Hours after the New York City police commissioner’s detectives helped arrest the suspected Times Square plotter, Ray Kelly talked to Lloyd Grove about how the attack was foiled—and what he’s doing to prevent future terrorists. PLUS, read about four other terror plots that were defused before they could wreak domestic havoc.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly used to believe that the federal government alone could protect New York City from terrorism.
But that was before 9/11.
“What became obvious to me was the fact that New York was going to remain very much the top target for terrorists in the United States—which has proven to be true with the number of plots that have been thwarted,” the city’s top cop told me in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday evening, some 18 hours after his detectives helped identify, locate, and arrest the Pakistani-born 30-year-old man who allegedly tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, which was teeming with thousands of tourists Saturday night. “I realized that we needed to supplement what the federal government was doing. Because of that status of being No. 1 on the terrorist target list, we could not rely exclusively on the federal authorities to protect our city.”
“The device did not go off, clearly, as the suspect intended it to do. But what this does is underscore the fact that the terrorists want to come to New York and kill people.”
In the last day, since the arrest of naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad—who has been charged with acts of terrorism and conspiracy, among other federal crimes—the incident has exploded into a global investigation involving terrorist training camps and operatives of al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the commissioner is concentrating on his own backyard. “We’ve been successfully targeted by terrorists twice [the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the world-changing events of September 2001], and we’ve had 11 plots thwarted since Sept. 11,” Kelly said. “We had to do more—and that’s what we’ve done.”
Big Fat Story: 5 Foiled Terror Plots
• Bruce Riedel: What Pakistan’s Terrorists Want The square-jawed, pug-nosed former Marine, who is eight years into his second tour leading the nation’s largest police force (his first tour was back in the early 1990s), made counterterrorism a priority as soon as he moved back into One Police Plaza under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s not as if we can’t do it or we don’t have the resources,” Kelly, 68, said. “We are the largest police department in the country. We have 50,000 uniformed and civilian employees. We are, right now, about twice the size of the FBI. It just makes sense to do this in a city of 8.4 million souls.”
Shortly after taking office in early 2002, Kelly increased the number of New York cops detailed to the multiagency Joint Terrorism Task Force, from 17 to about 130 today. He recruited David Cohen, a 35-year CIA veteran who’d directed both the agency’s clandestine operations and analysis divisions, to lead a brand-new intelligence unit for the NYPD. He deployed extra police officers in high-value target areas, such as Wall Street and Times Square. And he committed more personnel and resources to focus entirely on the terrorist threat—sending out an army of cops, for instance, to canvass thousands of tri-state area gardening stores, beauty parlors, and exterminating companies to alert those businesses to the presence of potential bomb-making materials in their everyday inventories.
Newsweek magazine correspondent Christopher Dickey, who spent months following the commissioner for a 2009 book, credits Kelly with making the highly ignitable fertilizer ammonium nitrate—the powerful explosive used by Oklahoma City mass murderer Timothy McVeigh—so scarce on the open market it is all but impossible to buy without attracting law enforcement attention. Thus Faisal Shahzad—who was collared on a Dubai-bound airliner Monday night at JFK on suspicion of trying to blow up Times Square—allegedly had to pack his not-so-bomb-ready SUV with an inert fertilizer that would not detonate.
“Obviously, it was a device that had a lot of potential,” Kelly told me, noting that not only diligence but also luck played a role in thwarting a devastating attack—when a street vendor alerted a cop on horseback to the smoking Nissan Pathfinder idling at Broadway and 45th Street. “It’s a combination of both,” Kelly said. “We had extra coverage in Times Square. Police officers were right there to call the fire department, to get people out of the way. The device did not go off, clearly, as the suspect intended it to do. But what this does is underscore the fact that the terrorists want to come to New York and kill people.”
Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg were in Washington for Saturday’s black-tie White House Correspondents Dinner—and I joked with him about our matching cufflinks around 6:30 p.m. at Newsweek senior editor Lally Weymouth’s annual VIP cocktail party at the Washington Hilton. A half hour later, Kelly first heard from his security detail about a mysterious “suspicious package” discovered in Times Square. By 8 p.m., it was clear that the “package” was a car bomb, and Kelly briefed the mayor. “We knew at 8 that we’d be returning to New York that night,” the commissioner recalled. By 11 p.m., they were heading to Bloomberg’s Dassault Falcon 900 private jet for the return trip and an emergency news conference.
The billionaire Bloomberg went before the cameras still wearing his tuxedo and a festive red bowtie—an incongruous costume for a discussion of near-carnage. But the politically astute Kelly, standing next to Hizzoner, had exchanged his tux for a dull business suit before stepping up to the microphones. But not because he thought it would look better, he insisted when asked: “I put on a suit because it’s just easier to move in a suit,” he said with a barely suppressed chuckle.
The NYPD has played a critical role in preventing the bombing and pursuing the investigation—and will continue to do so as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies. “With our people, there was the initial response of the bomb squad, crowd control, and our whole forensic operation and evidence collection teams,” Kelly said. “The bomb squad collected materials under very stressful conditions, and they then disabled the bomb and made it inoperable, and blew open the gun case at our Rodman’s Neck facility [in the Bronx]. They towed the vehicle to the forensic garage for preliminary testing for DNA and fingerprints,” he continued. Now most of the physical evidence is on its way to further analysis at the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia—“probably the best in the world,” Kelly said.
As part of the task force, New York cops will be active in any international investigation and will travel to foreign countries as required. “They are designated U.S. marshals, so they’re able to have all the powers of federal law enforcement,” Kelly said.
At a televised Washington news conference on Tuesday with Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Kelly described the interaction between local and federal authorities as “seamless,” and in our conversation he insisted that he wasn’t bothered when Holder staged a post-midnight news conference without alerting him to announce Shahzad’s capture. “That’s his job,” said Kelly, who said he also was untroubled when the attorney general, answering a question at the news conference, kept alive the possibility that accused 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammad could still be tried at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Such a trial would prompt massive security concerns and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in extra policing. “We could do it,” Kelly told me, “but it’s a political impossibility.”
Of course, as head of the U.S. Customs Service under President Bill Clinton, Kelly became a keen student of the bureaucracy and political infighting in the nation’s capital. Thus he has been a tenacious, if not always successful, advocate of sending federal Homeland Security money to target-rich New York instead of low-profile locales that are nonetheless beneficiaries of political pork.
“Tip O’Neill’s famous expression was ‘All politics is local’—so irrespective of where you’re from in Congress, you want to bring home the bacon to your constituents,” Kelly said. “So they’ll make an argument that the money should go to their locality regardless of whether or not they have any meaningful terrorist threat. That’s the reality of life in Washington. That’s something we have to deal with. We make the arguments wherever and whenever we can, but Washington can be a very confusing place.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.