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Driver charged in deadly attack in Lower Manhattan

Driver charged in deadly attack in Lower Manhattan

He is accused of killing 8 people, injuring 12
Driver charged in deadly attack in Lower Manhattan
A makeshift memorial to victims of the terror attack sits Wednesday along the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Photographer: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors on Wednesday accused the driver in the Manhattan truck attack with carrying out a long-planned plot spurred by Islamic State propaganda videos to kill people celebrating Halloween.

The charges, filed just over 24 hours after the deadliest terror attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, placed the case in the civilian courts even as President Donald Trump denounced the American criminal justice system as “a joke” and “a laughingstock.”

The charges describe the driver, Sayfullo Saipov, 29, as a voracious consumer and meticulous student of ISIS propaganda, and detail how he said he was spurred to attack by an ISIS video questioning the killing of Muslims in Iraq. They say he began planning the attack about a year ago and, after taking a test run in a Home Depot rental truck last week, chose Halloween to carry it out because more people would be on the streets.

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The charges were filed in civilian court, and not the military system set up for foreign terrorists, a decision that flew in the face of Trump’s broadsides against the criminal justice system. Trump said he was open to trying Saipov instead in military court at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Saipov, accused of killing eight people and injuring 12 in the attack, was pushed into a Manhattan federal courtroom in a wheelchair just after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. He sat slightly hunched, his rail-thin body dressed in a gray shirt and gray pants. His hair stuck up slightly in the back. His hands and feet were chained. Five guards stood behind him.

A Russian interpreter spoke into a microphone, and Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, fitted an earpiece over his long beard and sharp features. When Magistrate Judge Barbara C. Moses asked if he understood the proceedings, Saipov, in a strong, clear audible voice, responded in English, “Yes, ma’am.”

He nodded along as Moses read his rights, but sat still and impassive when she read the charges against him: one count of providing material support to terrorists and one count of violence and destruction of a motor vehicle causing death.

The vehicle charge, which carries the possibility of the death penalty, raised the prospect of a rare capital case being brought to trial in New York.

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The scene after a pickup truck struck multiple people in Lower Manhattan along West Street on Oct. 31, 2017. (Bryan R. Smith/The New York Times)

David E. Patton, the chief federal public defender for the Southern District of New York, who was representing Saipov, asked that he receive a daily change of dressing on the wounds he suffered after being shot by a police officer.

“He is in a significant amount of pain,” Patton said.

The grievous injuries to victims, the scope of the inquiry and Saipov’s path toward extremism all began coming into view on Wednesday. The FBI, after saying it was trying to learn more about a second Uzbek man in connection with the attack, later announced that investigators had found the man, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, 32 in New Jersey. It was not clear why federal authorities wanted to question him in connection with the attack.

The authorities questioned Saipov after he waived his Miranda rights at a Manhattan hospital, the complaint says. They were also questioning Saipov’s wife, Nozima Odilova, who was cooperating, law enforcement officials said. The couple live in Paterson, New Jersey, and have three children.

As investigators looked into whether Saipov’s Uzbek contacts may have handed him off to an ISIS operative, they pieced together parts of his past, law enforcement officials said. He attended a wedding in Florida of an Uzbek man who was under scrutiny by the FBI. But his attendance did not trigger a separate investigation of him, the officials said.

Investigators were still looking into whether Saipov had links to other federal counterterrorism inquiries.

On Saipov’s cellphone, FBI agents found 90 videos, including of ISIS fighters killing prisoners and of instructions for making an explosive device, according to the criminal complaint. They also found 3,800 images, among them some of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. The complaint said Saipov reported being inspired in particular by a video in which al-Baghdadi “questioned what Muslims in the United States and elsewhere were doing to respond to the killing of Muslims in Iraq.”

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An injured man is loaded into an ambulance after a pickup truck struck multiple people in Lower Manhattan on Oct. 31, 2017. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

The FBI was uncovering details that sent agents on a far-ranging chase for leads.

But several crucial facts remain unclear. It is not known if the FBI is still investigating the Uzbek man whose wedding Saipov attended. And as investigators built out concentric circles of his associates, they are still looking at whether Saipov had direct connections with ISIS operatives.

Even so, the federal complaint filed against Saipov said he hewed closely to instructions last November in an ISIS magazine, Rumiyah, for a vehicle attack. After plowing his Home Depot rental truck down a bike path along the Hudson River that teemed with pedestrians and cyclists and crashing into a school bus, the complaint said, he jumped out of the truck, yelled “Allahu akbar” (Arabic for “God is great”) and waved a paintball gun and a pellet gun.

The Rumiyah instructions called for followers to carry secondary weapons so they could continue an attack after crashing the vehicle, and Saipov did so, the complaint said: He had a bag of knives in the truck “but was unable to reach them before exiting.” There was also a stun gun on the floor of the truck near the driver’s seat, according to the complaint.

Investigators found a handwritten note in Arabic and English 10 feet from the driver’s side door, as the front of the truck sat smashed in, with soil strewn across the street that had been knocked out of a nearby planter. According to the complaint, the note detailed a pledge that echoed language used by ISIS: “Islamic Supplication. It will endure.”

“He appears to have followed almost to a T the instructions that ISIS has put out,” John J. Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said at a news conference on Wednesday morning.

Those who knew Saipov said he had been turning toward extremism for years since arriving in the United States in 2010.

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Mirrakhmat Muminov, a truck driver and community activist in Stow, Ohio, said Saipov became aggressive and grew out his beard during his three years there. Muminov said Saipov showed up late for Friday prayers and exhibited rudimentary knowledge of the Quran. He would get heated when he discussed American policies regarding Israel, Muminov said.

His problems deepened when he moved to Florida. Abdul, a preacher at a Tampa mosque who agreed to speak on the condition that only his first name be used because he feared reprisals from other radicals, said he tried to steer Saipov away from the path of extremism.

In the months before Tuesday’s attack, the complaint said, Saipov began plotting assiduously. Nine days beforehand, he rented a Home Depot pickup truck so he could practice making turns, according the complaint.

He also rehearsed the route from New Jersey, over the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side of Manhattan in an Uber car he drove in the days before the incident, a law enforcement official said.

On Tuesday, he asked to rent the Home Depot truck for a short while, though he never intended to return it, the complaint said. He planned to drive all the way south to the Brooklyn Bridge, but he made it only as far as Chambers Street.

By the time his rampage ended, six people had been killed and two others would later die. Nine people remained hospitalized from injuries on Wednesday, officials said, four of them critically injured but in stable condition. The injuries ranged from the amputation of multiple limbs to serious head, neck and back trauma.

The complaint said Saipov decided against displaying ISIS flags on the truck to avoid drawing attention to himself. But laying in his hospital bed, he continued his quest, the complaint says: He asked law enforcement officials to put up ISIS flags and “stated that he felt good about what he had done.”

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