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Commentary By Judith Miller

Terror Target: Manhattan

Cities, Public Safety, Culture Policing, Crime Control, Race

New York's police commissioner says it's a big mistake to write off failed attacks as the work of incompetents, and he's developed his own intelligence apparatus to make sure they don't succeed.

What rankles Raymond W. Kelly? Two things, he tells me as we sip lukewarm coffee in his conference room on the 14th floor of One Police Plaza, the dilapidated police headquarters overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge.

The first, New York’s police commissioner tells me, is “incompetence,” an inescapable fact-of-life, or so it would seem, in any large bureaucracy (he has 50,000 employees). A second is the media’s tendency to downplay New York’s hard-won victories against terrorism�the failure or foiling of some 11 serious plots against the city since 2001�by describing the would-be perpetrators as incompetent or stupid.

Faisal Shahzad, who was indicted on Thursday for trying to blow up his SUV in Times Square last month, was not a stupid bumbler, Mr. Kelly says. “The people who interviewed, interrogated him said he is very smart, and has a very keen memory.” Federal law enforcement officials say they are making good use of that memory, using information he’s been providing to help target terrorist recruiters, handlers and facilitators in Pakistan, where Mr. Shahzad went for training.

So why did Mr. Shahzad buy fertilizer that wouldn’t detonate? “He was forced to do . . . things . . . that reduced the potency of his device,” Mr. Kelly says, because “it’s hard to get explosive materials in this country.” That “led him to try to substitute materials.”

Earlier this month Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, 20, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, 24, were arrested at JFK International Airport. They were en route to Somalia with the stated intention of joining an Islamic extremist group to kill American troops there. Yet a profile in the New York Times quoted anonymous friends who described them as “hapless blowhards, more pathetic than perilous.” The Times story also noted that the federal agents who arrested the duo had “seized” candy that Mr. Alessa’s mother had given him for his plane trip.

Court papers filed in the case paint a more sinister picture, according to Mr. Kelly. “You can see how intent they were on committing violence,” he notes. “They spent a lot of time here in the city, in Brooklyn. They went to mosques, had meals, met friends.” One of those friends was an NYPD undercover officer who taped and documented their every move for a year.

The government’s complaint quotes Mr. Alessa’s intense desire to kill American soldiers in Somalia, or if he could not link up with Al Shabab, an al Qaeda-related group, to murder non-Muslims at home in America. “My soul cannot rest ’til I shed blood,” Mr. Alessa, the American-born son of Palestinian parents, is quoted as saying.

The complaint notes that Mr. Alessa wanted to avoid Pakistan, knowing that surveillance was increasingly intensive in that country. To avoid suspicion, according to the complaint, the “hapless blowhard” described in the New York Times used a credit card, not cash, to buy round-trip, rather than one-way tickets, on separate flights to Cairo for Mr. Almonte and himself. One top law-enforcement official told me that Mr. Alessa also insisted that his friends remove their cell phone batteries whenever they met to discuss their terrorist schemes.

“It’s dangerous to write people off just because they’ve been arrested,” Mr. Kelly warns. “These cases are the result of intelligence information and excellent investigative work at all levels.”

Luck, too, has often played a role in the NYPD’s efforts to protect New York. But in our hour-long interview late last week, Mr. Kelly asserts that credit for keeping the city safe is due mainly to the counterterrorism empire that he has built, actively manages and staffed up with counterterror “stars” like David Cohen, the former CIA director of operations who oversees the city’s aggressive undercover and intelligence activities.

Apart from helping bring violent crime down to historic lows, Mr. Kelly’s fame is based on the counterterrorism plans he first sketched in 2002 on a piece of paper for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That model has transformed the way that the NYPD and other large police forces in many cities now combat terror. By creating a local intelligence capability�complete with undercover agents, informants, analysts, a community mapping effort, a terrorism cyber-unit, a small army of linguists and even an overseas presence in 11 cities�Mr. Kelly’s counterterrorism force is widely regarded by experts as second only to the FBI in homeland defense intelligence.

Despite historic rivalries and resentments between the FBI and the NYPD, Mr. Kelly says the two work together well because they must. “The major source of information for us is the JTTF,” Mr. Kelly says, referring to the FBI-led joint terrorism task forces through which several law enforcement agencies, the NYPD included, most often pursue terror tips and build cases.

Mr. Kelly’s counterterrorism program is also credited in the intelligence community with another breakthrough: its emphasis on “home-grown” Islamic radicals as the major source of the city’s, indeed America’s, future counterterrorism challenge.

Not everyone accepted this thesis in 2007 when two NYPD analysts, Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, published a study concluding that while al Qaeda remained a serious problem, the terrorism threat confronting America now came mainly from homegrown “younger Muslim men between the ages of 15 and 35.” Mainly middle class, rather than poor with no al Qaeda connection, many of these men have been radicalized by exposure to an “extreme and minority interpretation” of Islam, the report concluded.

Initially, some FBI analysts challenged the notion that America, which prides itself on its integration of immigrants of all ethnic groups and faiths, would fall prey to the “homegrown” radicalization that has plagued Europe and other less welcoming societies. No longer.

Mr. Silber, now the NYPD’s director of intelligence analysis, told a gathering of security representatives at police headquarters last month that the preponderance of major terrorist plots against the West (Europe, North America and Australia) since 9/11 were planned by individuals born or raised and subsequently radicalized in the West. In plots aimed at targets within the continental U.S. since 2004, the majority of conspirators either come from or have lived in New York or the tri-state area. That makes the New York metropolitan area not only militant Islam’s top target but also increasingly a leading source for its recruits, Mr. Kelly adds.

Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant with alleged al Qaeda ties who is accused of plotting to blow up New York subway trains, grew up in New York and had friends in the city. Mr. Kelly calls the Zazi plot “the most serious we’ve seen since Sept. 11.”

Bryant Vinas, a former Boy Scout and U.S. army enlistee who discussed an attack on the Long Island Railroad with al Qaeda members in Waziristan, Pakistan, was born in Queens and raised Catholic in a middle-class household in Medford, Long Island. And Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, attended the University of Bridgeport and lived in two towns in Connecticut. Messrs. Alessa and Almonte grew up in New Jersey.

Mr. Kelly allocates some $330 million a year of his $4.6 billion budget to counterterrorism. He intends to keep roughly a thousand people assigned to counterterrorism duty�no mean feat in a police force whose ranks of uniformed officers have fallen to 37,800 today from 40,800 before 9/11.

A self-declared “gadget guy,” Mr. Kelly is also fighting for federal funds to finance 70% of his ambitious effort to install sophisticated surveillance cameras and license plate readers in Manhattan�a $500 million project that he calls “vital” to New York’s security.

Mr. Kelly’s reliance on intrusive surveillance and policing techniques has attracted vigorous criticism. Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), has repeatedly battled the NYPD for its “stop and frisk” policies and other tactics she says are “hyperaggressive.” In particular, the NYCLU claims police surveillance violated the civil rights of protesters prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention. The organization has been trying to force the department to turn over some 1,900 pages of documents filed by intelligence unit detectives who spied on and infiltrated what Ms. Lieberman claims were nonviolent protest groups, but whom Mr. Kelly asserts were anarchists intending to shut down the convention and the city.

On June 9, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the department could withhold the material, on the grounds that the “information that could risk the safety of [police] employees and the public.” Not surprisingly, Mr. Kelly hailed the ruling as “an important victory for the department and its efforts to protect the safety and security of New Yorkers.”

Mr. Kelly also denies allegations�supported by tapes that were secretly recorded in the 81st Precinct by a whistle-blowing patrolman and disclosed by the Village Voice�that the NYPD has been manipulating crime reports by undercounting crimes so that the city can continue claiming a falling crime rate.

“Yes, there’s a temptation by some people to lower the numbers,” he concedes, “because they’re human.” But he has never tolerated such data fudging, he says, and he has demoted three detectives for doing so. Prior to his tenure, he says, auditors found a 4% error rate in crime statistics, compared with a 0.5% error rate during his tenure. Critics want those audits made public. The NYPD refuses to do so.

The commissioner is also battling an effort to force the NYPD to release 10 years of data about the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Critics complain that minorities have been disproportionately targeted for such searches. Mr. Kelly adamantly defends what he calls his department’s “stop and question” policy. Only half of the 576,394 people stopped in 2009 were searched, he says, and the “proactive engagement,” as he calls it, “is life-saving.” Most of the lives being saved, he adds, are those of minorities.

Nevertheless, Eli B. Silverman�an expert on policing who wrote a laudatory book about the NYPD’s crime reduction efforts�now warns that such heavy-handed techniques may be alienating the people from the very minority groups the department relies on for its terrorism tips.

A former Marine who saw combat in Vietnam, Mr. Kelly remains a physical fitness buff and looks younger than his 68 years. During more than 35 years with the NYPD, he has commanded precincts in Brooklyn and Queens. He also served in Washington from 1996-1998 as undersecretary of enforcement and customs commissioner in the Treasury Department from 1998-2001. Mr. Kelly says he now has his dream job, and particularly denies press reports that he has thought about running for mayor after Mr. Bloomberg leaves office.

The commissioner fidgets slightly as our designated hour of questions draws to a close. He has plenty to do before his working day ends, usually at 11:30 p.m. His next appointment is to visit with a severely injured officer at a rehabilitation center in New Jersey. It is one of the four hospitalized New York City officers he’ll visit during the week.

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal