In creating the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division, David Cohen had a secret weapon: The latent resources of the NYPD. Many of its officers were foreign-born, making them ideal espionage operatives
His Afghan- or Pakistan-born linguists could easily monitor chat rooms in Kabul or Peshawar, looking for Islamics seeking to carry out attacks on New York City.
The FBI, on the other hand, fearing divided loyalties, usually rejected hiring foreign-born applicants: “Oooh, [you] grew up in Pakistan,” mocked Cohen. “We can’t use you.”
Cohen realized that some analysts made better report-writers than streetwise detectives. And some detectives were better at unearthing criminal secrets than desk-bound analysts.
So Cohen decided to pair Ivy-league-educated analysts with veteran detectives. Together, they could pool their talents and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
Perhaps most importantly, Cohen’s unit was not judged by the number of arrests or convictions generated by its activities.
Its purpose was to disrupt terror cells and prevent terrorist acts, not to prosecute individuals after they had unleashed destruction.
Agents of NYPD’s Counterterrorism Unit
Meanwhile, the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency watched with growing anger as the NYPD trespassed on their jealously guarded turf.
What right did a mere local police department–even one of 33,000 sworn officers–have to conduct overseas Intelligence operations?
Cohen, in turn, was not shy in answering: We relied on you Feds to protect us in 1993 and 2001–and look at what happened.
And events soon proved the need for such a stepped-up anti-terrorism effort.
Since September 11, 2001, there have been 16 known terrorist plots against New York City. Among these:
- In 2002, Iyman Faris, a U.S.-based al-Qaeda operative, planned to cut the Brooklyn Bridge’s support cables. But due to NYPD anti-terrorism efforts, Faris called off the plot, telling al-Qaeda leaders that “the weather is too hot.” He was arrested, pled guilty, and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
- In 2006, Dhiren Barot was sentenced to life in prison by a United Kingdom court for planning to attack targets both in the UK and the United States. These included the New York Stock Exchange and, Citigroup’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
- Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay plotted in 2004 to place bombs in the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. Elshafay had already chosen potential targets before he met an NYPD informant in early 2004. Both men were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison.
- In 2006, four men plotted to detonate the jet-fuel storage tanks and supply lines for John F. Kennedy Airport in order to cause wide-scale destruction and economic disruption. All four were arrested and sentenced to prison–three of them for life.
- In September 2009, the New York City subway system was targeted by three men who planned to set off bombs in the subway during rush hour shortly after the eighth anniversary of 9/11. All three were arrested. Two pled guilty and await sentencing; the third has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
- Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-American residing in Connecticut, tried but failed to set explode a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. Cooperation between NYPD and the FBI led to his identification and arrest 53 hours after the attempt, as he tried to flee the country. Shahzad pled guilty to all charges against him and was sentenced to life in prison.
All of these plots were foiled by the NYPD, the FBI, or by a combination of these agencies.
Then, after more than a decade’s successes in foiling a series of Islamic plots against New York City, disaster struck the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division.
On February 18, 2012, the Associated Press (AP) broke the news that the NYPD had monitored Muslim college students far more broadly than previously known.
According to the AP:
- The NYPD conducted surveillance at schools far removed from New York.
- These included Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the University of Pennsylvania.
- Detectives daily tracked Muslim student websites and recorded the names of professors and students.
- The NYPD, with CIA help, monitored Muslims where they ate, shopped and worshiped.
- The NYPD placed undercover officers at Muslim student associations in colleges within New York City.
- In one NYPD operation, an undercover officer accompanied 18 Muslim City College students on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York. He noted the names of those who were officers of the Muslim Student Association.
To put this act of journalistic treachery into historical context: Imagine the New York Times leaking the exact timetable for the D-Day invasion to agents of Nazi Germany.
New York’s Islamic community had long accused the NYPD of “profiling” its members. Armed with the AP’s revelations, Islamics rushed to capitalize on them.
“I see a violation of civil rights here,” said Tanweer Haq, chaplain of the Muslim Student Association at Syracuse University, upon learning of the AP’s revelations.
“Nobody wants to be on the list of the FBI or the NYPD or whatever. Muslim students want to have their own lives, their own privacy and enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that everybody else has.”
That’s true. But no other nationality has so often attacked Americans within the last 35 years–nor continues to pose so great a threat to this country.