NEW YORK – The Boston Marathon bombers were headed for New York’s Times Square to blow up the rest of their explosives, authorities said Thursday, in what they portrayed as a chilling, spur-of-the-moment scheme that fell apart when the brothers realized the car they had hijacked was low on gas.
“New York City was next on their list of targets,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told interrogators from his hospital bed that he and his older brother decided on the spot last Thursday night to drive to New York and launch an attack. In their stolen SUV, they had five pipe bombs and a pressure-cooker explosive like the ones that blew up at the marathon, Kelly said.
But when the Tsarnaev brothers stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of Boston, the carjacking victim they were holding hostage escaped and called police, Kelly said. Later that night, police intercepted the brothers in a blazing gunbattle that left 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead.
“We don’t know if we would have been able to stop the terrorists had they arrived here from Boston,” the mayor said. “We’re just thankful that we didn’t have to find out that answer.”
The news caused New Yorkers to shudder with the thought that the city may have narrowly escaped another terrorist attack, though whether the brothers could have made it to the city is an open question. They were two of the most-wanted men in the world, their faces splashed all over the Internet and TV in surveillance-camera images released by the FBI hours earlier.
Dzhokhar, 19, is charged with carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 260, and he could get the death penalty. Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston, would not comment on whether authorities plan to add charges based on the alleged plot to attack New York.
The Middlesex County district attorney’s office is also building a murder case against the surviving Tsarnaev for the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier three days after the bombings, office spokeswoman Stephanie Guyotte said.
Investigators and lawmakers briefed by the FBI have said the Tsarnaev brothers – ethnic Chechens from Russia who had lived in the U.S. for about a decade – were motivated by anger over the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Based on the younger man’s interrogation and other evidence, authorities have said it appears so far that the brothers were radicalized via Islamic jihadi material on the Internet instead of any direct contact with terrorist organizations, but they warned that it is still not certain.
Kelly and the mayor said they were briefed on the New York plot on Wednesday night by the task force investigating the Boston bombing.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said in a CNN interview that the city should have been told earlier.
Asked about the delay, Bloomberg said: “There’s no reason to think the FBI hides anything. The FBI does what they think is appropriate at the time, and you’ll have to ask them what they found and what the actual details of the interrogation were. We were not there.”
Kelly said there was no evidence New York was still a target. But in a show of force, police cruisers with blinking red lights were lined up in the middle of Times Square on Thursday afternoon, and uniformed officers stood shoulder to shoulder.
“Why are they standing like that? This is supposed to make me feel safer?” asked Elisabeth Bennecib, a tourist and legal consultant from Toulouse, France. “It makes me feel more anxious, like something bad is about to happen.”
Above the square, an electronic news ticker announced that the Boston Marathon suspects’ next target might have been Times Square.