On Tuesday afternoon, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old from Uzbekistan who came to the United States in 2010, drove a rented Home Depot truck into a pedestrian and bike path in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring 11.
Although police have not yet established any ties between the attacker and a larger terrorist group such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, the method of attack mimics other ISIS-directed and inspired attacks around the world in recent years, including in Nice, France, and London.
As Europe has learned only too well and Americans are now coming to understand, these kinds of attacks are notoriously difficult to prevent because it’s hard for authorities to know if an individual will slam a vehicle into a crowd of people. Indeed, that’s in large part why terror groups — particularly ISIS — encourage their followers to use this method of attack.
Which means that we’re very likely to see more of these kinds of attacks in the coming years.
Vehicle attacks have a high chance of success. That’s why terrorists like them.
Big, complex attacks like 9/11 usually take years of planning by multiple individuals and a decent amount of money to pull off successfully. The 9/11 attacks were the product of nearly a decade of intense planning, involved dozens of people in multiple countries, and were estimated to have cost al-Qaeda around $500,000.
That kind of planning leaves a (now mostly digital) paper trail — things like email and telephone records, credit card receipts, travel documents, etc. — that give law enforcement and intelligence officials multiple chances to intercept a plot before it comes to fruition (though as 9/11 made all too clear, even then an attack may still occur).
By contrast, it doesn’t take an elaborate or complicated terrorist plot to pull off a vehicle attack. All you need is a car, truck, or van, a crowd of people, and a driver willing to kill. That helps explain why vehicles have become the terrorists’ weapon of choice in recent years:
- On July 14, 2016, a Tunisian-born French resident drove a 19-ton truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, murdering 86 people and injuring hundreds more.
- On December 19, 2016, a terrorist drove a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin at around 40 miles per hour killing 12 people and injuring 49.
- On March 22, 2017, six died and at least 50 were injured after a terrorist drove a car over Westminster Bridge in London, near Britain’s Houses of Parliament.
- On June 3, 2017, a terrorist used a van to kill seven people and injured dozens more in just eight minutes on London Bridge.
- On August 17, 2017, a terrorist slammed a white van into pedestrians in a crowded tourist area of Barcelona, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100 from 34 different countries.
This string of attacks isn’t random. ISIS in particular wants would-be militants who share their beliefs to carry out as many strikes as they can in their home countries without consulting ISIS headquarters in Syria first. And both ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda have specifically called on supporters to use cars as weapons.
For example, ISIS spokesperson Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in 2014: "If you can't detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself ... run them over with your car." And after the Nice attack, ISIS’s online propaganda magazine Rumiyah ran an article praising the attack and calling for supporters to recreate it, specifically identifying “outdoor markets” as a prime target for driving a large truck into.
“Terrorist groups now push out this methodology that you should use whatever the hell you have to hand to kill whoever the hell you can find,” Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told my colleague Zack Beauchamp in June. “That makes it very difficult for security services to stay ahead of that.”
After all, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need information: an informer with knowledge of the plot, intercepted communications between the plotters, etc. It’s hard to catch that if people are acting alone, or in a tight-knit group that doesn’t involve anyone currently under police surveillance.
While it’s still very early in the investigation into the attack New York City, it seems that the scourge of vehicle attacks that has terrorized Europe has now reached America’s shores.