Judith Miller joins City Journal associate editor Seth Barron to discuss the most recent Islamic terrorist attack in New York City.
Shortly after 3:00 p.m. on Halloween, a 29-year-old man from Uzbekistan, Sayfullo Saipov, drove a rented pickup onto a Hudson River Park bike path in Lower Manhattan. Within ten minutes, eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured. NYPD officers responded quickly after the attack began, shooting Saipov before he could cause more mayhem. He is in police custody, and details from the incident are still emerging.
Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a City Journal contributing editor, a best-selling author, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times.
Brian Anderson: Hello, I am City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks for joining us for the 10 Blocks Podcast, featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.
Seth Barron: I am Seth Barron, the associate editor of City Journal. Joining me today is Judith Miller. Judy is an adjunct fellow here at the Manhattan Institute, a Pulitzer prize-winning contributing editor for City Journal, and a Fox News contributor. Judy, thanks for joining us on 10 Blocks.
Judith Miller: Thanks very much, Seth.
Seth Barron: So, we are going to talk about the – what’s, I guess, come to be known as the Halloween terrorist massacre that happened yesterday in lower Manhattan. Judy, fill us in on what we know so far and what the developing news is.
Judith Miller: Well, we’ve learned a lot more about the perpetrator of this Halloween horror, Seth. We have learned that he was not on the NYPD’s radar. That we learned today from John Miller, the Deputy Secretary of Counterterrorism for the NYPD, who told us that even though there were people who were on the NYPD’s radar, that is who were under surveillance, and he was – he knew them and he was in their circle, he, himself, had never been either under FBI or NYPD investigation as a subject of inquiry. That is very important. We also learned that he was radicalized here, domestically. That is what you and I had assumed yesterday as were writing, but we learned today that he had decided within the last few weeks to carry out this terror attack because he had been planning it for a few weeks. We also learned that from the time that he purchased, or rented, his van, his Home Depot van in Passaic, New Jersey, it took roughly an hour for him to get across the bridge and down to the scene of his crime and to mow down eight people and wound twelve. So, he didn’t go home and have a peanut butter sandwich. He went immediately from the rental company into New York to commit this crime.
Seth Barron: Now, was it – so, was it a spur-of-the-moment type of thing, or did he plan it?
Judith Miller: No. He had been planned – this had been planned for several weeks, according to John Miller. And Miller also told us more today about the note that he had left, which was he left a note in Arabic, which is kind of interesting, since he is an Uzbek national, and then the note basically said something to the effect of the caliphate will never die, a reference to the Islamic caliphate that was declared by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which is now shrinking and dying by the day. But, tens of thousands of frustrated, furious, holy warriors are returning from the battlefield to their home countries, and those are the people we are worried about.
Seth Barron: Now, this man, Sayfullo Saipov, the terrorist in this case, was he, in fact, an ISIS fighter? How did he get to the United States? What was he doing here?
Judith Miller: He came in in 2010 under something known as a diversity visa, which is basically a lottery system which lets about 50,000 a year into the country, and by all accounts, at least according to an interview I heard this morning with the head of the BBC’s Uzbek radio division, he was thrilled to have been admitted to the United States. There was no indication of any radicalization. The NYPD believes that he was radicalized here, domestically, and understanding how that process happened, how fast it happened, what is known as the flash to bang ratio, is going to be very crucial in the days ahead.
Seth Barron: Now, I know that the NYPD has conducted, historically, surveillance and investigation into, you know, local Muslim communities, but you are saying he wasn’t on their radar, but some of his associates were. What was the milieu in which Saipov, you know, presumably became radicalized?
Judith Miller: We don’t know yet. The FBI and the NYPD, working through the Joint Terrorism Task Force, are going over his social media postings, interviewing his family and his three children. We don’t know the specific spark, or how it happened, or whether or not he was part of an informal or formal group, but what we do know is that he attended a mosque which has long been on the NYPD’s radar, which is the Omar Mosque in Paterson, New Jersey. Now, this mosque was, at one point, directly surveilled by the NYPD as of 2005, we know this from court documents, as a problematic place, as a place that was of deep concern, terrorism concern, to the NYPD and the FBI. But, that, the NYPD’s ability to monitor things that go on in New Jersey was severely limited when Muslim groups responded to an Associated Press series of articles saying that the NYPD was surveilling New Jersey Muslims, and people there got hysterical. And, to be fair, Mike Sheehan, who was the Counter Terrorism Director for NYPD under Ray Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg, pointed out that the New Jersey Police Union was also very upset that NYPD cops were actually doing the investigations. They put pressure on then Governor Corzine and on Governor Christie to curtail and to limit the NYPD’s reach into New Jersey. Now, the reason that that’s important is not that – I’m not saying that the New Jersey cops and the detectives don’t know how to investigate terror, but what I am saying is that the people who are best at this, by all accounts, and who have the best data on it and the best understanding of the radicalization process are clearly the NYPD cops. So, if you say you can’t operate in New Jersey, we don’t know to what extent after the New Jersey political establishment shut down the NYPD there, we don’t know to what extent the NYPD continued, on the sly, to do things, but we do know that a major focus of investigation for the NYPD was limited.
Seth Barron: I see. Now, you’ve been following the terrorist threat, and the Middle East, and radical Islam for a long time, for a substantial portion of your career, and there have been several, I don’t know, a couple of dozes cases – terrorist attacks that were thwarted since 9/11, in New York City by the NYPD. You know, I’ve seen different numbers on this. And this is really the most successful such attack since 9/11.
Judith Miller: Right.
Seth Barron: Is this a victory for ISIS and the radicals, or what does this mean? What does this portend?
Judith Miller: Well, I think yesterday, when it first happened, you and I agreed that in some respects it was kind of a failure for them and for its perpetrator, because one, he was shut down so quickly, it could have been so much worse had he been able to run amok, had he – after hitting the school bus in which people were injured and got out of his car, had he been permitted to go on killing people had he had automatic weapons, which he didn’t have, that he could have continued mowing people down. So, in that respect, it was a failure. And he didn’t get his wish, apparent wish, we don’t know this yet, but we will soon, his apparent wish to become a martyr for Islam, which is what the jihadis goal ultimately is if you can’t live in a caliphate. He’s lived. He was shot, we now learn, not in the stomach but in the buttocks or the hip, and he is going to be questioned and he is going to be brought to justice. That being said, it is the opinion of people I respect and trust who have followed counterterrorism for much longer than I have, even, that this was a definite victory for the jihadi movement. And they will claim it as such even if they haven’t yet claimed responsibility for it. Look, when you disrupt a city like New York, when you mow down people on a bike lane, the most innocent of places during a Halloween event, which is semi-sacred in New York, you have carried out a major terrorist attack blocks from the World Trade Center. You have told the world New York is not invulnerable. And you’ve encouraged other likeminded jihadis to come here and try and outdo what you’ve done. So, it puts a focus, yet again, on New York as the nation’s number one terrorist target, and he was able to carry out what hundreds of others tried to do and failed at. He was actually able to stage a first-class, low-cost vehicular attack that is going to be claimed as a huge victory by the jihadis. So, yes, this is a success for them.
Seth Barron: Wow. So, where does that leave New York and the NYPD going forward? I mean, how exactly can police prevent a loan wolf renting a car, stealing a car, and running people down? It seems like it’s a – that’s a really, that would be a very hard thing to do.
Judith Miller: Well, one thing that did not happen under President Obama, despite a lot of rhetoric, was we did not develop a serious counter-radicalization program. In other words, we really need to understand the people who are carrying these acts of terror out. We need to understand how they radicalized, how quickly they radicalize, how to deradicalize them, and almost no money, and no time, and thought, and programs are in existence that are deemed really exceptionally effective in this area. But, two, intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. It’s like the real estate, location, location, location. You need information about who is where in your city, who is planning what, who is acting suspiciously, what are the areas of radical Islamic and other hate-filled, ideologically motivated peoples and groups? You need all of that. And there is tremendous – I think the longer, the farther away we are from 9/11, the harder it is to remember that that kind of constant vigilance often requires walking a very thin line between the protection of civil liberties and the protection of our city. And, in recent years, I think that we have grown more sensitive to prospective or actual violations of our privacy rights at the expense of the city. So, you have to, once again, remind the NYPD that we do support them and that what they do in the name of protecting us, as long as its not a violation of our constitutional rights, is in our interests and we are in favor of it.
Seth Barron: So, I mean maybe this question is too general, or too specific, what motivates someone like Saipov? Where, I mean, because we keep hearing this has nothing, you know, from a certain segment of the political spectrum here, well, this has nothing to do with Islam. This is, in fact, anti-Islamic…
Judith Miller: Well…
Seth Barron: …but you know, I mean, clearly Saipov doesn’t think so, and it seems like there’s probably millions and millions of people around the world who don’t think so, either. What is the motivation here?
Judith Miller: Well, this, I think, you know, as someone who has looked at this problem, really, since the early 90s, I was the bureau chief in Cairo, and I concluded that these waves of radicalization and militancy in Islam are actually, they are episodic throughout Islam. They are as old as the religion itself. And we are going through a huge such wave right now. We are – it has been ongoing for about 50 years, and it can be expected to last quite some time. This is a generational struggle we are involved in by people who think that their religion and their – what is known as the straight path – the straight path is the only way that Muslims should live. Now, these people represent a tiny, tiny portion, but of a very large religion, 1.5 billion people. So, even a tiny slice of them who believe that and believe that violence is justified in the name of their faith, pose a true challenge, security challenge. Not just for us, but for Europe, for all of the nations where these movements, these radical movements have taken root. I think part of the challenge for us is to understand that these people are a minority and that, two, as the NYPD reminded us today, hate crimes only serve to drive a wedge between that community and the rest of society. What you want to do is reach out to those people and say you are a part of the solution, you are part of us, and make sure that the people who believe what the perverse and perverted interpretation of Islam believe do not become the kind of mainstream, because that’s the real danger. And that’s why you have to be very careful about how you treat Muslims. If you make them feel like the enemy, they will respond like the enemy.
Seth Barron: Well, Governor Cuomo today, you know, he was talking about, for instance, the diversity visa lottery, and he was making the implicit argument that if we were to curtail the diversity visa lottery, or bring in fewer immigrants from, you know, the Muslim world, then – well, that’s what the jihadis want, because that is like driving a wedge. But, at the same – but to me it seems like well, what they really want is to bring as many of their likeminded followers here as possible, so which is it? I mean, is it really true that we have to make as nice as possible? I mean, because since 9/11, Muslim immigration to the United States has shot up.
Judith Miller: Has shot up, exactly.
Seth Barron: And it doesn’t seem like it has necessarily done a lot.
Judith Miller: Look, I think that – I am in favor of open, a lot more open immigration than we have, but I am also in favor of knowing who is in our country, and I find it outrageous that we have 600,000 people here, an estimated 600,000 people who are believed to have overstayed their visas, whose whereabouts are unknown to the FBI and law enforcement. Before we start completely turning over our immigration system, and I think I would have to think about how I feel about the lottery, because I’m not sure it’s a good idea at this point, I think I want to say let’s do something about learning who is in our country, because I don’t think you can really talk about national security unless you know who is where, and who is doing what in your country. And that’s a challenge that goes far beyond just knowing where the 1% of Americans who happen to be Muslim, Muslims reside. That’s a question of knowing who is here for what possible reasons. Let’s just remind ourselves – most terrorism in this country is carried out not by radical Islamists, but by rightwing white supremacists and rightwing groups. Those are FBI statistics that you can check. So, I believe in acting against all people who promote hate crimes, whether they are Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, white supremacists, it doesn’t matter to me whatever they call their religion, they are – if they pose a violent challenge to America, America needs to confront them, and law enforcement needs to confront them. But, we will have a problem in the coming years with this, with the returning jihadis. Now, we have a very small number of them, only a few hundred. Europe has many, many thousands of people who are returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. They have a much greater problem than we do. On the other hand, we are the heart of the apostate, as the jihadis see us, and therefore we are target number one. So, we cannot relax, we cannot remain passive or indifferent to this threat. We are going to have to live with it for a long time and try to balance our desire to protect society against the preservation of our civil liberties.
Brian Anderson: You can subscribe to this and other Manhattan Institute podcasts in the iTunes store. The audio edition and transcript is available on our website, www.city-journal.org. This is City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks again for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast.
Photo by Kena Betancur / Stringer / Getty Images