Lessons to Learn from Terrorist Attack in New York City

When Sayfullo Saipov used a truck to kill eight civilians, New York City’s sixteen-year hiatus from terrorism ended.  As happens with every terrorist attack, law enforcement is asking “what could we have done to prevent this?”   

While there are no definitive answers, one lesson is worth noting: lone wolf terrorism has become the new normal in international terrorism.

And as a result, more mass surveillance of religious or ethnic communities will not make us safer.  Nor will it preserve the free society that motivates our opposition to political violence in the first place. 

We are no longer facing groups of conspirators collaborating to effectuate a grand attack, as witnessed in the September 11th attacks.   Instead, terrorist attacks are increasingly committed by individuals acting alone and secretly.  They plan quietly and without accomplices, leaving few evidentiary traces of their plot.  Their communities, neighbors, and even families have no knowledge of their violent plans—by design. 

The absence of co-conspirators also makes it difficult for an informant or undercover agent to detect the plot.   There are no phone calls to wiretap or meetings to infiltrate.  The only person who has knowledge of the forthcoming attack is the perpetrator.  And he is careful to create the appearance of normalcy among those who know him best, including his closest family members. 

For these reasons, international terrorist groups have turned to recruiting individuals to conduct lone wolf attacks.

The two primary recruitment methods are online direct recruitment or broadcasts to loyalists to plan their own attack.  The first is conducted via chat rooms and encrypted one-on-one electronic conversations.  The second is through propaganda materials and instruction manuals distributed on the internet and social media.

But just as terrorist groups have adapted to aggressive government surveillance and informant infiltration, so too has law enforcement.

In responding to the directed online recruiting, government informants and undercover agents stalk chat rooms and social media sites looking for sources of “radical” content as targets of sting operations.  Pretending to be members of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or another terrorist group, the government agent looks to identify a potential lone wolf before the terrorists do. 

As a result, a steady flow of anti-terrorism indictments has been issued in the past few years.  Whether targeted individuals are merely victims of entrapment or a legitimate future threat is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that terrorist organizations have caught on to this strategy and are shifting their recruitment to wide broadcasts encouraging their unknown loyalists to take up arms on their own. 

This is where the case of Sayfullo Saipov in New York City is instructive. 

Thus far, we have no evidence of co-conspirators or that he had informed anyone of his plans to kill civilians in pursuit of a political objective.  News reports indicate he may have planned the attack for a few months. Consistent with the lone wolf modus operandi, there is no evidence yet that his wife, neighbors, or fellow mosque attendees knew of his illicit plan. 

New York police officers believe he may have followed the instructions in ISIS propaganda; without making contact with an ISIS member to conduct the attack.

This case and others in Europe demonstrate that it is very difficult to detect lone wolf criminals – whether they kill eight in New York City or fifty-nine in Las Vegas.  These cases also prove that collectively punishing Muslims, and Uzbeks in this case, for the criminal acts of one person acting alone is futile and counterproductive. 

If a lone wolf makes a mistake, those closest to him are most likely to notice it.  But if they are victims of a wide net of suspicion cast over entire faith or ethnic communities, fear will prevent them from contacting law enforcement. 

So as we rightfully ask questions on how we can prevent the next attack, let’s learn another important lesson. Muslim communities are allies not suspects. 

Sahar Aziz is Professor of Law, Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar, and the Director of the Center on Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers Law School.  She is the author of Losing the War of Ideas: A Critique of Countering Violent Extremism Programs

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