explosives that could have detonated the main explosive device.
The bomb, which partly detonated but malfunctioned, could have sprayed shrapnel that would kill pedestrians in the immediate vicinity, top NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.
"We avoided what could have been a very deadly event," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "It certainly could have exploded and had a pretty big fire and a decent amount of explosive impact."
Bloomberg called the explosive device "amateurish" but potentially deadly, noting: "We are very lucky."
The NYPD bomb squad "has seen sophisticated devices before and they described this one as crude," Browne said. "But it was nevertheless lethal." If detonated properly, it could have created a large fireball and sprayed shrapnel — metal from the propane tanks and car parts — that could have killed pedestrians in the immediate vicinity, Browne said.
Thousands of tourists were cleared from the streets for 10 hours after two vendors alerted police to the suspicious vehicle, which contained three propane tanks, fireworks, two 5-gallon gasoline filled containers, and two clocks with batteries, electrical wire and other components, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
No suspects were in custody. Police were going through surveillance video that showed the car driving west on 45th Street before it parked between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Police were looking for more video from office buildings that weren't open at the time.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that officials are treating the incident as a potential terrorist attack.
A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity with the probe in its initial stage, said investigators have the vehicle identification number enabling them to trace the ownership of the SUV. It is a 1990s vehicle whose ownership history involves other regions of the country and not New York, said the official, who declined to say which regions.
A T-shirt vendor and a handbag vendor alerted police at about 6:30 pm, the height of dinner hour before theatergoers head to Saturday night shows.
Duane Jackson, a 58-year-old handbag vendor from Buchanan, N.Y., said he noticed the car at around 6:30 pm. and wondered who had left it there.
"That was my first thought: Who sat this car here?" Jackson said Sunday.
Jackson said he looked in the car and saw keys in the ignition with 19 or 20 keys on a ring.
He said he alerted a passing mounted police officer.
South Park episode showing Muhammad in bear suit
They were looking in the car "when the smoke started coming out and then we heard the little pop pop pop like firecrackers going out and that's when everybody scattered and ran back," he said.
"Now that I saw the propane tanks and the gasoline, what if that would have ignited?" Jackson said. "I'm less than 8 feet away from the car. We dodged a bullet here."
Connecticut license plates on the vehicle did not match up, and police had interviewed the Connecticut car owner, who told them he had sent the plates to a nearby junkyard, Bloomberg said.
Heavily armed police and emergency vehicles shut down the city's busiest streets, filled with taxis and people on one of the first summer-like days of the year. Times Square lies about four traffic-choked miles north of where terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, then laid waste to it on Sept. 11, 2001.
The car was parked on one of the prime blocks for Broadway shows, with seven theaters housing such big shows as "The Lion King" and "Billy Elliot."
The curtain at "God of Carnage" and "Red" opened a half-hour later than usual, but the shows were not canceled, said spokesman Adrian Bryan-Brown.
Part of a Marriott hotel was evacuated for hours, unnerving thousands of tourists attending Broadway shows, museums and other city sights.
Melissa Williams and Crysta Salinas returned from a visit to the King Tut exhibit near Times Square to find themselves out of their hotel room until 2 am. They sat in a deli until they could get into their room.
"No more New York," said Salinas, 28, from Houston.
"We went to two Broadway shows, we went to the museum, we did everything we wanted to do this time, so we're not going to do this again," said Williams, 56, from Houston.
Meanwhile, the British newspaper Telegraph reported that police in New York are investigating whether the car bomb targeted the makers of the TV series South Park because of a controversial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
The device was left near the offices of Viacom, which broadcasts the provocative cartoon series on its Comedy Central network.
Last month an Islamic website warned South Park’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, that they could face violent reprisals after an April 14th episode featured Muhammad in a bear suit.
The posting on the US-based Revolution Muslim website said Stone and Parker would “probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh”, the Dutch film-maker who was murdered in 2004 by a Muslim angered by his film about Muslim women.
Top federal law enforcement and intelligence officials — Obama's national security adviser James Jones, national intelligence director Dennis Blair, CIA chief Leon Panetta, Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder — planned to participate in a meeting later Sunday on the bomb.
The latest terror threat in New York came last fall when air shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi admitted to a foiled homemade bomb plot aimed at the city subway system.
The theater district in London was the target of a propane bomb attack in 2007. No one was injured when police discovered two Mercedes loaded with nails packed around canisters of propane and gasoline.
Officials said the device found Saturday was crudely constructed, but Islamic militants have used propane and compressed gas for years to enhance the force of explosives. Those instances include the 1983 suicide attack on the US Marines barracks at the Beirut airport that killed 241 US service members, and the 2007 attack on the international airport in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 2007, the US military announced that an al-Qaeda front group was using propane to rig car bombs in Iraq.
Associated Press contributed to the report