Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, and the cops who made up his superlative anti-terror unit, can stand a little taller in the wake of the weekend bombings in New York City and New Jersey. While much remains to be learned about the incidents, this much is clear: Kelly’s view of Islamist terrorism as a multi-state threat, and thus a legitimate subject for sophisticated law-enforcement attention, has been vindicated.
Not that Kelly and his crew really need vindication—at least in the eyes of people who take the Islamist threat to America seriously. Unhappily, that group doesn’t include New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who did his level best to hobble the NYPD’s anti-terror effort by disbanding a key component of it upon taking office. Also absent is the Associated Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for exposing Kelly & Co.’s anti-terror tactics—paying particular attention to the commissioner’s conviction that New Jersey is a fertile breeding ground for wannabe jihadists.
Exhibit A in that respect, of course, remains the 1993 terror bombing of the World Trade Center. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in a Jersey-based scheme masterminded by Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheikh. Several of the 16 terror plots derailed wholly or in part by Kelly’s gumshoes also had Jersey components. Now comes Ahmad Khan Rahami of Elizabeth, New Jersey. The naturalized American citizen born in Afghanistan was arrested Monday and charged with leaving homemade bombs like Easter eggs all over the Garden State and Manhattan.
Given what’s known, there’s little reason to assume that the Kelly surveillance operation would have identified and nabbed Rahami before the fact. And, it will be all well and good if it turns out that the de Blasio NYPD is working hand-in-glove with the FBI these days. But such cooperation wasn’t always routine, which was the root of Kelly’s concern post 9/11. In part, the enmity was rooted in the traditional tensions between the feds and local police agencies. At the same time, it wasn’t unreasonable to question the FBI—an agency that had failed to anticipate 9/11, badly fumbled its probe of the 2001 anthrax attacks, and truly embarrassed itself with its inept response to the 1996 Olympic bombings in Atlanta.
To be most charitable, the FBI’s core mission has always been after-the-fact prosecution of crimes, and not preemption. Kelly’s sole concern was to prevent future attacks. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg made sure that he had the resources to go that route. The surveillance Kelly’s cops undertook was entirely legal, conducted by an investigatory unit with decades of experience and scrupulously pursued under terms of a detailed federal-court consent decree. Nobody’s civil rights were violated.
None of this mattered much to the Associated Press or to Kelly’s critics. Some of them—the sort who view the Constitution as akin to a suicide pact—were sincerely motivated. Others were propelled by demons known best to themselves, including ideology, politics, and personal pique. Whatever their motivation, their goal was to shut down the Kelly approach—and de Blasio bought in.
Fast-forward to the weekend. The speed with which Rahami found himself in handcuffs suggests that not all of the NYPD’s teeth were pulled. On the other hand, the suspect doesn’t appear to have presented much of a challenge to law enforcement. Leaving a fingerprint on a cell phone and clumsily falling victim to surveillance video—not to mention falling asleep amid a manhunt in the doorway of a Linden, New Jersey bar—suggests a very short career in terrorism. Still, the entire episode underscores yet again the pressing need for sophisticated preemptive-intelligence collection. That was Kelly’s goal. He was more than a little good at it, and New York and New Jersey were safer because of it.
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