NYC terror attack: Halloween horror would have been much worse without top notch NYPD

Editor's note: The following column first appeared in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute.

The Halloween assault in Lower Manhattan was straight out of the ISIS playbook. Ever since October 2010, when Al Qaeda published the second issue of its online magazine Inspire, jihadi leaders have been urging the faithful to turn ordinary cars and trucks into killing machines to “mow down the enemies of Allah.”

On Tuesday in New York, Sayfullo Saipov, 29, a green-card holder from Uzbekistan in Central Asia and resident of Florida, responded to the call.

He drove his rented Home Depot truck from West Houston Street onto a Hudson River Park bike path, one of New York’s most beloved amenities. Within ten minutes, eight people were killed and 15 were injured. A note found in the truck, law enforcement officials said, indicated that Saipov committed the attack out of devotion to ISIS.

Saipov might have killed even more people had the NYPD not been the nation’s premier counterterrorism force. NYPD officers showed up in force minutes after the attack began, shooting Saipov before he could kill even more New Yorkers.

At a news conference at 1 Police Plaza less than two hours after the deadly attack, John Miller, the New York Police Department’s chief of counterterrorism, cited the Islamic State’s updated guidance to jihadi aspirants contained in the third November 2016 issue of its own online journal, Rumiya (Rome), as the attacker’s probable inspiration. The article encouraged followers to attack “large outdoor conventions and celebrations, pedestrian-congested streets, outdoor markets, festivals, festivals, parades, [and] political rallies.” It even specified the ideal type, weight, and speed of a car needed for terror purposes, according to a translation provided by the Counter-Extremism Project.

It seems likely that the killer’s original target may have been the famous Greenwich Village Halloween parade, another beloved New York tradition that close to 1 million people typically attend. But the NYPD’s overwhelming security presence, and the numerous street closures adjacent to the parade, may have dashed his dreams of an even more memorable massacre.

While the attack investigation is ongoing and details of Saipov’s motives and plans are still being gathered, the vehicle assault bore the hallmarks of the attacks that ISIS and other militant jihadi groups have long been promoting. NYPD commissioner James O’Neill said that the terrorist emerged from his rental vehicle after crashing into a school bus screaming a statement that indicated terrorist intent. While the politically attuned O’Neill declined to identify what the attacker shouted, the language in which he was shouting, or his suspected nationality, numerous eye witnesses said that the man, dressed in dark clothing and carrying a pellet gun and a paint-ball gun, was screaming “Allahu Akhbar”—“God is Great” in Arabic.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out another hallmark of a vehicle assault. The perp, he said, was one of those “lone wolves” who “meant to cause pain and harm and probably death and the resulting terror.”

But it takes a pack to raise a lone wolf. Even if Saipov acted alone, he was part of a growing ideological fraternity numbering in the tens of thousands who now inhabit every region of the globe.

Those seeking eternal glory have staged similar attacks in at least a dozen other cities—from Nice to Paris to Barcelona to London to Jerusalem.

Like the attacks in these cities, the Halloween attack in Lower Manhattan was aimed at inflicting maximum carnage. Schools in the area were letting out students shortly after three o’clock when Saipov drove his rented truck off West Houston Street onto the bike path.

There was no shortage of targets. The streets between West Houston and Chambers were crowded with parents picking up their costumed children prepared for an evening of trick-or-treating. Pedestrians and bikers on the Hudson River bike path were stunned and helpless as Saipov careened his weapon through the crowd.

With the collapse of its self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is on the run. So are its adherents. But as the extremists disperse, the terrorist threat, paradoxically, increases. American and other intelligence agencies have long warned of a likely rise in vehicle and other attacks as the frustrated, furious faithful are forced to reorient their campaign. In May 2017, the U.S. Transportation and Security Agency (TSA) warned truck and bus companies to be on guard for suspicious individuals seeking to rent vehicles.

According to TSA data, Islamist terrorists have carried out more than a dozen vehicular assaults since 2014 that have killed more than 170 people. Such attacks are ever more likely, the TSA memo warned, since “unsophisticated tactics such as vehicle-ramming” are hard to prevent and capable of inflicting “mass casualties if successful.”

Saipov might have killed even more people had the NYPD not been the nation’s premier counterterrorism force. NYPD officers showed up in force minutes after the attack began, shooting Saipov before he could kill even more New Yorkers.

The NYPD, in fact, was already responding to the vehicular threat long before this type of terror became the focus of federal concern.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Miller discussed the department’s SHIELD program, which has sent officers to brief some 20,000 businesses in the private sector about the growing terrorist threat post–9/11.

Miller noted that after Rumiya reissued its call for vehicular attacks and suggested an assault on the Thanksgiving Day parade, the NYPD visited over 148 truck rental offices in the metropolitan area asking employees to watch for “suspicious indicators.” The police department conducted repeated visits in person and by phone, he said.

Even more essential has been the NYPD’s intelligence division, which has long collected information about suspicious individuals. After being heavily, and in many instances unfairly, criticized for allegedly violating civil liberties, Miller’s former boss, William Bratton, shut down a particularly controversial program that the intelligence unit had run early in its existence—a so-called “demographic unit” that collected information on the location and activities of Muslims suspected of terrorist intentions.

Another critic was New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who lambasted the NYPD for surveilling New Jersey-based Muslims and asked whether the spying was “borne out of arrogance, or out of paranoia, or out of both.” Unconfirmed news reports Tuesday night indicated that Saipov had lived for some time in Paterson, New Jersey.

But the NYPD has not scaled back most of its vital surveillance activities. In fact, New York’s Finest, working in tandem with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that comprise the Joint Terrorism Task Force, have continued collecting information on suspected terrorists living in and visiting the city.

They were unable to prevent the Halloween attack. The so-called “flash-to-bang” trajectory of lone-wolf radicalization is accelerating. An individual intent on mayhem against “soft” targets is the toughest law enforcement terrorist challenge.

Eight people were killed Tuesday. But the toll could have been much higher had the police not responded so quickly and New Yorkers not been so stubbornly resilient.

Concluding his remarks Tuesday, Governor Cuomo issued his own call to arms. “We’re not going to let them win,” he said. “And if we change our lives, we contort ourselves to them, then they win and we lose.”

Three and a half hours after Saipov’s wicked rampage, hundreds of thousands of costumed New Yorkers poured into the streets to celebrate Halloween, as planned. Paradoxically, Saipov’s perverse mission failed: New Yorkers were not cowed, and he was denied the martyrdom that he was clearly seeking.

Shot in the stomach, Saipov will probably live to be brought to justice, not far from the scene of his heinous crime. 

Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal and project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author. Her latest book is, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, 2015).