America's largest city remains a prime target for Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism, says New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Ray Kelly.
With the prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria looming, the NYPD's counterterrorism unit is keeping a close eye as well on Iran-sponsored groups such as Hezbollah who might retaliate with attacks in New York, Kelly told a breakfast session today, hosted jointly by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Association for a Better New York.
“Twelve years after 9/11, the terrorist threat to the United States is as dangerous as ever, and New York…remains in the crosshairs,” he said.
Kelly did not mention any specific threats connected with the Syria conflict, but he explained that the Syrian insurgency against President Bashir Al-Assad has added to some of the “ideological baggage” motivating Al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa and the Middle East.
In remarks that were at times laced with anger, Kelly complained that none of the candidates in New York's mayoral race seemed concerned with the possibility of terrorist attacks, or with “our enemies” enduring obsession with New York.”
“Not one of the candidates has requested a briefing” on the NYPD's counter-terrorism activities, the commissioner said bluntly.
“Do not think that Al-Qaeda and those who share its ideology have forgotten about New York,” he said, noting that images of the burning World Trade Center in 2001 are used as inspiration in many terrorist web sites.
“New York is a symbol of all they hate in America and the West.”
Kelly, who was appointed NYPD commissioner in 2002, said his counterterrorism unit—the largest of any American city—had foiled at least 16 terrorist attempts on New York since the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings.
Listing a number of those which have been publicized, ranging from an attempt to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York to a plot against New York subways, he added there were others “which you've never heard of.”
But he insisted, “Don't be lulled into complacency by our success.”
Kelly used his terror warning to support a heated defense of the NYPD against recent criticism that it has overstepped constitutional bounds by spying on Muslim communities in the New York area.
The critics are “wrong,” Kelly maintained. “(Our) investigations are never determined by a subject's religion or ethnic background.”
He said the NYPD “prides itself” on its open relationship with New York's Muslim community, adding for example that the NYPD's 300-member Muslim Police Officers Society is regularly involved with cultural and sporting events such as the cricket league.
NYPD only engages in specifically targeted activities with Muslim communities, he said, insisting, “we do not engage in blanket surveillance of communities or do undercover work.”
But he pointed out that in one of the world's most diverse cities, “we have to be prepared that sectarian violence elsewhere can have an impact on us here.”
For example, NYPD officers are using their close knowledge and contacts with the Syrian community in New York to stay alert to any threats related to that country's civil war, and to the possibility of reprisals for any U.S. attempt to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, he said.
Kelly made clear he was frustrated by the mounting criticism over NYPD actions, noting in response to one of the few questions from the floor, that a recent court ruling curtailing the use of stop, question and frisk tactics revealed a misunderstanding of why cops had been so successful in reducing New York's crime rate—a ruling he hinted might even affect anti-terrorism work.
“A significant reduction (in stop and frisk tactics) will impact in all areas of public safety, not just in street crime,” he said.
According to Kelly, the current crop of New York mayoral candidates seemed uninterested in the issue of how global terrorism might affect the city.
“Few questions are more important than what the next mayor will do to protect New York City,” he said. “We've come too far to leave ourselves vulnerable.”
Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers' comments.