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Authorities search home, gas station, arrest 2 in NYC bomb probe

May 13, 2010 10:11 PM
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Two Pakistani men who authorities believe sent money to the suspect in this month's attempted car bombing in Times Square were taken into custody Thursday in Greater Boston after investigators searched a house in Watertown and a gas station in Brookline.

The men arrested were Pir Khan, 43, a taxi driver, and Aftab Khan, a gas station attendant in his 20s, both of whom live in the Waverley Avenue apartment in Watertown that was raided by the federal agents, according to a law enforcement official and several acquaintances.

Pir and Aftab Khan are distant relatives, a coworker of one of the men said; both were detained on what authorities said were immigration violations. The two men had been under surveillance for an unspecified period as a result of evidence gathered by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, according to Massachusetts State Police Colonel Marian McGovern.

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Bharara is leading the investigation into the alleged attempt on May 1 by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born former financial analyst from Bridgeport, Conn., to ignite a bomb in New York. The arrests in Massachusetts, and another of an unidentified individual in Maine, were part of a series of raids in half a dozen locations in the Northeast, including on Long Island and in New Jersey, according to authorities.

US Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters in Washington yesterday that authorities believe there is evidence that the three men arrested had given money to Shahzad.

"One of the things we are going to be trying to determine" is whether the men knew they were supplying funds for an act of terrorism, Holder said.

A law enforcement official in Washington said the two men arrested in Massachusetts are Pakistani and are believed to have sent money to Shahzad before he allegedly tried to detonate the car bomb on May 1.

Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Boston, said the Massachusetts arrests did not "relate to any known immediate threat to the public or any active plot against the United States."

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who had been briefed on the raids beforehand, sought to reassure residents that there was ``no immediate threat to persons or property in Massachusetts.''

``I know that people are concerned since the attempted bombing in Times Square and for that reason police have stepped up their surveillance and their vigilance in public facilities and in large crowds,'' Patrick said at a State House news conference.

The two Massachusetts men were arrested early Thursday morning. One man, believed to be Aftab Khan, was seen being placed into an unmarked car outside a small white house at 39 Waverley Ave. in Watertown shortly after 20 federal agents with guns drawn raided the home around 6 a.m. The taxi driver, believed to be Pir Khan, was arrested around 7:30 a.m. by federal and state authorities, who pulled over the cab he was driving outside the Doubletree Guest Suites on Soldiers Field Road in Allston.

Federal agents searched the Watertown house and a Mobil gas station at 198 Harvard St. in Brookline, and interviewed people who knew the men.

The Khans were among several Pakistani men who lived on the first floor of the Watertown house.

"He’s a good person," said an acquaintance of Pir Khan, who did not want to be identified. She said Pir Khan is married and has lived in the United States for more than a decade but does not have a green card and is apparently here illegally.

Pir Khan listed himself as president of Swabi Cab on documents filed with Secretary of State William F. Galvin's office two years ago, but other documents show a different owner.

An employee at the 7-Eleven store on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown said Pir Khan worked the overnight shift at the store for a few weeks about a month or two ago, filling in for one of Khan's roommates, who was vacationing in Pakistan.

Naseer Khan of Cambridge, a friend and former roommate of Pir Khan who is not related, said he was shocked to hear that Pir might have been arrested in connection to the attempted bombing.

``No, he is not this kind of person," he said.

Naseer Khan said Pir is a taxi driver and has not returned to Pakistan since coming to the US about 15 years ago.

Muhammad Hanif, the imam at the Allston Brighton Islamic Center, said that Pir Khan would come to the center on Fridays for prayer services.

"He was a quiet person with a good personality. A calm person," Hanif said. "We are very astonished and surprised to hear such news about him."

Fida Muhammad, a clerk and gas attendant at the Mobil station on Cypress Street in Brookline, said Aftab Khan worked at that station and the one on Harvard Street.

Muhammad said he’s known Aftab Khan for about five months and that he was surprised to learn of his arrest.

"He’s a good person," he said. "He came here on a visa, but the visa expired, and he was trying to apply to stay."

In the Watertown arrest, neighbor Vincent Lacerra said he was watching television around 6 a.m. when he heard a commotion outside, and looked to see about 20 FBI agents with guns drawn approaching the white house across the street, yelling, ``FBI, don't move, put your hands up!''

"When I looked out the window, I saw tons of men with rifles or guns pointing to the house,'' said his wife, Barbara. ``They were surrounding it.''

Shortly afterward, an agent from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement walked a man in a gray shirt and handcuffs out of the house, placed him in a black unmarked car, and drove off.

For much of the rest of the day, FBI crime scene workers were seen leaving the house with brown bags and boxes of potential evidence that they carried to two large trucks.

Baij Joshi, who manages the Watertown property for his father, Shubh, said three Pakistani men lived on the first floor of the house and had been there for ``more than two to three years.'' He said some had spoken recently of taking a trip to Pakistan.

Joshi said the men always paid their $1,100 rent by check, except for last month, when one of them, whom he identified as Pir Khan, paid with cash. Joshi said one of the men drove a taxi, another worked at a gas station in Brookline, and a third worked at a convenience store.

Several Watertown police officers stood watch outside the Waverley Avenue house Thursday night out of concern for traffic and potential acts of ``retaliation,'' said Watertown Police Chief Edward P. Deveau.

Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Boston, said he received a lot of calls and emails from members of the Muslim community who were appalled by the attempted bombing in New York and upset after learning that people in this area may have been connected to it.

In Brookline, federal agents descended on a popular Mobil station in Coolidge Corner around 6 a.m. As station owner Elias Audy, a longtime Brookline civic leader who immigrated from Lebanon in the 1960s, looked on, authorities searched the car-repair bays as well as examined cars parked near the gas pumps.

Federal agents focused on a silver Honda, looking extensively in its trunk. Around 10:40 a.m., Audy left on foot along Harvard Street, accompanied by a woman, and the pair entered a waiting car a half-dozen blocks away. Audy declined comment.

An employee of a second Brookline Mobil station owned by Audy -- located at Route 9 and Cypress Streets -- said federal officials questioned Audy because of a Pakistani worker who had been recently hired.

Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation expressed alarm at the prospect that Shahzad, who is said to be cooperating with investigators, may have had accomplices in the Boston area.

"It is sobering to learn that some of those leads appear to have taken investigators into Watertown and Brookline,'' said US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat whose district includes Watertown.

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said that as soon as his department learned recently about a ``nexus to Boston" police stepped up security.

"We put additional surveillance units on at any public gathering that was substantial,'' he said, including a recent series of events in Boston honoring Marines, and sporting events.

Shahzad, 30, was arrested a little more than two days after a crude car bomb was found in a smoking car in Times Square. According to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the naturalized citizen had returned to the United States on Feb. 3, telling immigration officials he had been visiting his parents for five months in Pakistan. He indicated he intended to stay at a motel in Connecticut while he looked for a place to live and for a job.

On April 24, Shahzad allegedly met with the owner of a Nissan Pathfinder in a Bridgeport, Conn., supermarket parking lot, buying it for $1,300, paid in 13 $100 bills. The Pathfinder was found in Times Square a week later, loaded with propane tanks, gasoline canisters, and fertilizer, along with fireworks, clocks, wiring and other items, the FBI said.

After being arrested, Shahzad allegedly admitted that he had recently received bomb-making training in Waziristan, Pakistan.

The commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said Thursday that the widening investigation into the attempted bombing suggests a growing ability of terrorists and other radical groups in Pakistan to orchestrate attacks far from their base of operations.

Michael Levenson, David Abel, Martin Finucane, Milton J. Valencia, Bryan Bender, Travis Andersen, Patricia Wen, and Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondent Sarah Thomas, contributed to this report.

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