The One That Almost Got Away: How The FBI Nearly Lost Faisal Shahzad

Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was put on the U.S government’s no-fly list at approximately 12:30 p.m. Monday, and airlines were notified of the change three minutes later. At about 3 p.m. the FBI began surveilling Shahzad at his Connecticut apartment. And yet, several hours later — after somehow eluding the FBI surveillance team — he received a boarding pass for a flight from JFK to Dubai and made it on board before he was stopped. How’d that happen?

While details are still coming to light, it seems to be a failure at two levels: the FBI surveillance team tracking Shahzad somehow lost track of him, and the United Arab Emirates’ national airline apparently didn’t catch his name on an updated no-fly list until it was nearly too late.Shahzad had been under constant federal surveillance at his Connecticut home since about 3 p.m. Monday, the AP reports. Two sources told the AP that the feds were planning to arrest Shahzad there Monday evening. But one source said Shahzad apparently “decided to flee after being spooked by news reports that investigators were seeking a Pakistani suspect in Connecticut.”

It’s not clear how or why the FBI surveillance team lost track of Shahzad.

According to the New York Times, FBI agents first “got eyes” on Shahzad Monday after interviewing his landlord in Bridgeport, where he was leasing a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment. He had signed a one-year lease for the apartment three months earlier.

When FBI agents spotted Shahzad, he was reportedly returning home in a car — registered in his name — after going to the grocery store.

What happened next isn’t clear, but as the Times reports:

First, an F.B.I. surveillance team that had found Mr. Shahzad in Connecticut lost track of him — it is not clear for how long — before he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the officials said. As a result, investigators did not know he was planning to fly abroad until a final passenger list was sent to officials at the federal Customs and Border Protection agency minutes before takeoff.

According to another Times story:

Exactly how long investigators had him under surveillance is unclear. But officials said investigators watched him come home and go inside his house. He emerged later to get back in his car, headed south.

From there, Shahzad somehow made it all the way onto a Dubai-bound plane before being apprehended at the last minute.

So why didn’t the airline catch him? Shahzad’s name had been on the no-fly list since shortly after noon on Monday. As the AP puts it, it “seemed clear the airline either never saw or ignored key information that would [have] kept Shahzad off the plane.”

His name was put on the no-fly list at 12:30, and moments later, airlines (Emirates included) were sent an electronic message telling them to check the list for an update, though as the AP notes, “airline officials would have had to check a Web forum where updates are sent if it were to flag him.”

Four hours later, more information — including Shahzad’s passport number — was added to the list, the Times reports.

Then at 6:30 p.m. — six hours after Emirates had first been notified — Shahzad reportedly called the airline and booked a flight to Pakistan via Dubai. An hour later, he arrived at JFK airport, paid for the ticket in cash and received a boarding pass.

The Times reports that Emirates did report Shahzad’s cash purchase to the TSA — after he was already in custody.

Shahzad was finally caught only after boarding was completed. The final passenger list was sent to a Customs and Border Protection center in Virginia. At around 11 p.m. — roughly 10.5 hours after Shahzad’s name had been added to the no-fly list and 3.5 hours after he’d received a boarding pass — analysts realized someone on the no-fly list had boarded a plane. Shahzad was taken into custody moments later, before the plane left the gate. It’s unclear whether it was immediately clear to law enforcement that the man on the no-fly list was also the Times Square bombing suspect.

Despite the many apparent slip-ups, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested yesterday that law enforcement had the situation under control from the start. “I was here all yesterday and through much of last night and was aware of the tracking that was going on,” he said. “And I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him.”

The government is already changing its standards in the wake of these apparent failures, requiring that airlines check updated no-fly lists within two hours of being notified of changes — instead of within 24 hours, as is currently required.

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