The method used in a deadly attack in New York City on Oct. 31 points to a rising adherence to Islamic State-approved terrorism tactics. Sayfullo Saipov, 29, drove a rented U-Haul pickup truck into a pedestrian and bike path in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring 11. Experts called it the deadliest terror attack on the city since 9/11. A police officer shot him at the scene and took him into custody. As we look to the future, officials can point to one disturbing fact about this incident.
The lone wolf attacker pledged allegiance to ISIS
According to The Washington Post, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said investigators believe refugee Saipov was a lone wolf “radicalized domestically.”
“After he came to the United States is when he started to become informed about ISIS and radical Islamic tactics,” Cuomo said on CNN. “We have no evidence yet of associations or continuing plot or associated plots … [so far] this was an isolated incident that he himself performed.”
According to a video, the attacker jumped out of the vehicle brandishing what later examination revealed as fake guns. Some witnesses said he shouted “Allahu akbar,’’ meaning “God is great’’ in Arabic. Investigators found a handwritten note inside the truck which declared his allegiance to the Islamic State.
ISIS approves of using unconventional weapons
The Islamic State called for supporters to use vehicles as weapons, although it did not claim responsibility for this event. According to the extremist monitor SITE Intelligence Group, ISIS supporters cheered the attack. CNN reported that in 2014, an ISIS spokesman called for lone wolf attacks using improvised weaponry. “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car.”
The method used in NYC comes in a line of others
According to CNN, there have been 15 Western vehicular attacks by jihadist terrorists since 2014. To date, they have killed 142 people, according to a count by the nonpartisan New America. USA Today gathered a list of the countries in which these attacks took place. Those have included Spain; Berlin, the United Kingdom, France, and Quebec. Domestically, two recent events featured similar methods.
In the August protests against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va., James Alex Fields deliberately plowed into a group of protesters. The attack killed one and injured 19 others. A video obtained by TMZ shows the violent impact. Another similar event took place in 2016.
ISIS called Ohio State attacker ‘a soldier’
In November 2016, Somali-born Abdul Razak Ali Artan drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians then started stabbing with a butcher knife, according to The New York Times. ISIS sent out a message on its newswire supporting Artan. The refugee and Ohio State student demonstrated no direct ties to the organization.
Before he attacked, Artan wrote a since-deleted Facebook post about the mistreatment of Muslims, NBC News reported. He wrote that if the U.S. wants “Muslims to stop carrying lone wolf attacks, then make peace with ‘dawla in al sham,’” referring to the Islamic State’s territory in Syria and Iraq. He also wrote, “Every single Muslim who disapproves of my actions is a sleeper cell, waiting for a signal. I am warning you Oh America.”
Experts say attacks like these come as direct results of terrorist propaganda, and it’s not hard to find.
Both ISIS and Al Qaeda wrote about trucks as weapons
Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, told USA Today the Islamic State has heavily promoted the use of trucks for terrorism in recent years. The group ran a November feature in its online magazine explaining the right way to do it, including a picture of a U-Haul truck, a list of suggested targets, and tips on choosing a truck.
“Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner,” the article said.
According to Business Insider, Al Queda also called for trucks as weapons. In the second issue of its English-language magazine Inspire, the group additionally called trucks “the ultimate mowing machine.”
“The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah,” the magazine article states. Both articles, as well as other means of radicalization, can be easily accessed on social media.
Directions for such attacks live on social media
“It’s important to understand that these materials aren’t just distributed on the Deep Web jihadi forums,” said Katz. “They are all over social media and extremely easy to obtain.”
Daniel Milton, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, agreed. Milton said ISIS, also known as ISIL, uses social media, its online magazine, and instructional videos to educate supporters. Milton said that inspires so-called “lone wolves,” as well as requiring no incriminating direct contact. “ISIS has been far better at mobilizing people using interesting and provocative propaganda than any group we’ve ever seen,” he said. “You see them putting a better pitch out there, and people are responding to that.”
Experts say these types of terrorism are easy to carry out, which makes them that much more frightening.
Why we’ll likely see more truck attacks
As Vox pointed out, this type of terrorism is very hard for intelligence officials to predict. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, those terror attacks took nearly a decade in planning. They also required dozens of people in several countries, and cost a reported $500,000. That kind of foresight leaves a trail that intelligence officials can pick up.
By contrast, terrorism with trucks cost almost nothing and can do immense damage. “Terrorist groups now push out this methodology that you should use whatever … you have to hand to kill whoever … you can find,” Raffaello Pantucci, a counter-terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Vox. “That makes it very difficult for security services to stay ahead of that.”
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