Truly terrifying Halloween An act of terror in New York
IT WAS a beautiful, sunny afternoon, the perfect day to cycle or walk along the Hudson river on Manhattan’s west side. Parents were beginning to gather at schools to pick up their excited children, many wearing Halloween costumes. But the idyllic autumn day came to an abrupt end at 3.05pm when a man in a hired pickup truck hopped the curb and began driving southbound on the pedestrian and bicycle path along the West Side Highway. He struck several pedestrians and cyclists along his 20-block route. At Chambers Street the truck rammed into a school bus, injuring children and adults inside. In all, eight people, including tourists from Argentina and Belgium, were killed. A dozen more were wounded, some critically.
The driver then stepped down from the truck, brandishing what appeared to be two handguns. A police officer on patrol confronted him with his own weapon and fired, striking him in the abdomen. The driver is now in police custody, in hospital. (His guns were later found to be a paint-ball pistol and a pellet gun.) Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, called it “a particularly cowardly act of terror, aimed at innocent civilians”. The driver seemed to have picked the timing carefully and his target too—an area that attracts tourists year-round and the site of several schools whose students were about to be dismissed. Only a few hours later the wider area would play host to downtown Manhattan’s biggest annual parade. Witnesses report that when the driver exited his vehicle he shouted the Koranic takbir, “Allahu akbar” (God is great). Police found a note near the truck which seemed to indicate the attacker had declared allegiance to Islamic State, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility by IS itself. Authorities say it appears the driver acted alone; there is no evidence to suggest a wider plot. But the investigation, a joint operation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York’s police department (NYPD), has just begun.
The driver’s name is Sayfullo Saipov. A 29-year-old native of Uzbekistan, he had moved to the United States in 2010. According to Peter King, a Republican congressman who represents New York’s suburbs, Mr Saipov, a permanent resident, had lived in Florida for a spell. More recently he has been living with his wife and children in New Jersey. Uber, the ride-hailing firm, confirmed that Mr Saipov has worked as one of its drivers—and that he had passed all its background checks. It is not yet known if he was on radar of any intelligence agency.
The incident is strongly reminiscent of recent terror attacks in Europe, where vehicles were used as effective weapons against unarmed crowds. In France, 86 people were killed and more than 400 injured by a single lorry near the seafront at Nice, in 2016. In Berlin, 12 were killed and more than 50 injured by a similar attack last December. Vehicles have also been used to plough into crowds in London and in Barcelona. The NYPD has feared such an act in its city ever since a publication produced by IS suggested to its supporters living in the West that they use their cars to run over civilians. Barriers had been placed around soft targets across the Big Apple, including Times Square. The NYPD began an extensive outreach to truck-rental companies, visiting over 148 locations, to talk about suspicious indicators. After the attacks in Nice and Berlin, the police repeated those visits. Despite those efforts at vigilance, the driver appears to have been able to hire a truck from a Home Depot store across the river, in New Jersey.
The incident took place just a few blocks from the World Trade Centre, where 2,753 people were killed in the September 11th attacks. Since 2001, the city has been the target of about two dozen terrorism plots. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, declared this afternoon that New York is an “international symbol of freedom and democracy” which “makes us a target for those people who oppose those concepts”. In the 16 years since the towers fell, the NYPD has invested heavily in counter-terrorism. Over the years it has posted detectives to Abu Dhabi, Amman, London and elsewhere abroad. Among its rank and file are speakers of Arabic, Dari, Pashto and Urdu. Its Critical Response Command unit has 500 officers specially trained to deal with the threats posed by terrorism. Its members are skilled in behavioural analysis as well as in explosives and radiation detection. In the wake of this attack, police, including heavily armed tactical units, were deployed all over the city, massing in great numbers at symbolic locations as well as at tunnels and airports.
Donald Trump, America’s president, tweeted that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to step up its vetting process. Mr Saipov’s homeland is not on Mr Trump’s list of countries that require extra scrutiny (though another Uzbekistani with IS sympathies was responsible for a massacre at a nightclub in Istanbul in January). In earliertweets, Mr Trump called the driver a “sick and deranged person” and said that America “must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country”.
New Yorkers, meanwhile, responded with their now familiar resilience. A Halloween parade, normally an excuse to wear showy costumes, became a display of defiance. Blocker vehicles protected the parade’s route. Children went trick-or-treating, as is the custom in America on October 31st, many dressed as super-heroes. Mr Cuomo advised New Yorkers to “live your life and don’t let them change us or deter us in any manner, shape or form.” Those who looked up at the city’s tallest buildings would have seen the spires of the new World Trade Centre and the Empire State Building lit in red, white and blue, to honour the latest victims of terrorism.