Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack. Picture: ST CHARLES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS VIA REUTERS
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack. Picture: ST CHARLES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS VIA REUTERS

New York — An Uzbek immigrant accused of plowing a truck down a New York City bike path, killing eight people, told investigators he had been inspired by watching Islamic State videos and began planning the attack a year ago, according to a criminal complaint filed against him on Wednesday.

Sayfullo Saipov, 29, who was admitted to hospital after he was shot by a police officer and arrested, confessed to authorities that he made a trial run with a rental truck on October 22 to practise turning the vehicle and "stated that he felt good about what he had done" after the attack, the complaint said.

Five of the eight people who died in the attack were Argentinians from Rosario, on a high school reunion holiday.

Flags flew at half-staff in Rosario, the country’s main grain-exporting hub, as well as hometown to leftist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and soccer great Lionel Messi, and the city declared three days of mourning.

Suspect speaks

The 10-page charging document said Saipov waived his rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination in agreeing to speak to investigators without an attorney present from his bed at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan.

In the course of that interview, the complaint said, Saipov told investigators he chose Halloween for the attack because he believed more people would be on the streets and said he had originally planned to strike the Brooklyn Bridge as well as the bike path on the western edge of lower Manhattan.

The complaint said Saipov had requested permission to display the flag of the Islamic State militant group in his hospital room.

It said he was particularly motivated by seeing a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led the campaign by Islamic State — also known as Isis — to seize territory for a self-proclaimed caliphate within Iraq and Syria, exhorted Muslims in the US and elsewhere to support the group’s cause.

Investigators found thousands of Isis-related propaganda images and videos on a cellphone belonging to Saipov, including video clips showing ISIS prisoners being beheaded, run over by a tank and shot in the face, the complaint said.

Separately on Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had located another Uzbek man, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, 32, wanted for questioning as a person of interest in the attack. The FBI earlier had issued a wanted posted for Kadirov.

The assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, William Sweeney Jr, declined at a news conference to give any details on Kadirov or where he was found.

US law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, told Reuters that Saipov had been in contact with Kadirov and another person of interest in the investigation, though they did not elaborate.

Eligible for death penalty

Saipov was charged with one count of providing material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organisation, specifically Islamic State, and one count of violence and destruction of motor vehicles causing the deaths of eight people.

Manhattan acting US Attorney Joon Kim said the first count carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, while the second would make Saipov eligible for capital punishment if convicted, if the government chose to seek the death penalty.

Additional or different charges could be brought later in an indictment, Kim said.

Vehicle assaults similar to the New York attack took place in Spain in August and in France and Germany last year, claiming dozens of lives.

Tuesday’s assault was the deadliest in New York City since September 11 2001, when suicide hijackers crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,600 people.

In addition to the five Argentinian tourists, the victims were a Belgian citizen, a New York resident and a New Jersey resident.

Saipov allegedly used a bakkie rented from a New Jersey Home Depot store to run down pedestrians and cyclists along a 20-block stretch of the bike path that runs along the Hudson River before slamming into a school bus.

According to authorities, he then exited his vehicle shouting "Allahu Akbar" — Arabic for "God is greatest" — and brandishing what turned out to be a paint-ball gun and a pellet gun before a police officer shot him in the abdomen.

Saipov lived in Paterson, New Jersey, a one-time industrial hub about 40km northwest of lower Manhattan.

Saipov, seated in a wheelchair, appeared for a brief hearing in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday evening before magistrate Barbara Moses. A Russian interpreter translated for Saipov.

Saipov did not ask for bail and was remanded to federal custody. It was not immediately clear where he would be held.

Two senior US legislators on Wednesday urged authorities to treat Saipov as an enemy combatant, which would allow investigators to question him without having a lawyer present.

President Donald Trump said he would be open to transferring Saipov to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where other suspects including alleged September 11 plotters are held.

He also said Saipov should get the death penalty. "NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!" he wrote on Twitter.

Kim, the federal prosecutor, said there was nothing about charging Saipov in civilian court that would necessarily prevent him from later being declared an enemy combatant.

"That is a determination that will be made elsewhere," he told reporters.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said police will be out in force to protect the city’s marathon on Sunday, one of the world’s top road races, which draws about 51,000 runners and 2.5-million spectators from around the globe.

Reuters, with AFP

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