Feds interviewed New York terrorist attack suspect 2 years ago

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack © St. Charles County Department of Corrections / Reuters

Suspected New York City attacker Sayfullo Saipov came to the US in 2010 on a diversity lottery visa and was interviewed in 2015 by agents of the Department of Homeland Security about possible ties to terrorists.

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The agents “did not have enough evidence to open a case on him,” law enforcement officials told ABC News.

Saipov, 29, was listed as a “point of contact” for two different men whose names were entered into the Counterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit’s list after they came to the US from “threat countries.” One of the two men has vanished and is actively being sought by federal agents as a “suspected terrorist.”

Saipov came from Uzbekistan through a Diversity Visa Program lottery in 2010, making him a legal permanent resident of the US upon arrival. He has lived in Ohio, Florida, and most recently New Jersey, where federal agents interviewed him in 2015.

His parents and sister live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, work as clothing merchants, and are not religious, local media reported.

Saipov “became religious on the spur of the moment,” Mirrakhmat Muminov, an Uzbek community activist who lives in Ohio, told Reuters by phone.

“He started studying religion in the United States,” said Muminov, adding that Saipov “couldn’t get enough” of the religious freedoms in the US after living in Uzbekistan.

Police have spoken to Saipov, who is being held under arrest at Belleview Hospital and is expected to survive. Handwritten notes in Arabic found in the vehicle read “Islamic State will endure for ever,” according to NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller.

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Investigators combing through Saipov’s online activities have found social links to people who are or were suspects in terrorism investigations. Saipov himself apparently found Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) propaganda online and was not part of a terrorist cell, ABC reported.

At a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump called the attacker an “animal” and said he would be terminating the diversity lottery program in the wake of the attack.

“We need to get rid of the lottery program as soon as possible,” he said, adding that he favored treating Saipov as an enemy combatant and sending him to Guantanamo Bay.

Trump had earlier singled out Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the state’s senior lawmaker, for his soft stand on immigration.

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Schumer shot back that instead of politicizing and dividing Americans, Trump “should be focusing on the real solution – anti-terrorism funding – which he proposed cutting in his most recent budget.”  

The diversity visa program has been around for more than 20 years, issuing about 55,000 visas per year to people from any parts of the world that have relatively few immigrants in the United States. No single country receives more than seven percent of available visas a year.

Tuesday’s terrorist attack unfolded near the rebuilt World Trade Center, as the suspect drove a rented truck down a bike path along West Side Highway, hitting pedestrians and cyclists. After crashing into a school bus, he exited the truck and yelled “Allahu akbar” before being shot by police. Eight people died and 14 were injured in the biggest terrorist attack New York has seen since 9/11.

Some of the injured needed amputations and four are still in critical condition, New York Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, we have recently seen a rise in such senseless attacks across the globe and face a persistent terror threat here at home,” Acting Secretary of Homeland Elaine Duke said in a statement Wednesday. “DHS and our partners remain alter in the wake of this attack and committed to keep America safe.”

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