PATERSON, New Jersey — On the gritty block here where Sayfullo Saipov lived, residents are still reeling over the news that their neighbor was suspected of carrying out the deadliest terror attack in New York City since 9/11.
Saipov, 29, an Uzbek national, mowed down cyclists and pedestrians on a bike path in Lower Manhattan Tuesday in a Home Depot pickup truck, leaving eight dead and 11 injured — all apparently in the name of the so-called “Islamic State.”
While the attack rattled the nation, it has transformed the block in Paterson where Saipov lived with his wife and three kids, about 10 miles from Manhattan. News trucks were parked along the street and police tape that had cordoned off large swaths of the area surrounding Saipov’s residence had, by the afternoon, been taken down and was lying on the pavement. Some of his neighbors coming home from school or the supermarket hurried past, hoping to avoid being apprehended by reporters eager to know if they’d ever interacted with the suspect.
Outside the low-rise apartment building, in front of the steps leading to Saipov’s residence, sat toy trucks, and an empty watercooler jug that looked as though it was being used as an ashtray. The apartment next door had small American flags intertwined in the railings. Across the street was an empty lot, and a derelict brick building that looked like it had been burned down.
Paterson, nestled between affluent the Garden State’s more affluent areas, is one of the poorest cities in New Jersey. The southern part of the city is home to a large Palestinian and Turkish population, which has earned it the dueling nicknames of “Little Ramallah” and “Little Istanbul.” About 20 percent of its 150,000 residents are Muslim, and home to immigrants from around 50 countries. The town has half a dozen mosques, and many restaurants, hookah lounges and Halal grocery stores catering to its large immigrant population.
But many of the residents VICE News interviewed, including a woman who lived across the road from him, said they’d never seen Saipov before.
An “altercation” with Saipov
Carlos Batista, a 23-year-old construction worker, was one of the few neighbors who did recall once interacting with Saipov. He said that earlier this summer, he’d gotten into an “altercation” with Saipov, who was with two of his friends at the time.
“It was over a dirt bike — I was making too much noise coming up and down the block,” Batista said. “It was pretty late. They approached me in a disrespectful way. They said put the effing [sic] bike away. I had my own words of choice for them.”
Batista recalled that Saipov then said something in Uzbek to his friends, and then looked at him, and said “it’s alright, we don’t want any problems’.” After that interaction, the two men maintained civil relations, waving whenever they passed each other on the street. Batista says he rarely saw Saipov with his family — he was always with those same two friends, who looked just like him.
“If the United States continues to terrorize Muslims, someone’s gonna stand up.”
Saipov reportedly attended the Omar Mosque, a large white building with green awning just around the corner from where he lived. On Wednesday, the mosque’s gates were locked, and its side entrance for women was cordoned off with police tape. Later in the afternoon, it reopened for afternoon prayers.
One man, who declined to give his name, told VICE News as he left the mosque that he prayed there almost every day but had never once seen Saipov. “That’s a hole in the narrative,” he said.
But another man, who gave his name as Abu Mohammad — who said he recently joined Omar Mosque when leaders of his previous mosque kicked him out because he voted for President Donald Trump — said he had seen Saipov.
“I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him many times,” Mohammad said. “He’s a very, very nice guy. He always smiles to people’s faces, never curses. I come here once a week. I don’t come here a lot but I probably see him every two or three months when his wife and kids sometimes come to the mosque. “
“I wasn’t shocked”
Mohammad thinks that U.S foreign policy, including the Iraq War, pushed Saipov over the edge. “Why he did that, I don’t know. I wasn’t shocked,” Mohammad said. “If the United States continues to terrorize Muslims, someone’s gonna stand up.”
“People are gonna look at me and think I’m like that.”
Other residents feared that Saipov’s actions would only fuel negative stereotypes of Muslims in the United States and could lead to an uptick in bias incidents.
Saif Tawara, a Palestinian-Jordan who runs an Arabic sweets shop just blocks from where Saipov lived, said he’d never seen the suspect, whose face was now plastered over every major news network.
As CNN commentators on a TV screen parsed the details of Tuesday’s attack, Tawara told VICE News that he was worried about how Saipov’s actions would reflect his neighborhood and its Muslim community.
“I called my friend, and said, ‘If you don’t have nothing to do today, stay home,’” said Tawara. “People are gonna look at me and think I’m like that. I hope people will be more open minded than that. He’s like the guy in Las Vegas. It was just him — an individual, a sick person.
“I was disappointed when I learned he was Muslim, and I feel very bad for the victims,” he went on. “He’s a loser; I would never pay attention to him. It’s the victims I want to think about, and send condolences to the families.”
As he spoke, Tawara prepared a plate of baklava to give to a VICE News reporter. He refused to let the reporter leave empty-handed, gesturing at the journalists debating the attack on CNN.
“I want you to see a better picture of us here,” he said, “than what you see up there.”