WASHINGTON - Saying they obtained new evidence, senior White House officials said Sunday that the Pakistani Taliban were behind the failed Times Square car bombing.
The attempt marks the first time the group has been able to launch an attack on U.S. soil. And while U.S. officials have downplayed the threat — citing the bomb's lack of sophistication — the incident in Times Square and the Christmas Day airline bomb attempt indicate growing strength by overseas terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida even as the CIA says their operations are seriously degraded.
The finding also raises new questions about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which is widely known to have al-Qaida and other terrorist groups operating within its borders.
"We know that they helped facilitate it; we know that they helped direct it," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "And I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence which shows that they helped to finance it. They were intimately involved in this plot."
John Brennan, the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, made similar remarks, linking the bomber to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.
Neither official said what the new evidence was.
Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, is believed to have spent five months in Pakistan before returning to the United States in February and preparing his attack.
Shahzad has told investigators that he trained in the lawless tribal areas of Waziristan, where both al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban operate. He was arrested aboard an Emirates Airlines jet in New York just minutes before it was scheduled to take off for Dubai.
After the attack, U.S. officials said they were exploring potential links to terrorist groups overseas but said it was likely that Shahzad was acting alone and that it was an isolated incident.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told NBC News that "at this point I have no information that it's anything other than a one-off." Gen. David Petraeus, who as head of U.S. Central Command oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told The Associated Press that Shahzad apparently operated as a "lone wolf."
Brennan on Sunday rejected suggestions that the attempted bombing shows that terrorist groups overseas were gaining strength.
"They now are relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training," he said.
The link between an attack on U.S. soil and terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan opens up a new chapter in relations between the two countries. Until recently, administration officials have said they thought Islamabad was doing all it could.
On Sunday, suspected U.S. missiles killed 10 people in a militant-controlled region of Pakistan close to the Afghan border, the first such strike since Shahzad was accused of the Times Square attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington expects more co-operation from Pakistan in fighting terrorism and warned of "severe consequences" if an attack on U.S. soil were successful and traced back to the South Asian country.
Brennan said Islamabad was being very co-operative in the investigation but that the U.S. wants to know exactly who may have been helping Shahzad.
"There are a number of terrorist and militant groups operating in Pakistan," he said. "And we need to make sure there's no support being given to them by the Pakistani government."
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who last week said he doubted the Pakistani Taliban had anything to do with the failed bombing, declined to comment Sunday. He said representatives of the country's civilian government should respond. They were not available for comment.
Brennan would not say whether Shahzad may be connected to fugitive al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, other than to acknowledge his Internet sermons are popular among extremist Muslims.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Pakistan has recently stepped up efforts to root out extremist militants.
"The Pakistanis have been doing so much more than 18 months or two years ago any of us would have expected," Gates told reporters at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, this week.
He referred to Pakistani Army offensives, dating to spring 2009, against Taliban extremists in areas near the Afghan border, including in South Waziristan.
Gates said the Obama administration is sticking to its policy of offering to do as much training and other military activity inside Pakistan as the Pakistani government is willing to accept.
"It's their country," Gates said. "They remain in the driver's seat, and they have their foot on the accelerator."
Brennan spoke on CNN's "State of the Union," ''Fox News Sunday" and CBS' "Face the Nation." Holder spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week." Clinton's interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" is set to air Sunday.
Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.