President Donald Trump called for the execution of the suspect in the New York City terrorist attack Wednesday after learning that he had asked to hang an ISIS flag in his hospital room.
“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s bold prescription could actually hurt prosecutors’ efforts. Presidents typically don’t weigh in on ongoing criminal cases because defense attorneys can then argue that their client has lost his right to a fair trial.
The president has sent conflicting signals on whether he thinks that Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of plowing through bikers and pedestrians with a rental truck in Manhattan on Halloween, should be tried in the civilian justice system or military system.
On Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to Saipov as an “enemy combatant,” and the president told reporters that he would “certainly consider” sending him to the infamous US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
But on Thursday morning, Trump seemed to walk back that position somewhat, saying that he thought going through the civilian system would be more efficient.
“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system,” he tweeted.
Still, the option doesn’t appear to be off the table.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told attorneys and law enforcement official in Manhattan on Thursday that the Trump administration could use military courts against terrorists.
“Terrorists should know this: this administration will use all lawful tools at our disposal, including prosecution in Article III courts or at Guantanamo Bay,” Sessions said.
He didn’t comment specifically on Saipov’s case, but he effectively endorsed and strengthened the president’s calls for the suspect to be sent there.
Federal prosecutors in New York filed terrorism charges against Saipov on Wednesday night. According to the charges, Saipov waived his Miranda rights and spoke to prosecutors openly about how he conceived of the attack.
The charges claim that Saipov had been planning his attack for about a year, and that he chose to carry it out on Halloween night — when there would be an uptick in the number of pedestrians — to maximize casualties. He had originally intended to drive to the Brooklyn Bridge after mowing down civilians on the West Side Highway, but his rampage was cut short when he smashed into a school bus in Lower Manhattan.
Saipov said he was inspired to commit his murderous act by an ISIS video online that pointed out the killing of Iraqi Muslims, according to the charges.
The complaint said Saipov told investigators that "he felt good about what he had done." He asked them to display an ISIS flag in his room, and said that he had wanted to put one on the truck he used to ram into pedestrians but then decided it might draw too much attention to himself.
Saipov had roughly 90 videos and 3,800 images of ISIS propaganda on his cellphones, authorities say.
According to the charges, Saipov rented a truck about a week prior to the attack to go on a test run and “practice making turns” in it.
“He appears to have followed, almost exactly to a T, the instructions that ISIS has put out in its social media channels before with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack,” John Miller, the New York deputy police commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said at a news briefing on Wednesday.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that investigators believe Saipov was a lone wolf who was “radicalized domestically” after coming to the United States.
According to officials, Saipov left a note behind in his truck. The message, written in Arabic, read, “The Islamic State [will] endure forever.”
How the attack happened
At around 3:05 pm Tuesday, Saipov drove a rented Home Depot pickup truck southbound down a crowded bike path along the West Side Highway at high speed. After plowing into several bikers and pedestrians for around 20 blocks, the truck smashed into a school bus near Stuyvesant High School, near Chambers Street, where it finally stopped.
Saipov then got out of the truck brandishing a paintball and pellet gun and shouted, “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is greater”), before a police officer shot him in the abdomen and took him into custody. Police transported him to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. They have interviewed him and are waiting for an update on his health conditions.
Frank DeMarco, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who could see the aftermath of the attack from his apartment balcony, described being shocked but not surprised by the incident.
“We lived here during 9/11. Terrorism, in a funny kind of way, is not new to this neighborhood — it’s a target,” DeMarco told me.
The victims were largely tourists from other countries. Among the dead were five men from Argentina — they were friends on a trip to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their graduation from high school. The Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified them as Hernán Diego Mendoza, Diego Enrique Angelini, Alejandro Damián Pagnucco, Ariel Erlij, and Hernán Ferruchi.
A Belgian woman, who was in the city on a trip with her sister and mother, was also killed. The other two people who died have not yet been identified. At least 11 were wounded in the attack; their names have also not been released.
What we know about the suspect so far
Saipov came to the US under the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. It’s a program dating back to 1990 intended to diversify the kinds of immigrants who enter the US and give people with no familial or economic connections to the country a shot at living here. Only people hailing from countries with low immigration rates to the US are eligible for it — most come from Africa, Asia and former Soviet bloc countries.
When Saipov arrived in the US seven years ago, he first lived in temporary housing with other Uzbek immigrants near Cincinnati, Ohio. He didn’t speak much English, but he was known as a restless workaholic who moved around the country starting new driving and trucking businesses.
“He always used to work. He wouldn’t go to parties or anything. He only used to come home and rest and leave and go back to work,’’ Dilnoza Abdusamatova, a family friend, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
As the LA Times reports, Saipov registered his first company, Sayf Motors, in Symmes Township, Ohio, the year after he arrived in the US. Two years later, he registered another trucking company at another Ohio address near Cleveland. And then he started yet another trucking company when he moved to Tampa, Florida. Most recently he settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where he drove for Uber.
Along the way, he got married and had three children.
A friend of Saipov’s from Florida, who described him as a “little brother,” told the New York Post that Saipov was “very friendly” and was shocked to learn that he was suspected of committing the attack.
But others who knew Saipov say he had begun to display more extremist views.
A longtime acquaintance of Saipov’s told Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe that they’d had "an argument on a religious issue" several months ago, during which Saipov revealed “very radical views.”
“After that argument, he stopped contacting us," the acquaintance said. "We warned him over his radical views."
An imam from a mosque Saipov attended in Tampa told the New York Times that he saw signs of Saipov’s extremism and poor temper and attempted to intervene.
“I used to tell him, ‘Hey, you are too much emotional,’” Abdula, who gave only his first name to the Times, said. “‘Read books more. Learn your religion first.’ He did not learn religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community.”
“I never thought that he would go to this extreme,” he said.
The New York Times reports that investigators have found that Saipov has been “on the radar of federal authorities” in the past. But he had been flagged due to an unrelated investigation, and it’s not clear what kind of relationship he had with the subjects of those investigations — or if he himself had ever been investigated. Miller’s comments on Tuesday seem to suggest that Saipov wasn’t the central target of a previous investigation.