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News Brief: Hanukkah Attack, Texas Church Shooting, U.S. Airstrikes

NOEL KING, HOST:

New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo is talking about an epidemic of hate.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That was the phrase Cuomo used on NPR after a man stabbed and injured five people inside a rabbi's home in Monsey, northern New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDREW CUOMO: When you try to commit mass murder based on race, color, creed - you try to instill fear - that is terrorism. Terrorists don't have to come over on an airplane. We have domestic terrorists.

INSKEEP: Police say the intended victims fought back and got the attacker's license plate number when he fled. And he's now in custody, identified as Grafton Thomas.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang went to Monsey yesterday. He's on the line now from New York City. Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Where's Monsey in relation to the city?

WANG: It's about an hour's drive north of Manhattan.

KING: OK - an hour's drive north. And there's a very large Jewish community there. When you went up yesterday and you talked to people, what did they tell you?

WANG: I talked to some folks who live on the same street as that rabbi's home. And a lot of people are feeling very vulnerable after this weekend's attack - a lot of talk about how to defend themselves in case this were to happen again. I spoke with Lazar Klein. He was at his grandmother's house, which is across the street from the rabbi's home, and they were celebrating Hanukkah with uncles and cousins. And he told me that he's had this feeling,= in this current climate that some attack would happen in Monsey, which is known to have a very large Jewish community. And let's listen to what he said.

LAZAR KLEIN: You know, some people try to deny it. Some people try to, you know, dismiss it - it's nothing; it's not going to happen here. I would say everyone that could carry should carry; anybody who has a license should carry. Anybody that can apply for a license should definitely carry. And just all around, be more prepared. That's all. Don't deny it. Don't pretend like it's not going to happen here.

KING: Hansi, just to clarify, is he saying that people should - he would like people to carry guns?

WANG: Lazar Klein said that he thinks that people should consider carrying guns, getting licenses to carry guns if they are able to.

KING: That's an interesting thing to hear in that area of New York.

Five people were injured in this attack. Do we know anything about how they're doing?

WANG: Well, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told NPR that as of Sunday evening, two of the five victims are in critical condition, one with skull fractures. And Cuomo says that the attacker entered the (ph) rabbi's home with a long machete that apparently looked like a sword. The people inside, they threw furniture at the attacker. And the attacker then tried to go into the synagogue next door, but he was blocked because the doors were locked.

KING: And eventually, as Steve pointed out, some of the people in that home apparently got down the license plate, and that helped authorities track this person after he fled in his car. Hansi, talk about the state and federal response to this attack because I know that many officials have said many things. What's coming through strongest?

WANG: Well, as we heard earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo has called this an act of domestic terrorism. And he linked them to other attacks against Jewish communities in the New York region in recent weeks, and he also called this an epidemic of hate in this nation that has gone viral. And he's called for New York state to pass a domestic terrorism law to address incidents like these. President Trump also issued a tweet yesterday. And he said that, quote, "we must all come together to fight, confront and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism." And it's important to be clear here - right now the FBI and local law enforcement are still investigating what motivated this crime.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in New York. Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: OK. We have now another story about an attack on people of faith. Yesterday, a gunman fired on a church service in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas.

INSKEEP: This gunman fatally shot two people who were attending the West Freeway Church of Christ in the suburb called White Settlement. A member of the church's volunteer security team opened fire in return and killed the assailant within seconds.

KING: Syeda Hasan is a reporter with member station KERA in Texas. She's on Skype this morning. Hi.

SYEDA HASAN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

KING: So I know this story has been developing, as these stories often do in the hours and days after shootings happen. What is the latest that we know now?

HASAN: Well, officials haven't released the suspect's identity or that of the two people killed, and we still don't know the motive. They have said that the suspect was transient but had some connection to the White Settlement area. The church community is, of course, reeling from the attack, but they're thankful for the quick response of that armed security team. Britt Farmer is the church's senior minister. Let's listen to what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRITT FARMER: We lost two great men today, but it could have been a lot worse. And I am thankful that our government has allowed us the opportunity to protect ourselves.

KING: So this is really interesting because he's pointing out that an armed volunteer security guard saved lives. He's nodding to the Second Amendment, the fact that those folks were allowed to be armed. I wonder - is this likely to renew any kind of debate about whether guns belong in churches and other public places? How is this currently playing out in that part of Texas?

HASAN: We are really already seeing that debate taking shape, more or less along party lines here in Texas. Many Republican lawmakers are crediting the state's gun laws, which actually allow people to carry weapons in houses of worship. In this case, they say that the congregation was able to protect itself thanks to those laws. Meanwhile, we've seen Democratic leaders in the state say that tougher restrictions on firearms could prevent violence like this from happening in the first place.

KING: Was one of the security guards injured or killed? Do I have that right?

HASAN: We have seen reports of that from some witness accounts. Authorities have not confirmed that at this time, the identities of those killed.

KING: OK. The service was being livestreamed when the shooting happened. What does that video show us?

HASAN: The video shows churchgoers taking cover as the gunman opens fire, and truly chaos breaks out in the church. Almost immediately, another man fires a shot at the gunman, who falls to the ground. And then multiple people approach the gunman with their own guns drawn.

As you know, houses of worship from different faiths have been targeted in violent attacks. Two years ago here in Texas, 26 people were killed in a church shooting in Sutherland Springs. And after that attack was when Texas passed a law allowing people to carry guns in houses of worship. The state's lieutenant governor Dan Patrick is praising those gun laws and says that the security team put a quick end to this attack.

KING: That's interesting. Where does the investigation go from here?

HASAN: We know that the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers are the two agencies that are leading that effort, and I'm sure we are going to learn more in the days to come.

KING: Reporter Syeda Hasan with KERA. Thanks so much.

HASAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. On Sunday - yesterday - U.S. warplanes hit five targets in Iraq and Syria that are controlled by an Iranian-backed militia.

INSKEEP: The U.S. blames that militia for several provocations, including a mortar attack that killed an American contractor in northern Iraq. In a press briefing on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not rule out additional retaliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: We will take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defense and we deter further bad behavior from militia groups or from Iran.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's on the line. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Tell us about this militia.

BOWMAN: Well, it's called Kata'ib Hezbollah - Hezbollah brigades; It's an Iranian-backed unit. And the U.S. has said for months now that they've been firing mortars and rockets at U.S. forces at locations throughout Iraq - around Kirkuk, where this contractor was killed, in the northern part of the country and also down in the southwest around al-Asad Air Base. Now, the strikes were usually not close enough to cause any kind of serious casualties. But going back to May, Secretary Pompeo abruptly canceled a trip to Germany, and he flew to Baghdad because of intelligence that showed the possibility of a large attack on U.S. forces. That did not happen, of course, but the firing by the militias continued. And some in the U.S. military were pushing for punishing responses even before this U.S. contractor was killed. They've been very, very concerned about it.

KING: OK. So that was, in some sense, the straw that broke the back here - was the death of the contractor.

BOWMAN: I think so.

KING: Yeah. What did the American airstrikes actually target? What were they going after?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. warplanes hit command and control sites and weapons caches in both countries - two strikes in southeast Syria and three in western Iraq near the border town of al-Qaim. I'm told the strikes on the weapons caches led to massive secondary explosions.

KING: Would those strikes be considered successful, do we know?

BOWMAN: Yes, they were successful, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. And he also talked about other options that may be coming, but he didn't really specify them. Now the death toll, by the way, they say is up around 20 fighters from the Iran-backed militia.

KING: Does this incident tell us anything and do Mark Esper's words tell us anything about the administration's strategy in this region in the year ahead? Do we expect a tougher stance, a tougher line?

ESPER: Well, they've been pretty tough all along - putting more pressure on Iran through sanctions. They scrapped the nuclear agreement with Iran; they want a tougher, stronger one. They want Iran to stop supporting militia groups in Iraq and Syria and also supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. So expect a lot more pressure and perhaps even more troops through the region.

KING: OK. And Tom, before we let you go, has Iran said anything about this?

BOWMAN: Iran denounces this as American aggression. It called it American terrorism against what it called Iraqi forces on Iraqi soil - no mention of the Iranian support for these militias.

KING: OK - interesting but what we might expect from Iran at this point.

NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.