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New York's Times Square: always a target, always watched

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Story highlights

  • A Boston bombings suspect said he was heading to New York, officials say
  • He told investigators he and his brother planned to bomb Times Square, they add
  • New York is a "prime target" for terrorists, the city's mayor says
  • There's a big police presence and camera network but "no guarantees," he adds

The day after the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon's finish line, the city's police commissioner said that spot was probably one of the most photographed in the country in the minutes before it became a crime scene.

But it's no Times Square.

While the targeted stretch of Boston's Boylston Street is often lively and always in focus on Patriots Day, New York's Times Square is a hub of activity -- including locals and tourists, vendors and performers, not to mention police officers -- most every hour of every day.

Its status as one of America's busiest, brightest, most bustling places also makes it a target. That was true in 2010, when Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up a car bomb there.

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And it was the case again this month.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went to New York twice last year and was photographed in Times Square, officials say.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters Thursday that the surviving suspect in last week's marathon blasts that killed three and wounded scores more told investigators that he and his brother were heading to New York next.

From the Boston hospital bed where he's being guarded by federal authorities, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev said he and his brother Tamerlan, 26, "decided spontaneously" to target Times Square, New York police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, citing information he received from the FBI.

Their plan was to detonate five pipe bombs and a pressure-cooker bomb similar to the ones used days earlier in Boston, Kelly added.

But the two brothers never made it out of Massachusetts. They carjacked a Mercedes SUV, then stopped at a gas station, Kelly explained. The car's driver was able then to escape and call police, leading to a chase and shootout, after which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was declared dead. Dzhokhar, 19, was captured Friday.

"We don't know that we would have been able to stop the terrorists, had they arrived here from Boston," Bloomberg said. "We're just thankful we didn't have to find out."

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Hub of 'the city that never sleeps'

With billboards and neon lights rivaled in America perhaps only by those on the Las Vegas Strip, Times Square is hard to miss.

The hectic stretch a stone's throw from Broadway theaters is flush with stores, hotels and other attractions, from a massive Toys "R'" Us with a Ferris wheel inside to the tower that every New Year's Eve holds the iconic giant crystal ball.

For all these reasons and more, it's frequented by residents passing through and visitors stopping by, one of whom was none other than Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Kelly, the city's police commissioner, said the surviving Boston attack suspect went to New York twice last year. On one of those trips, in April, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was photographed in Times Square.

Authorities don't know if those visits had anything to do with the Tsarnaev brothers' alleged plans to attack New York, nor do they have an indication that the city is "a target of another terrorist attack stemming from the Boston bombings," Kelly said.

Still, the New York officials acknowledged that had the Boston suspects made it to New York, they could have caused untold death and destruction.

That would be true even if the brothers had gone straight to New York from Massachusetts and blown up their bombs right after they got there around 2 or 3 a.m. Friday, as estimated by Kelly.

That's because Times Square -- which lies at the intersection of several major thoroughfares with many entertainment venues, clubs and restaurants -- seals New York's reputation as "the city that never sleeps."

Mayor: 'There are no guarantees'

And in New York, the city's police commissioner stressed, police are always on alert as well.

Police officers are visible at all hours in Times Square, said Kelly. And they aren't the only ones watching.

A host of cameras that surround this area and others in New York serve as law enforcement tools. Some of them capture 360-degree images; others shoot from above. There's also ground-level surveillance footage like that credited with initially pinpointing the Boston suspects, not to mention whatever can be gleaned from photographs taken by the throngs of tourists that come to the city every day.

These "extensive networks of cameras" and the "enormous police presence" are there to catch would-be terrorists who might plant a bomb or otherwise inflict violence, Bloomberg said.

The high cost of maintaining such a hefty security presence is worth it, because -- as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's remarks to the FBI showed -- "New York City remains a prime target for those who hate America and want to kill Americans," said the mayor.

But all the technology, all the intelligence sharing, all the police boots on the ground won't eliminate the threat to New York, leaders in that city stressed. Nor will they necessarily catch the next person or people who want to stage an attack in Times Square.

As Bloomberg said, "There are no guarantees."