Yesterday, New York City experienced the deadliest terror attack since the World Trade Center towers were hit on September 11, 2001. A 29-year-old man, Sayfullo Saipov, drove a truck down a bike path that runs along the Hudson River in Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring 11 more before crashing into a school bus. The police shot him in the stomach, but not before he could yell, “Allahu akbar.” Investigators found handwritten notes in Arabic in the truck declaring loyalty to ISIS.
Saipov is a Muslim from Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic that borders Afghanistan, and came to the United States legally in 2010. He rented the pick-up truck he used in the attack at a Home Depot in New Jersey, where he had been living. It appears the attacker was on federal authorities’ radar, but it’s not clear how or why.
According to The New York Times, “Three officials said he had come to the federal authorities’ attention as a result of an unrelated investigation, but it was not clear whether that was because he was a friend, an associate or a family member of someone under scrutiny or because he himself had been the focus of an investigation.”
This attack marks the first significant instance in America of the kind of vehicular ISIS attacks that have become frequent in European countries. Last year, a student at the Ohio State University drove his car into pedestrians, although no one was killed.
It’s one of the simplest ways for ISIS followers to launch an attack—all they have to do is rent a truck and find a busy street. That’s why ISIS urges this method, which first appeared in the deadly Bastille Day attack in Nice, France last summer that killed 86 people. Since then, there have been similar attacks in Berlin, London (three times), Stockholm, and Barcelona. Now, New York has been added to the group.
ISIS Is Effective By Eschewing Central Planning
ISIS hasn’t claimed the attack yet, despite evidence Saipov was a follower of the group, and it’s possible that it may never do so. As ISIS expert Rukmini Callimachi explained on Twitter, the Islamic State rarely claims responsibility for attacks in which the attacker has been taken into custody instead of killed.
So far, investigators haven’t uncovered evidence of any direct ties between Saipov and ISIS and are reportedly treating the attack as “inspired” by the group. It makes sense to classify ISIS attacks differently depending on whether they were centrally planned or inspired. However, one gets the sense that many view attacks like these as merely inspired, as though inspired attacks are somehow less deadly.
But as we should all know by now, the genius of ISIS is that it doesn’t have to centrally plan all of its attacks. The terrorist group relies on the far-reaching influence of its ideology and the fact that Muslims in any part of the world can “convert,” in a manner of speaking, to the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam it espouses.
For attacking western countries — most especially the United States — this aspect of their structure is most helpful to them, and most difficult to defend against. Rather than infiltrating a country or setting up a terror cell, the group merely relies on its followers in the places where they live. ISIS just has to keep inspiring its adherents. Tuesday’s attack indicates that despite the recent loss of most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS can still do just that.
Trump’s Travel Ban Isn’t Enough
This point is also important because it’s a reminder that President Trump’s much-contested travel ban would have done nothing to stop Saipov from driving his truck down that bike path. Uzbekistan isn’t on the list of countries included in the administration’s latest version of the ban. Tuesday’s attack should draw attention to the fact that many former Soviet republics have a growing problem with radical Islam — that area of the world is responsible for sending the largest number of foreign fighters to join ISIS in Syria.
To be fair, the travel ban never claimed to be able to prevent all terror attacks. But while it’s reasonable to want to restrict travel from countries that can’t provide sufficient information about their citizens who seek entry to America, the ban doesn’t address the way in which the Islamic State’s ideology spreads, nor its non-centralized network of adherents, many of whom are unknown even to ISIS leaders.
This means attacks like these are difficult to prevent and quite literally can occur anywhere at any time. As we hear more news of ISIS’ dwindling numbers and shrinking territory overseas, there is a risk that western countries might soon face the prospect of attacks by battle-hardened ISIS fighters returning home who have been trained to inflict maximum damage.
For now, Tuesday’s attack in New York is a somber reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet, and we never will be so long as men and women out there believe what ISIS believes.