Terror in Lower Manhattan: Reporters started asking religion questions early and often

It's a tragic reality that, over the years, I've had many, many opportunities to spot patterns in the questions asked by news consumers in the hours right after an act of terrorism here in America or somewhere else in the world.

I used to notice a common theme in complaints found in reader comments (and in notes sent to your GetReligionistas): Lots of people complained, often with good cause, that journalists seemed to go out of their way to bury information about religion, and Islam in particular. This often meant ignoring the testimony of eyewitnesses (click here for some examples).

But somewhere along the line, things changed. If you scan the coverage of yesterday's truck-terror attack in Lower Manhattan, it's clear that many reporters jumped straight into questions that must be asked in each and every story of this kind. Who was the attacker (that includes the name)? Where did this attacker come from? Was there evidence of motive, in word or deed? Did the attacker act alone? Is there evidence of ties to radical religious or political groups?

Obviously, readers around the world headed straight to The New York Times after this attack. We are talking location, location, location and resources.

If you are looking for the basics, including details about religion, it's hard to complain about this early report. (So far, I have found one potentially significant detail in another report that is not in this Times story, and I'll come back to that.) Here is the Times overture:

A driver plowed a pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River in Manhattan on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring 11 before being shot by a police officer in what officials are calling the deadliest terrorist attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.
The rampage ended when the motorist -- whom the police identified as Sayfullo Saipov, 29 -- smashed into a school bus, jumped out of his truck and ran up and down the highway waving a pellet gun and paintball gun and shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before he was shot in the abdomen by the officer. He remained in critical condition on Tuesday evening.
Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the rampage a terrorist attack and federal law enforcement authorities were leading the investigation. Investigators discovered handwritten notes in Arabic near the truck that indicated allegiance to the Islamic State, two law enforcement officials said. But investigators had not uncovered evidence of any direct or enabling ties between Mr. Saipov and ISIS and were treating the episode as a case of an “inspired” attacker, two counterterrorism officials said.

It might have been possible to slip one other detail into that second paragraph -- Saipov came to America from Uzbekistan -- but Times readers learned that a few paragraphs later.

Other than the notes found near the rented truck (a detail some journalists failed to pick up on at first), was there any other evidence linking the attacker to radicalized Muslim groups? The Times noted, in the main story:

Almost immediately, as investigators began to look into Mr. Saipov’s history, it became clear that he had been on the radar of federal authorities. Three officials said he had come to the federal authorities’ attention as a result of an unrelated investigation, but it was not clear whether that was because he was a friend, an associate or a family member of someone under scrutiny or because he himself had been the focus of an investigation.
Over the last two years, a terrorism investigation by the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Police Department and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn resulted in charges against five men from Uzbekistan and one from Kazakhstan of providing material support to ISIS. Several of the men have pleaded guilty. It is unclear whether Mr. Saipov was connected with that investigation.
Martin Feely, a spokesman for the New York F.B.I. office, declined to comment on whether Mr. Saipov was known to the bureau.

A short sidebar to that story -- "From Truck Driver to Uber Driver to Terror Attack Suspect" -- included a few other details, including one of those "he seemed like a nice guy" quotes from an associate.

So what was missing? I've worked some of the basic coverage and, after surviving a barrage of auto-cue audio/video ads at the USA Today site, I found an interesting detail in its main story. The headline: "Uzbek man identified as truck driver who allegedly killed 8 in New York City."

The following detail probably emerged from shoe-leather reporting, but it could have come from follow-up work with police sources.

Saipov's second-floor apartment is a few steps from Omar Mosque. In interviews Tuesday night, neighbors said they recognized Saipov, and said he attended the mosque regularly with his family.
The mosque was one of several in New Jersey that the New York Police Department targeted as part of a broad surveillance program starting in 2005 intended to identify “budding terrorist conspiracies.” The program was criticized for targeting citizens based on religion and ethnicity.
The NYPD’s brief 2006 report about the mosque did not indicate any crime had been committed there, but noted that it “is believed to have been the subject of federal investigations."

Does this implicate people at the mosque? Of course not.

However, it is a practical detail linked to the attacker's life. It's also possible that radical networks operated AROUND the mosque, but not IN it. I've read about cases in which suspects (think radical anti-abortion activists) were active in a specific religious institution, but were pushed out by leaders and members who rejected their wild beliefs. In other words: There was a tie, but the tie was cut.

The USA Today story went on to note:

Mahmoud Attallah, a former spokesman for the mosque, told The Record he was upset by Tuesday's loss of life. He also worried that the attack could spark an angry backlash against Muslims.
“I was so upset with this situation, these innocent people,’’ said Attalah, who lives in Clifton. “Every time we think this is over, and now this, and there is this guy from Uzbekistan, and he’s not even Arabic.”
In May 2001, four months before the 9/11 attacks, hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi rented a one-room apartment in Paterson. During the summer other hijackers also were seen there by neighbors. 

Anything else? A story at CNN.com included an important on-the-record quote that pointed to additional information that could emerge in the days ahead.

Saipov was "radicalized domestically" in the US, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday morning.
"The evidence shows -- and again, it's only several hours, and the investigation is ongoing -- but that after he came to the United States is when he started to become informed about ISIS and radical Islamic tactics," Cuomo said.
"We have no evidence yet of associations or a continuing plot or associated plots, and our only evidence to date is that this was an isolated incident that he himself performed."

Interesting. So Saipov was radicalized in America, but there's no evidence of connections to people or networks who assisted in that process? It was the Internet, alone.

Stay tuned and let us know if you see really good, or really bad, coverage on these issues. But let me repeat my main point: Journalists appear to be asking the big religion questions early and often, this time around. I'm not seeing evidence of stalling. Times have changed?

FIRST IMAGE: Enlarged image from eyewitness video of the attacker in Lower Manhattan.

Please respect our Commenting Policy