But, just when it must have appeared to Mr. Shahzad that he had to endure only a 13 hour flight, federal agents came on board and asked him and several other passengers to leave the plane.
Was he perhaps only minutes away from leaving the US? Or did law enforcement officials plan this so they could see if Shahzad was meeting someone on the plane, perhaps celebrating his flight with a high five or a nod to another passenger?
Many media accounts Tuesday suggest that the federal government nearly missed their man. Since Shahzad bought his ticket with cash shortly before the plane was set to leave, law enforcement officials only realized that Shahzad was on the Emirates flight when they received the official list of passengers 30 minutes before takeoff, according to these reports.
But another possibility is that the government is cannier than Shahzad expected, experts say. For his part, Attorney General Eric Holder says he was never worried that the chief suspect in the bombing attempt was going to get away.
According to Mr. Holder at a press conference Tuesday, law enforcement officials had identified the Pakistani-born naturalized American as a suspect on Monday afternoon. He very quickly went on a “no-fly list.”
Once he went on a no-fly list, someone had to override the computer, says former federal agent Joseph King, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in terrorism and homeland security.
“Probably the clerk when he checked in was not an airline employee but a federal agent,” says Dr. King. “Shahzad was probably never more than five feet from an agent the whole time.”
King reasons that the government knew that he was not a threat to the airplane or other passengers since he had been through screening.
“You grab his bags on the tarmac side,” he says. “Then, once he’s on the plane you watch for any indication of anyone connected to him, perhaps making eye contact or winking.”
King says the federal agents have done this before with money launders.
“It’s a great idea,” he says. “You see if there is any reaction on the plane.”
Whether or not it happened that way is not clear. But, as Gary La Free, a professor of criminology and a director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland puts it, “It’s certainly great theater.”