Faisal Shahzad: From suburban father to terror suspect

Islamabad: Timessquarefaisalstory.jpgThey took their places in the wood-paneled courtroom, 58 people from 32 countries. They listened as a federal magistrate banged the gavel and said it was "a wonderful day for the United States"-- the day they would become Americans.

The magistrate talked about Thomas Jefferson and told the group that they could run for office -- only the presidency and the vice presidency were off limits, according to a tape recording of the proceedings in a Bridgeport, Conn., courtroom last year, on April 17. On her instructions, they raised their right hands and repeated the oath of citizenship.

One man in the group was the Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad, whose father or grandfather was a Pakistani military official and who, at 29, had spent a decade in the United States, collecting a bachelor's degree and a master's degree and landing a job with a Connecticut financial marketing company.

He had obtained citizenship through marriage to a woman who was born in Colorado -- the authorities say she and their two young children are still in Pakistan, where they believe he was trained in making bombs last year in Waziristan, a tribal area that is a haven for militants.

On Saturday, the authorities said, Mr. Shahzad drove a Nissan Pathfinder packed with explosives and detonators, leaving it in Times Square.

About 7 p.m., as a robot from the bomb squad was being summoned to the S.U.V., Mr. Shahzad called his landlord from the train to Connecticut and said he had lost his keys; in a criminal complaint filed on Tuesday, the authorities said the keys had been locked inside the Pathfinder.

The landlord met him at the apartment that night to let him in. "He looked nervous," said the landlord, Stanislaw Chomiak, who had rented him a two-bedroom apartment in Bridgeport since Feb. 15. "But I thought, of course he's nervous, he just lost his keys."

In nearly a dozen years in this country, Mr. Shahzad had gone to school, held steady jobs, bought and sold real estate, and kept his immigration status in good order, giving no sign to those he interacted with that he had connections to terrorists in Pakistan. Nor was there any indication that he would try to wreak havoc in one of the world's most crowded places, Times Square.

His neighbors in Connecticut said the things neighbors always say about someone who suddenly turns up in the headlines -- he was quiet, he was polite, he went jogging late at night. Like so many others, he lost a house to foreclosure -- a real estate broker who helped him buy the house, in Shelton, Conn., in 2004 remembered that Mr. Shahzad did not like President George W. Bush or the Iraq war.

"I didn't take it for much," said the broker, Igor Djuric, "because around that time not many people did."

George LaMonica, a 35-year-old computer consultant, said he bought his two-bedroom condominium in Norwalk, Conn., from Mr. Shahzad for $261,000 in May 2004. A few weeks after he moved in, Mr. LaMonica said, investigators from the national Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed him, asking for details of the transaction and for information about Mr. Shahzad. It struck Mr. LaMonica as unusual, but he said detectives told him they were simply "checking everything out."

Mr. Shahzad was born in Pakistan in 1979, though there is some confusion over where. Officials in Pakistan said it was in Nowshera, an area in northern Pakistan known for its Afghan refugee camps. But on a university application that Mr. Shahzad had filled out and that was found in the maggot-covered garbage outside the Shelton house on Tuesday, he listed Karachi.

Pakistani officials said Mr. Shahzad was either a son or a grandson of Baharul Haq, who retired as a vice air marshal in 1992 and then joined the Civil Aviation Authority.

A Pakistani official said Mr. Shahzad might have had affiliations with Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant linked to Al Qaeda who was formerly associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India militant group once nurtured by the Pakistani state. But friends said the family was well respected and nonpolitical.

"Neither Faisal nor his family has ever had any links with any jihadist or religious organization," one friend said. Another, a lawyer, said that "the family is in a state of shock," adding, "They believe that their son has been implicated in a fake case."

Mr. Shahzad apparently went back and forth to Pakistan often, returning most recently in February after what he said was five months visiting his family, prosecutors said. A Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Shahzad had traveled with three passports, two from Pakistan and one from the United States; he last secured a Pakistani passport in 2000, describing his nationality as "Kashmiri."

Mr. Shahzad's generation grew up in a Pakistan where alcohol had been banned and Islam had been forced into schools and communities as a doctrine and a national glue.

"It's not that they don't speak English or aren't skilled," a Pakistani official explained. "But in their hearts and in their minds they reject the West. They can't see a world where they live together; there's only one way, one right way."

According to immigration officials, Mr. Shahzad arrived in the United States on Jan. 16, 1999, less than a month after he had been granted a student visa, which requires a criminal background check.

He had previously attended a program in Karachi affiliated with the now-defunct Southeastern University in Washington; a transcript from the spring of 1998, found in the garbage outside the Shelton house, showed that he got D's in English composition and microeconomics, B's in Introduction to Accounting and Introduction to Humanities, and a C in statistics.

He enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, where he received a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering in 2000, followed by a master's in business administration in 2005.

"If this hadn't happened I would have long forgotten him," said William Greenspan, Mr. Shahzad's adviser as an undergraduate. "There are a lot of students you get to know; they call you up once in awhile to say hello, they got a nice job. After he left U.B., I never heard anything from him."

In January 2002 Mr. Shahzad obtained an H1B visa, a coveted status meant for highly skilled workers and good for three years, with a possible extension. Records show that Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics giant, applied for a visa around that time for a job similar to the one he had there in 2001, arranged through a temporary employment agency called Accountants Inc., according to a timecard found in his trash. Officials at the cosmetics company refused to comment.

In 2006, Mr. Shahzad took a job as a junior financial analyst at Affinion Group in Norwalk, a financial marketing services company. Michael Bush, the company's director of public relations, said Mr. Shahzad resigned in mid-2009; government officials said he was unemployed and bankrupt by the time of his arrest.

After his marriage, to Huma Mian, he petitioned the immigration agency in 2004 to change his status; he wanted to become a permanent resident, another step on the path to citizenship.

Ms. Mian had just graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a business degree, according to Bronson Hilliard, a university spokesman. She lived in dormitories and in family housing, sharing her quarters with a sister or a cousin, Mr. Hilliard said.

Her parents lived in the Denver suburb of Aurora. A neighbor in their condominium complex, Johnny Wright, remembered that her new husband had visited the family only once before she joined him.

"He seemed educated," Mr. Wright said. "Didn't make a lot of conversation."

The Mians moved out in 2008, leaving a post office box overseas as a forwarding address. Meanwhile, Mr. Shahzad applied for citizenship that October.

Shortly after his naturalization ceremony in the Bridgeport courthouse, his name appeared on a case in another Connecticut court, a foreclosure action by Chase bank.

He and his wife had bought a newly built single-family house on Long Hill Avenue in Shelton in 2004 for $273,000, with a $218,400 mortgage, according to court papers.

They tried to cash in on the real estate boom, listing it for sale for $329,000 in 2006. It did not sell, said Frank DelVecchio, an agent who picked up the listing in 2008. The price then was $299,000. Later it was marked down to $285,000, and finally, $284,500.

In Shelton, neighbors remembered Mr. Shahzad's walking early in the morning in sandals and loose-fitting shirts, and jogging late at night in black athletic clothes; his wife wore a long dress and a shawl covering her hair. They had toys in their garage and a little swimming pool in the back; last summer, friends went over for barbecues.

"He wasn't unfriendly," said Debbie Bussolari, a 55-year-old dental technician who lives across the street. "He seemed a little different."

The family had several tag sales last summer, offering knickknacks and kid stuff, "things that you would give to Goodwill," said Mary Ann Galich, 55, who lives behind the house.

"She was outside dealing with the people, and he was dealing with the money," Ms. Galich recalled.

Davon Reid, 17, who lives next door, said the family moved in December: "It seemed like they picked up everything very quickly." A few months later, a real estate broker let him in to check the place out, and it was a wreck.

"There was spoiled food and milk everywhere," he said. "They just left everything. They left clothes in closets, the kids' shoes, the woman's shoes. And the kids' toys."

Three months ago, Mr. Shahzad signed a one-year lease on the two-bedroom apartment in Bridgeport. Mr. Chomiak, the landlord, said he usually saw Mr. Shahzad only when the rent was due, but he described him as a nice guy who furnished the apartment sparsely, and said he made a living selling jewelry in New Haven.

Other details took on significance in light of the arrest. When Mr. Chomiak went looking for Mr. Shahzad on Monday, he noticed a distributor cap and two small bags of fertilizer in the garage.

Mr. Shahzad, Mr. Chomiak said, mentioned that he wanted to grow tomatoes.


Story First Published: May 05, 2010 08:02 IST

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