WASHINGTON, D.C./NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized the nation’s visa system in the wake of Tuesday’s truck attack in New York City that left eight dead, blaming Democrats and pressing a ‘merit based’ program for immigrants to the United States.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter, referring to the Senate Democratic leader.
The president’s comments come after Tuesday’s deadliest terror attack in New York City since 9/11.
A man driving a truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists in New York on Tuesday, killing eight people. The attacker reportedly left a note claiming allegiance to Islamic State and that he had shouted “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is greatest” – after leaping from his truck, which had crashed into a school bus as he sped away from the carnage..
Early investigations have determined that Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, 29, may have worked as a driver and lived in New Jersey after immigrating from Uzbekistan seven years ago, according to authorities and media reports.
Sources close to the investigation say that he was not a U.S. citizen and his immigration status was not immediately clear.
Few other details about the suspect have emerged since the Tuesday afternoon vehicle rampage in lower Manhattan, blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the landmark World Trade Center Twin Towers.
Saipov was shot by a police officer while attempting to flee minutes after the attack and was whisked away to a local hospital, where he was recovering from an abdominal wound.
With authorities saying they believe the attack was a “terrorist event,” the lack of disclosure may reflect the nature of the investigation, which is still in its earliest stage.
He also left behind a note claiming he carried out the deadly assault in the name of the Islamic State militant group, according to reports.
Federal officials had become aware of Saipov while conducting an unrelated investigation, the New York Times reported, citing three unidentified officials. The Times offered no further details about the nature of the investigation, when it was conducted, or its outcome.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declined to comment on that report when asked by reporters at a news conference. “It is too early to give you a definitive answer,” he said.
Saipov, born in February 1988, moved to the United States seven years ago from Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country that was once part of the Soviet Union. He appears to have lived in Ohio, Florida and New Jersey since then.
Uzbekistan told Trump on Wednesday it was ready to do everything it could to help investigate the attack. Uzbekistan spoke out after a U.S. law enforcement official described the suspect as a U.S. immigrant born in Uzbekistan, a landlocked, predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia that was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made the offer of help in a letter of condolence to Trump in which he condemned the attack as “extremely brutal” and said there could be no justification for such violence.
“From our side, we are ready to use all our power and resources to cooperate in the investigation of this terrorist act,” Mirziyoyev wrote in the letter, which was posted on his country’s Foreign Ministry’s website.
“We express our solidarity with the U.S. people.”
Another Uzbek immigrant who met Saipov in Florida several years ago told the Times that Saipov worked as a truck driver there but began driving for Uber when he moved to New Jersey.
“He was a very good person when I knew him,” Kobiljon Matkarov told the newspaper. “He liked the U.S. He seemed very lucky and all the time he was happy and talking like everything is O.K. He did not seem like a terrorist, but I did not know him from the inside.”
Saipov was an Uber driver after passing the background check, but has since been banned from the Uber app, a spokesperson with the ride-sharing company said.
“We are aggressively and quickly reviewing this partner’s history with Uber, and at this time we have not identified any related concerning safety reports,” the company said, adding that it has been in contact with the FBI.
The Times, citing sources, reported that Saipov had been living in Paterson, New Jersey, about 25 miles northwest of the scene of the attack. He rented the truck used in the attack from a Home Depot in nearby Passaic, just south of Paterson, it said.
Police cordoned off an area of Paterson, a one-time industrial hub known for its large immigrant population, early Wednesday morning. About 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims live in the city, giving it one of the highest concentrations of Muslim people in the New York City area.
Saipov has a history of traffic violations, according to media reports and court records.
In one incident, he was pulled over in central Pennsylvania for pulling a truck trailer that was longer than permitted by law and “operating unsafe equipment”, as well as driving with the wrong operators license, state judicial records show.
Saipov listed both Paterson and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, as his addresses. He paid his fine by mail and did not have to appear in court.
Pope Francis condemned the attacks on Wednesday, also commenting on recent deadly attacks in Somalia and Afghanistan saying militants were abusing the name of God to justify their violence.
“I am profoundly saddened by the terrorist attacks in these recent days in Somalia, Afghanistan and yesterday in New York,” the pope said in an address to mark All Saints Day, adding that he was praying for the victims and their families.
“We ask God to convert the hearts of terrorists and free the world of hatred and of mad murder that abuses the name of God to disseminate death,” he said to Roman Catholic faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
Also on Tuesday, as many as eight people were killed by a suicide bomber in the Afghan capital, Kabul. It was the latest of a string of attacks in Afghanistan last month, including one on a Shi’ite mosque that killed more than 50 people .
On Sunday, at least 29 people died in an Islamist attack on a hotel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The assault came two weeks after two bombings in the city killed more than 350 people .
Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned Islamist militants in recent years, saying followers of religions who carry out acts of fundamentalism or terrorism are profaning God’s name.