At a Glance | May 22

Driver Charged With Murder After Times Square Attack; Motivation Remains Under Investigation

Although no connection to terrorism has been identified, the motivation remains under investigation in the case of a man who allegedly drove a car (see photo) into a crowd of pedestrians in Times Square on May 18. Richard Rojas, age 26, of the Bronx, was charged with one count of murder for taking the life of 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, a tourist who was visiting from Portage, Michigan; one count of aggravated vehicular homicide; and 20 counts of attempted murder. An Assistant District Attorney said in court that Rojas “murdered in cold blood” and said he “wanted to kill them all” and that police should have shot him to stop him. Toxicology reports are pending, although the criminal complaint says Rojas “had glassy eyes, slurred speech, and was unsteady” at the time of his arrest. Rojas stated that he had smoked marijuana laced with PCP sometime before making a U-turn onto the sidewalk at Times Square.

Despite the indications of substance abuse, the motivation of the defendant remains a focus of the investigation. According to a timeline provided by NYPD, he drove nearly an hour and a half from his home in the Bronx to Times Square, with no incidents. As he approached 42nd Street, he slowed down and allowed traffic to pass before accelerating and making a U-turn onto the sidewalk. These factors are leading investigators to examine motivation and state of mind.


Interfaith Issues: Video Released Showing Arson at Tampa Mosque in February

In Tampa on May 15, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office released surveillance video showing an arson incident at a mosque at about 2:00 a.m. on February 24, in hopes of identifying a suspect. The video shows a man approaching the Islamic Society of New Tampa on foot, carrying a large container and a rope. It shows him failing several times to start a fire using both the container and the rope (see photo). He then moved out of the camera’s field of view and was able to successfully ignite the liquid accelerant from the container, which set the fire that damaged the mosque. The man then fled the scene.

Investigators say the laboratory results have confirmed that gasoline was present at the scene. The fire damaged one of the entrances to the building, but there were no injuries.


Bin Ladin’s Son Hamza Releases Another Video, Is Becoming Increasingly Prominent as Al-Qa’ida Spokesman

For the second time in a week, al-Qa’ida has released a video featuring an audio message by Hamza bin Ladin, son of the group’s deceased leader Usama bin Ladin, indicating that the younger bin Ladin is becoming an increasingly prominent spokesman for the group and is likely being groomed for a senior leadership position. In addition to capitalizing on his family name, Hamza, now believed to be about 28 years old, provides a younger, more charismatic voice of the organization as it attempts to rejuvenate its global image. In the most recent video, released on May 20, Hamza calls for Muslims in Saudi Arabia to overthrow the royal family. His previous video, on May 6, called for suicide attacks in the United States and against “Jewish interests everywhere.”

Hamza’s most recent message, a 17-minute production of al-Qa’ida’s media arm, as-Sahab, is the second episode of his series, “Dominion of the Best of the Ummah [community of Muslims worldwide] in the Uprising of the People of the Sacred House.” In this second episode, Hamza justifies a Muslim rebellion against the Saudi regime by citing the historical backdrop that the current Saudi monarchy was established with the help of British operations against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The first episode in the series, issued in August 2016, directly called for Saudi Muslims to take violent action and to seek training from al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).


For more information, please contact NJOHSP's Analysis Bureau at analysis@njohsp.gov or 609-584-4000.