Truck Terror in New York

‘NOT IN THE USA’ tweets President Trump in the aftermath of the Islamist truck attack in New York where Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, is accused of killing eight and injuring 11 yesterday. As an aspiration, Trump’s tweet is laudable: if intended to be prophecy or prediction, then it looks less convincing. More striking, though, is that such attacks have not appeared more prominently or more frequently in the United States before now. In the land that invented the drive-by shooting (in Chicago race riots in 1919), the turn to using automobiles themselves as weapons has been perhaps a surprisingly long time coming.

By contrast, ever since 86 people were killed in Nice on 14 July 2016, such ramming attacks have been a major preoccupation of European security agencies. It has long been clear that such attacks could easily spread across the Atlantic: on 12 August 2017, a white nationalist killed one woman and injured 19 by ramming a crowd of demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia; on 18 May previously the apparently mentally deranged Richard Rojas also killed one and injured 20 in New York’s Times Square. But until now Islamists have not turned to the vehicle ramming attack in the USA.

Ominous as this development is, it bears all the hallmarks of amateur improvisation: the contrast with the eye-watering casualty figures emerging from al-Shabaab’s bombing of Mogadishu on 16 October last (that left over 300 dead) could hardly be starker. In American society with its ferociously, well-armed citizenry (at least in parts), Saipov could apparently only source himself a paintball and pellet gun as his own private arsenal. After the Las Vegas shootings a month ago that killed 58, that reflection affords some very minimal consolation.

Still, for those directly bereaved or maimed, such reflections will be only cold comfort. And for security officials, this latest atrocity will prompt much reflection. With very primitive means, an attacker has caused significant carnage in the heart of New York and – however fleetingly – grabbed world headlines. Such attacks are hardly any existential threat to Western civilisation; but they do look like they are becoming a recurrent, if sporadic, feature of urban life in the early 21st century.

Dr Tim Wilson
1 Nov 2017