John Choe, co-president of the Mitchell-Linden Civic Association, and other local leaders tried to ease fears in Flushing, after members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided three apartment buildings in the area that had been visited by a suspected al-Qaida operative.
“Flushing has a long history of diversity and cultural and religious freedom,” Choe said at a press conference on Tuesday in front of 41-18 Parsons Blvd., one of the buildings that had been raided. “This is a very diverse community, and yesterday’s raid by the federal government has really unnerved us, has really shaken us.”
Indeed, many residents were surprised to see agents carrying submachine guns and wearing bulletproof vests, at 2 a.m., when the raids began, in the normally peaceful residential area.
Choe advised the community to remain calm and avoid jumping to conclusions while the federal government conducts its investigation. He wants to prevent residents from engaging in the the type of suspicion and racism he said were prevalent after 9/11.
“Many Muslims in our community are law-abiding people,” he said. “There are many Muslims who are members of the armed forces. They are very patriotic. This incident should not be used as a way to attack anyone for their religion or for their beliefs.”
Martha Flores-Vasquez, the Democratic leader for the 22nd Assembly District, who also spoke, said she received several phone calls from her constituents, particularly seniors who were afraid to leave their homes and wanted to know the reason for the raids.
Flores-Vasquez contacted the NYPD Community Affairs Unit and was told the area is safe and to assure residents that there is no need for concern.
“I have no reason to believe that there are going to be any terrorist attacks in our district right now,” she said.
She hoped the incident wouldn’t deter people from voting in Tuesday’s Democratic primary and encouraged everyone to do so.
“When we revisit history and we look back on 9/11, a lot of people didn’t come out to vote and they canceled the elections,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen here in my district. This is an important election. The leaders of the future will be designated today.”
According to news reports, the suspect, Pakistani-born Najibullah Zazi, 24, had lived at 144-67 41st Ave. in Flushing for eight months before moving to Denver, where he came under surveillance by the FBI. The agents followed him to New York after intelligence indicated that he was coming to town to obtain bomb making materials.
Zazi’s attorney, Robert Folsom, told the Associated Press that the man traveled here to visit friends and to resolve a problem related to a coffee cart that he owned. He also said the police searched Zazi’s car twice, once on Sept. 10 during a random drug search police were conducting on the George Washington Bridge and later after the car had been towed for a parking violation. Both times the police found nothing. and sent Zazi on his way.
The alleged operative’s former Flushing home was also the site of a raid, and while some tenants said that they had witnessed increased police activity, all declined to comment specifically on the matter. Peter Cruz, the manager of the building, also declined to comment.
Elizabeth Montanez, who lives on Ash Avenue, a few blocks away from where the raids took place, said that many of her Afghani friends and neighbors are fearful they will be targeted.
“One of the ladies came up to me crying saying, ‘Please say a prayer because I’m scared to send my kids to school. I’m afraid that they are going to retaliate against us because we are Muslim.’”
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 10,000 Afghans live in Queens.
Although several residents were questioned, no arrests were made nor explosives or weapons discovered during the raids. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) called the investigation a “preventative” measure and denied rumors that the raids were conducted out of fear of a forthcoming terrorist attack or that they were in any way related to President Obama’s visit to New York.
However, new reports said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security did issue a warning on Monday asking local police departments to be on the lookout for bomb- making materials, as well as individuals with burn marks on their hands, face or arms, as those would be signs of handling such materials.
“The raids carried out in Queens are a reminder that eight years after 9/11, New York City remains terrorist target number one,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Queens and Manhattan) said in a statement. “I want to thank our law enforcement officials for their untiring efforts to protect our city and nation. They are the best of America and a source of pride for all of us.”