On Wednesday, we’ll hold solemn remembrances at Ground Zero and across the country in honor of the nearly 3000 victims of September 11th. Twelve years later, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center remain a tremendous source of sadness, anxiety and anger for many. Their effect is still being felt in countless ways, among them the extraordinary measures taken every day by the New York City Police Department to protect our city.
In two months we’ll hold a general election to determine the next Mayor. Whoever wins will carry daunting responsibilities. Arguably the most important is to protect the City from another terrorist attack. Over the past twelve years, the New York City Police Department has built a comprehensive counterterrorism program to do just that. It’s critically important that our efforts be sustained in the next administration. But where do the candidates stand on these issues? Surprisingly, we haven’t heard much.
The threat of terrorism is as great, if not greater, today than it was before the World Trade Center was destroyed for reasons that I’ll explain in a few moments. Yet I can tell you that none of the candidates has requested a briefing from the Police Department on this topic. I believe the public has a right to ask them some important questions. For example, what is their understanding of the terrorist threat to New York City and its immediacy? What is their perspective on the role the NYPD should play in protecting New York from global terrorism? Will they expend their political capital and continue to fight in Washington, D.C. for the federal funds we need to maintain our defenses? It is imperative that we find out.
This morning, I want to give you an overview of the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates to New York City and what we’ve done about it. I also want to take this opportunity to address certain concerns and misperceptions about some of the Police Department’s strategies and tactics.
From al Qaeda’s perspective, the war it waged on the streets of Lower Manhattan on 9/11 continues in theatres from the U.S., to Europe, to Indonesia to West Africa. Its methods include suicide bombs, assassinations, and attacks on military troops in countless battlefields.
Do not think for a second that al Qaeda and those who share its ideology have forgotten about New York. Images of the World Trade Center and scenes of the City are regularly displayed on jihadist websites and al Qaeda publications. Its propagandists call on followers in the United States to take up the battle at home and use bombs, guns and poison to indiscriminately kill.
Don’t be lulled into complacency by our success in forestalling another attack on the City. In the mind of al Qaeda and its acolytes, New York is the symbol of all they hate about America and the West.
In just the past 10 months there have been several plots with a nexus to New York City, some of which you might not be aware of:
A 23-year old Bangladeshi here on a student visa plotted to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in Lower Manhattan. He’s now in prison.
Two brothers from Pakistan, the Qazi brothers, were arrested in Florida after plotting to set off a bomb in New York City. One of the brothers came here specifically to select suitable targets, including Times Square, high profile theaters, restaurants and iconic locations.
A young man from Suffolk County, New York was arrested based on NYPD undercover work as he was boarding a plane to Yemen to seek terrorist training. There’s little doubt that his handlers would have sent him back here to their number one target, New York City.
An al Qaeda operative trained in Iran met with an accomplice in New York to plot a terrorist attack. One of their targets was a train from New York City to Canada.
And don’t forget the Boston bombers were on their way to Manhattan armed with pipe bombs and pressure cooker bombs. Had the man they abducted not escaped, they would have arrived in midtown in time to launch a devastating attack at the morning rush hour.
Again, these all are events in the last 10 months.
These cases demonstrate our enemies’ enduring obsession with New York. It is a fact of our history we cannot ignore. I was New York City Police Commissioner when terrorists first struck the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. That attack should have been a wake-up call for the nation. It was not. Then, eight years later, came September 11th.
The most important lesson of that day was the most obvious one: this nation was unprepared to prevent major terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and the largest city in America. In their final report on the attacks of September 11th, the members of the 9/11 commission cited our collective failure, “to examine the character and extent of the new threat facing the United States.” In January 2002, when the Bloomberg administration took office, we vowed never to let that happen again. The NYPD quickly reorganized our operations to address the threat of terrorism. We could not defer this responsibility entirely to others.
At the same time, defeating terrorism was never a job we could or should do alone. We knew we’d have to take our cooperation with the federal government to an entirely new level. And we did. In 2002 one of the first steps we took was to increase the number of NYPD detectives serving on the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task force from 17 on September 11th to 120. We became the first police department in the country to put in place our own Counterterrorism Bureau. We also restructured our Intelligence Division, which had been focused almost exclusively on dignitary protection. We found the best leaders the federal government had to offer to oversee these functions. We hired a corps of civilian analysts who've earned degrees from some of the best schools in the country and are experts in foreign affairs and military intelligence. We posted senior officers in 11 cities around the world to form relationships with local police agencies. They visit the scenes of terrorist attacks and gather real-time information that guides the NYPD’s operations at home. In short, we built a counterterrorism program second to none, and one that is consistent with the threat we’ve continued to face since 9/11.
Our role by necessity complements that of the federal government, which has powerful means to generate leads in foreign countries, among other things, that no local government can or should match. But more so than any federal law enforcement agency, the NYPD has a deep understanding of this very complex and diverse city because it is of the city – with a large, multi-talented, multicultural workforce that mirrors New York’s population. We have more speakers of strategic languages than any other police department in the country. We have hundreds of speakers of Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Russian, Mandarin and other important languages. Nobody is better positioned than us to find and follow leads in New York City, whether those leads are generated through our counterterrorism hotline, interviews, confidential informants or undercover operations. Police departments from across the country have come to study our programs. After the bombings at the Boston Marathon, we hosted a group of 20 law enforcement officials from Boston for a week, who came here to learn what they could do to better protect their city.
To be frank, there are some in the federal government who resent what they view as the NYPD’s intrusion into their domain. On occasion this breeds tension. Those who say this should never happen are either being naive or disingenuous. But in the end, I can assure you that we’re all on the same team, and we get the job done.
Let me speak for a moment about our investigative efforts. I know that some have asserted that the NYPD has been insensitive to constitutional rights in protecting the city against a terrorist attack. They are wrong. The Police Department’s investigations are based on leads and other information about possible criminal conduct. They are never determined by a subject’s religion, ethnic background, or political opinion. However, if we follow the subject of an approved investigation into a mosque, for instance, this does not put the entire congregation under suspicion.
The NYPD subjects terrorism investigations to a rigorous examination by our attorneys. This is done in conformance with what is known as the Handschu guidelines for the investigation of political activities. We do that in order to guard against the possibility of intruding on First Amendment and other constitutional rights. This process, subject to review by a federal judge, was modeled on similar guidelines used by the federal government for domestic investigations. It establishes strong oversight of cases from beginning to end. Any accusations that it does not are simply false.
We also engage in outreach and solicit the advice and support of the community. The NYPD prides itself on its strong relationship with New York’s Muslim community. We hold an annual pre-Ramadan gathering with more than 500 religious and community leaders. We sponsor youth soccer and cricket leagues whose members are predominantly young Muslim men. We assign a direct liaison to the Muslim community and train all of our officers in the diverse cultural and religious traditions of the faith. We have a Muslim police officers' society with more than 300 members and a Muslim Advisory Council made up of prominent community leaders. They provide guidance to the Police Department on all aspects of our public safety mission. In fact, myself and Chief Banks met with them just last week to discuss a number of issues.
Learning about the demographics of the metropolitan area is part and parcel of the Police Department’s work, and it is an important aspect of our counterterrorism program. At least six of the 9/11 hijackers chose to live in Paterson, New Jersey because, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, “there was an Arabic-speaking community there.” Starting in 2002, we believed it would be prudent to gain a better idea of where individuals who had been sent here to do us harm might try to conceal themselves. Officers visit neighborhoods that have heavy concentrations of populations from countries that produced Al Qaeda inspired terrorists. These officers visit only public locations in keeping with federal court guidelines. Contrary to what has been erroneously reported in the media, they do not carry out investigations. They do not operate as undercovers. And they do not engage in blanket surveillance of communities. Not only would this be a pointless waste of time, it would be physically impossible. The unit that does this work has never consisted of more than a handful of officers assigned to it.
Because of its efforts, we have a listing of major mosques and their locations, just as we have a listing of Sikh, Coptic, and Jewish houses of worship, among others. New York is the most diverse city in the world. We have to be prepared that religious or sectarian violence elsewhere could impact on us here. Knowing the location of potentially vulnerable communities and religious institutions is crucial in helping us to protect them and our City.
The Qazi brothers’ case, which I previously mentioned, is a perfect example. While under federal surveillance for suspected terrorist activities last fall, one of the brothers managed to leave his home in Miami undetected and travel to New York. The NYPD was contacted by the FBI and asked to help find him. The only piece of information we had was that he had made a call from a pay phone in a specific neighborhood in Queens. As a result of knowing the neighborhood and its religious institutions, we identified a prominent mosque that allowed visitors to stay over for a night if they had nowhere else to go. We told the federal authorities this information, and that’s exactly where they found him. Were it not for the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, a terrorism suspect would have been lost.
A little over a week ago the New York Times reported that the FBI was conducting interviews of Syrians inside the United States. This came in response to concerns that a U.S. military strike against the government of President Bashar al-Assad could prompt an attack here. The only way for the FBI or any law enforcement agency to do this important work is to know where to find the Syrian communities.
There’s no question that the global environment has made terrorist attacks both here and abroad a greater possibility, starting with events in Syria. We’re keeping a close eye on that country’s sworn allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Over the past year-and-a-half, there have been no fewer than fifteen plots by Iran and Hezbollah aimed at Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has effectively blurred the line between the two, calling an attack on the Jewish diaspora an attack on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Syrian insurgency has become a magnet for jihadi militants from around the world, including the United States and New York City. We know Americans have joined the Al Qaeda offshoot al Nusra there. Our concern is what happens when these individuals return home?
Then there is the rapid growth and resiliency of Al Qaeda allies and affiliates throughout Africa and the Middle East. They include: Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen and the source of numerous plots against the United States; Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was considered defunct as recently as 2008; it has re-emerged; Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, based in Algeria with a growing capacity to act beyond its base; Al Shabbab, Al Qaeda’s Somalian affiliate which continues to attract followers from the Somali diaspora here and abroad; Ansar al Sharia in Libya, responsible for the Benghazi attack; and Ansar al Dine, the Al Qaeda affiliate fueled by weapons and personnel coming from post-Qadaffi Libya. Not to mention the Al Qaeda networks in Egypt’s Sinai desert, something rarely seen before the Arab spring. Despite some success in degrading Al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it continues to provide leadership, ideology, communications and inspiration to its affiliates to act.
As we’ve seen time and again, these groups pose a threat to us in the United States by sending Americans back home to attack us, or inspiring others who are already here to do the same. Our enemies are smart, patient, and committed. In addition to the recent cases I mentioned, since 9/11 there have been plots to blow up the Herald Square subway station; to attack synagogues in the Bronx and Manhattan; to detonate the fuel lines that run under John F. Kennedy airport; to conduct suicide bombings on three rush hour subway lines; to explode a car bomb in the middle of Times Square; and to attack post office buildings and returning U.S. troops with pipe bombs, just to name a few. It’s impossible to imagine the costs if even one of these plots had succeeded. It’s estimated that in addition to the terrible loss of life, the September 11th attacks did a trillion dollars worth of damage to the American and world economies. Because of the measures we and our federal partners put in place, the terrorists have not succeeded again here so far. What we can’t count are the additional plots that did not take place as a consequence of our vigilance.
Twelve years after 9/11, it is our view that the terrorist threat to the United States is as dangerous as ever. Furthermore, the analysis of the Police Department, the intelligence community, our recent experience tells us that New York remains squarely in the crosshairs of global terrorism. This is a time for vigilance, not complacency. Partnership and information-sharing are critical, but far more important than these is political resolve. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have that in abundance for the past twelve years in New York City. When the Police Department comes under criticism, Mayor Bloomberg never flinches. He has backed the department and its police officers at every turn. The result? Crime is down by 32% since 2001 and there have been 7,363 fewer murders in his first 11 years in office, compared to the 11 years before him. By fully supporting the efforts to protect New York City from another terrorist attack, Mayor Bloomberg has ensured the economic survival and resurgence of our city.
Will that resolve still emanate from City Hall come January? There are few questions more important than what the next mayor will do to protect the city from terrorism. What do the candidates have to say? Will they devote the resources and manpower required for the task? Will they retain the programs and strategies that have kept the city safe, or do they have a different approach? We simply don’t know. It’s up to you, the residents, the business owners, the citizens, the media of New York to find out. The public should demand detailed answers from the candidates about their plans to protect New York. We’ve come too far and we’ve sacrificed too much to leave ourselves vulnerable. This is a city worth fighting for and defending every minute of every day. Our police officers have done just that. But they can’t do it alone. Security from global terrorism must be a top priority for the next administration. All of you, as members of the Association for a Better New York and the Council on Foreign Relations must use your voices, your influence, your intellectual capital to place this issue at the forefront of this election. In many ways the future is in your hands. I trust that you will do what it takes to keep this city strong.