The Manhattan bike-path rampage of 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek national, bore all the hallmarks of the most recent training manual—“The Lone Wolf’s Handbook”—put out by the so-called Islamic State.
The digital DIY terror handbook put up on social media July 3 appears to have guided the alleged killer’s every move before, during, and immediately after the attack that took the lives of eight people and injured a dozen more not far from where the World Trade Center once stood. He left a note at the scene just as instructed in the same manual. He wanted—and ISIS wanted—no doubt that he was acting on behalf of the self-declared “caliphate.”
ISIS has always encouraged mass murder in the West, but it has been pushing especially hard for the last five months to activate its amateur killers and have them carry out these sorts of mass murders. The territorial caliphate was disappearing and ISIS’ recruiting arm needed to get onto the news feed of every cell phone around the world.
The terrorists repeated and intensified their prescriptions for mayhem on social media accounts. These included Telegram-application chatrooms, the lavishly produced editions of Rumiyah magazine, and revised electronic handbooks teaching what might be called “Terrorism for Dummies.”
All a martyr needed to know about vehicular homicide and suicide attacks was released on July 3 in the “Lone Wolf’s Handbook” distributed through Telegram app chat rooms in English, Arabic, and Turkish—which is easily understood by Uzbeks.
Last year, the same channels pushed out precursor manuals with lethal effect.
ISIS videos in January 2016 led to the mass killing of more than 80 people in Nice, France, on Bastille Day that year, followed by suicide truckers claiming victims in France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
When we look at the way the attack was carried out, the size of the truck, and the brandishing of a pellet guns in the attack, we can safely assume that Saipov lacked the sophistication of a trained and experienced terrorist. But it’s fairly obvious, as well, that he read the recommendations provided in the July manual or similar ones.
The July manual directs attackers to target the most crowded places in the city and to drive over people as fast as possible without any hesitation in order to kill and wound the maximum number. The terrorists are instructed not to stop or slow down after the first hit and to keep driving until they are forced to stop.
In Tuesday’s attack, a school bus got in the way, got hit, and the rampage ended.
ISIS described these attacks as suicide missions, believing that running away after the attack would be difficult, so it instructed its members to acquire arms and to fight back when they cannot drive anymore. The idea is essentially suicide by police, and it’s the kind of thing we saw in the attacks on and near London Bridge, where suicide vests turned out to be phony, but they drew the fatal fire the jihadists hoped for.
Not surprisingly, the attackers were particularly advised to carry out such attacks in the United States, Israel, Canada, France, Germany, and other Western countries.
Police certainly are aware of the ISIS recommendation, or fantasy, for a truly horrendous attack.
The fourth chapter of the manual, titled “The Ultimate Human Lawn Mower,” focuses on the logistics: followers need to get a large truck with four wheel drive if possible, the better to drive over people. The terrorists were also advised to weld spear-like metal blades on bumpers and around headlights to increase the causalities. The jihadists of al Qaeda and ISIS have always been enamored of Hollywood spectaculars. Here they seem to be looking for Mad Max Beyond Raqqa.
ISIS is using the virtual caliphate to order amateurs to implement attacks because the tactic is cheap and effective. Consider three obvious features.
First, in most cases, these attackers need not have direct connections with the ISIS command center.
Second, the terrorist organization does not need to provide any support, i.e., money, training, logistical support, other than the instructions available on the Internet.
Thirdly, lone wolves easily stay under the radar of the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, since they are not in direct or even indirect connections with other known terrorists.
From an enforcement point of view the most effective way to spot newly minted violent jihadists has been to track known terrorists. If someone is acting alone, without any interactions and communications with known terrorists, he is almost invisible to law enforcement.
Countering terrorism is, in most cases, comparable to looking for a needle in a big haystack. If someone acts alone as a real lone wolf inspired by terrorist propaganda, but with a lot of caution, it might become impossible to stop that person from carrying out attacks.
Time will show us who Saipov was and how he decided to become a murderer. But this attack has taught the counterterrorism community valuable lessons already as it tries to fine-tune strategies to defend against the “lone wolf terrorism” that may well become the new normal in the West.