The city of New York, the site of the world-changing events of 9/11, appears to have suffered its worst single attack of terrorism since that fateful date 16 years ago. A man drove a rented Home Depot truck onto a pedestrian pathway in lower Manhattan, striking cyclists and killing at least eight (six were declared dead on the scene and two died later). He then crashed the truck into a school bus, injuring at least four, before emerging from the vehicle waving what turned out to be two imitation weapons (a paintball gun and a BB gun) and yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ when he was shot by police and taken into custody (and the hospital). Notes written by the man in which he pledges allegiance to Islamic State were supposedly found in the truck.
It has been less than 24 hours since this horrendous incident and yet there are some interesting facts as well as some interesting questions and challenges:
a) the suspect was a 29-year old man from Uzbekistan who came to the US in 2010, got a green card and worked as a truck driver. The fact that he was able to live for seven years in the country and get status suggests strongly that he radicalised in the US (and was not a ‘sleeper’). This fact sets the priority for the investigation: how and where did he get radicalised? Who were his contacts? Was there a primary ‘radicaliser’ or did he belong to a larger group of likeminded people? The immediate claim by authorities that he was a lone actor is premature, as is the tweet by President Trump that he was ‘deranged’. He was also assuredly not ‘self-radicalised’.
b) when did he choose to attack New York and why? More interestingly, why did he have ‘imitation’ firearms? Surely in a land like the US he could have gotten real weapons, if by necessity illegally, and done a lot more damage? After all, there are more guns than people in America.
c) is his alleged pledge to Islamic State real? Did he ever travel to Syria/Iraq and establish contact with the group or did he do so online? We know that there is a substantial Central Asian contingent in IS and as a Uzbekistan is part of that region is this significant? Does it matter? Does it matter whether IS eventually claims the attack or is the debate over when the group does so and does not anything more than academic?
d) can we stop attacks of this nature? The answer, as I have stated before, is no, not without prior intelligence. The notion that we in the West should more closely scrutinise those who rent vehicles leads to other questions: who is going to do the scrutiny and on what basis? What are the criteria for denying someone a rental car? Can our already overtaxed security agencies add the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of daily rental transactions to their workload? Some have said that we need to harden these soft targets that have been the locus of far too many attacks recently (Barcelona, Stockholm, London, Nice, edmonton, Berlin), but how? How much can we lockdown our cities? Besides, terrorists are adaptive actors: if we close certain streets they will move to others. If we prevent car rentals to ‘suspicious’ people they will use their own cars. Do we then need to look at car purchases?
e) the suspect ‘was a very good person…he did not seem like a terrorist but I did not know him from the inside‘. This is the key isn’t it? We cannot predict who becomes a terrorist and why, regardless of how many algorithms people develop. We can detect problematic behaviours but these too are not guarantors of action. There may be some promise in moving from radicalisation indicators to mobilisation indicators but that field too is in its infancy.
In the end we have to accept that some acts of terrorism are for all intents and purposes unstoppable. This was no one’s ‘fault’, at least not that we can determine thus far. Our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are competent and will prevent most attacks, but expecting 100% success is unreasonable.
My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.