Ayotte: 'Premature' To Say Whether Bombing Suspect Should Be Tried As Enemy Combatant

Sep 20, 2016

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte says it's too early to say whether bombing suspect Ahmed Rahami, an American citizen, should be tried as an enemy combatant, as Donald Trump suggested Monday.

"As an American citizen, you can be treated as an enemy combatant, depending on the situation. But I think it would be premature to say something like that here not knowing all the facts," Ayotte told NHPR's Morning Edition Tuesday.

At a campaign rally Monday, Trump lamented that Rahami would receive an "outstanding lawyer" and "amazing hospitalization" and could "even have room service knowing the way our country is." Trump also suggested Rahami, who he called an "evil thug," should be tried as an enemy combatant.

"We must also use whatever lawful methods are available to obtain information from the apprehended suspect to get information before it's no longer timely," Trump said. "And Congress should pass measures to ensure that foreign enemy combatants are treated as such. These are enemies. These are combatants."

Tuesday, Ayotte, who serves on the Senate Homeland Security Committe, said learning what Rahami knows is the critical next step for investigators.

"It’s really important that our intelligence officials and law enforcement officials do a full interview of him. In other words, to find out everything that he knows in the context of the terrorism issue to make sure there are no other plots that could unfold here."

You can read Ayotte's full interview below:

You’ve been briefed on the investigation – what’s the latest we know in terms the suspect, Ahmed Rahami, and whether he was acting alone?

That’s really the focus of the investigation right now, especially with the explosive devices in different locations. There has been some reporting this morning about finding a note near one of the locations that talks about the Boston bombing situation. But what I think is really important here is not only the connections of was anyone in the U.S. assisting him, but going back to his travel records, traveling to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, to understand who he had contact with then there because we know there are various terrorist groups there. There’s the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and also the Taliban and the Hakani network.

We’re still in the early stages of the investigation, but are there any apparent red flags you’ve seen that were missed here?

I think certainly the red flags are the travel back and forth and I think we need to understand, I know there were some interviews done with him when he came back into the country, but were there connections that should have been made there. And that’s why I think it’s really critical that they actually go back to see who he was connecting with back in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has family there, so you need to understand was he just there to visit family, or was he connecting with some of the extreme groups that are in those two countries that may have potentially motivated this attack.

Is it standard procedure for people who travel to and from Afghanistan to vetted or interviewed when they get back?

They typically will interview someone coming back from those countries. It doesn’t necessarily happen in every single case, but it’s important to understand what vetting process occurred and whether there was anything missed there, but you’ve got to go back into the countries themselves and see what connections he had there, just to see whether there’s any connection to extremist groups.

We’ve heard calls for better vetting, but what would that mean?

That would entail a more detailed, in-depth interview when someone returns and probably I would think verifying some of the facts that they put forth, and also going back with our contacts in those countries to make sure what we’re hearing from the individual actually adds up with what they did while they were in those countries.

What are the biggest questions that remain unanswered?

Some of the biggest questions that remain unanswered are first, was there anyone else involved with him. That’s critical, because we certainly don’t want anyone else on the loose in the United States who may harbor these kinds of extremist views or want to harm other people. In addition to that, I would say understanding whether there is any connection to any foreign terrorist organizations. That is critical. And finally, if there’s no direct connections, if there is a terrorist motivation here, thinking about was this self-radicalized. Unfortunately, many of these groups are using online communications and understanding what the circumstances are here. We need to see if there were any gaps in our investigation and whether he should have been more strongly vetted when he was going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need to know that so we can shore up those holes in the system and to prevent these kinds of attacks.

During a speech yesterday, Donald Trump suggested Rahami, who’s an American citizen, should be tried as an enemy combatant. Do you agree?

I think that one of the things I hope happens – I don’t know all the facts here and usually as an American citizen, you can be treated as an enemy combatant, depending on the situation. But I think it would be premature to say something like that here not knowing all the facts. But I think it’s really important that our intelligence officials and law enforcement officials do a full interview of him. In other words, to find out everything that he knows in the context of the terrorism issue to make sure there are no other plots that could unfold here. And that means within our system, if you give someone Miranda right away, they can obviously say that they don’t want to talk to you, but I do think it’s really important that in this context in a terrorism investigation, that we get the information up front to make sure there is nothing else that we don’t know about that could unfold here or other people who are involved because that’s about safety and security. And that’s really separate of how this person is tried, but it’s critical our frontline investigators do that.