(NEW YORK) — The suspected New York City attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, was interviewed in 2015 by federal agents in the Department of Homeland Security Investigations Unit about possible ties to suspected terrorists, but the agents did not have enough evidence to open a case on him, laws enforcement officials tell ABC News.
Saipov’s name and address was listed as a “point of contact” for two men whose were listed in a Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism database and later overstayed their tourist visas, one federal official told ABC News. One was merely flagged after arriving from a so-called “threat country,” while the other vanished and was being actively sought by federal agents as a “suspected terrorist.”
An official told ABC News that the FBI has since located him and he is not believed to have been involved in Tuesday’s attack.
Speaking on Wednesday, President Donald Trump noted that Saipov had served as the “point of contact” for 23 people. A source confirmed that number to ABC News but said it is unclear if those people are “immediate family members, distant family members, or friends.” Only those two men, however, were listed in the database.
Saipov, 29, came to the United States from Uzbekistan through a Diversity Visa Program lottery in 2010, making him a legal permanent resident of the United States upon arrival. He has lived in Ohio, Florida and, most recently, Paterson, N.J., where federal agents interviewed Saipov in 2015.
Authorities say Saipov claimed in a handwritten note found near his truck that he carried out Tuesday’s attack, which killed eight people on a bike path on the West Side of Manhattan, on behalf of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. The terror group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but according to Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks the online activity of jihadist organizations, the attack “fits [the] style” of recent suspected ISIS-inspired attack throughout Europe.
“Amid losses in #Iraq and #Syria, #ISIS has ramped up calls for supporters to perform attacks in the #US, among other Western nations,” Katz wrote in multiple posts on Twitter in the wake of the attack in New York City. “#ISIS media regularly pushes #NYC attacks … #ISIS supporters celebrating #Manhattan attack.”
Investigators searching Saipov’s online activities have found social media links to people who are or were subjects of terror investigations. However the portrait that is emerging so far is of someone who found ISIS propaganda online with no sense that he was part of a cell or in any way directed to do this.
The vetting process for all visa programs was substantially changed two years after Saipov’s entry to include vetting against a broad array of classified and unclassified information.
The change was prompted by the terror-related arrests in Bowling Green, Kentucky of two individuals who came through an Iraqi refugee program. There was information in Department of Defense files that linked these people to IED attacks against American soldiers in Iraq. At that time, though, the visa vetting process did not include access to that information.
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