NEW YORK — The suspect in an attempted terror attack near Times Square has told investigators that he specifically timed the assault to coincide with the Christmas season for the greatest possible impact — lashing out in the name of the Islamic State, a law enforcement official said Monday.
The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly while the investigation is ongoing, said Akayed Ullah, a Bangladesh native in the U.S. since 2011, has been cooperating with authorities from the New York City Police Department and the FBI is interrogating him extensively.
Ullah, 27, was wearing an improvised, low-tech explosive device he detonated in a crowded pedestrian tunnel during the morning rush at about 7:20 a.m. ET, Police Commissioner James O'Neill said.
Ullah, who lives in Brooklyn, was taken into custody and rushed to Bellevue Hospital with burns on his abdomen and hands. Three people near him also were injured.
Ullah expected to die in the attack and believed that others would perish with him, the official said. The official said the suspect waived his rights to counsel before speaking with investigators.
The device was described as crudely made, though the suspect appeared to have some background in electrical work.
Investigators seized at least one cellphone and were examining whether he had contacts with others. But the official said the investigation so far indicated that the suspect appeared to be acting alone.
The area was packed with commuters and holiday tourists in a city still on edge from a terror attack six weeks ago that claimed eight lives. After the blast, hundreds of commuters fled subway trains and dozens of emergency vehicles swarmed Times Square.
"Let's be clear that this was an attempted terror attack," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "Thank God the perpetrator did not achieve his ultimate goal."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo described Ullah as a disgruntled lone wolf.
Several police cars staked out Ullah's Brooklyn residence as small pieces of the suspect's life began to surface.
Ullah came to the U.S. on an F-4 visa available for immigrants with family in the U.S. who are citizens. Allan Fromberg, spokesman for the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, said Ullah was licensed as a for-hire driver from March 2012 through March 2015.
NBC4, citing a senior official familiar with the investigation, said Ullah took the A train to the scene. Surveillance video, posted on social media, shows people walking through the crowded tunnel when a small explosion emits a plume of smoke. The bomber goes down as the people around him flee.
Less than three hours after the blast, officials said all trains and buses were running. But in the minutes following the blast, public transit in the area came to a near standstill.
"The NYPD is responding to reports of an explosion of unknown origin at 42nd Street and 8th Ave, #Manhattan," the Police Department said in a tweet. "The A, C and E line are being evacuated at this time. Info is preliminary, more when available."
Hours later, the department tweeted that officers would be out in force across the city but added that there were no other "specific and credible threats."
"We are New Yorkers," O'Neill said. "We don't live in fear."
President Trump called for more restrictions on immigration after the incident. "America must fix its lax immigration system, which allows far too many dangerous, inadequately vetted people to access our country," Trump said in a written statement.
Christina Bethea, 29, a security guard from Yonkers, a New York City northern suburb, said she was getting off a southbound 1 line subway train en route to work Monday morning when she heard a loud noise.
"I heard boom and saw smoke and we all started running up the steps," Bethea said. "It sounded like a loud gunshot.... When you hear a boom and see smoke, that means get the hell out of there."
Bethea said she called co-workers to make sure they weren't harmed and let friends and relatives know she was OK.
"I'm alive. That's all that matters to me," she said. "I said, damn, I'm gonna move back to North Carolina. New York City is too much for me."
Omar Stewart had been at Port Authority since 4:45 a.m. waiting for a delayed Greyhound bus to take him home to Springfield, Mass., when he heard a muffled bang.
"We didn't take it as anything" at first, Stewart said. Then "police from every corner started flooding the place saying, 'Grab your bags, grab your bags, everybody out of the building right now!'"
Cuomo said New Yorkers understand their city is an international target "for many who would like to make a statement" against freedom.
"The reality turned out better than the initial expectation and fear," he said.
Since the terror attacks of 9/11, several attacks have rocked New York. On Oct. 31, a motorist in a rented pickup drove down a lower Manhattan bike path, killing eight people and wounding a dozen more before crashing into a school bus.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility, and Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old Uzbekistan native and New Jersey resident, was charged with providing material support to ISIS, violence and destruction of motor vehicles.
On Monday, NJ Transit passenger Nadine Hovan sat on her bus looking out onto Eighth Avenue, alarmed to see scores of people with their phones up in the air. Once inside the bus terminal, she heard people yelling to get out of the building.
"That is when people start to get a little crazy," she said.
She said she didn't panic — but might have if she knew what was going on. She also said the attack wouldn't intimidate her from returning to the city.
"You got to live your life," she said. "You got to work. You can't stay locked up in your house all the time."