What the US Government Can Do to Prevent Low-Tech Terror Attacks
By Corri Zoli
On Oct. 31, 2017, as reported by CNN, eight people were killed and almost a dozen injured when 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a rented pickup truck down a busy bicycle path in New York City’s Lower Manhattan district. Authorities found a note claiming the attack was made in the name of Islamic State (ISIS) near the truck used in the attack.1 Saipov was shot by police and taken to the hospital. Originally from Uzbekistan, he entered the United States under a visa program designed to encourage immigration from underrepresented nations.
Given the case facts, this tragic incident looks like yet another low-tech terrorist attack, similar to vehicular attacks in the last two years in London, France, Sweden, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere. The inspiration for these attacks comes from ISIS and its online recruitment materials that advocate for the surprise killing of civilians using any available modern tools as weapons, such as trucks, knives, or homemade bombs.2 Europe has suffered hundreds of deaths due to this “low-tech” but powerful strategy.
US Congressmembers emphasize that we’re in a high-threat environment[PDF] given ISIS attacks across the world and given thousands of foreign terrorist fighters returning to their home countries (as Islamic State collapses). It should be remembered that 60,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq since 2012. While numbers of recruits from the US are far lower than from France and Britain—not to mention other countries—they are not zero. Since 2014, 136 individuals have been charged for ISIS-related offenses in the US, with 79 so far found guilty.
What can the US government do to prevent such low-tech terror attacks in the homeland? Physical barriers to prevent car and truck attacks would help in places where people congregate, but it is not feasible to line every road or bike path with such concrete barriers. Nor do we have as many domestic policy tools as we might like to have to deal with this issue, such as heavily secured borders or detailed vetting procedures for immigrants and refugees. Instead, we must turn to surveillance, public notification of extremist behavior, forward-leaning law enforcement professionals, and community engagement, all of which must be balanced with civil liberties.
Importantly, lawmakers and law enforcement officials need to stay ahead of global terrorist strategic, tactical, and recruitment trends, especially after the fall of Raqqa and now that ISIS operatives are beginning to return home or move into other regions (such as Mali in western Africa). To politicize these issues—or ignore them or wish them away—is folly. Preventing terror attacks will require thorough policy reviews, investigative reports, and new bipartisan laws and agency procedures, such as those developed in the past to close VISA loopholes. The U.S. is not alone on these challenges—France issued a new anti-terrorism law this week, and British ministers are actively asking what to do with foreign terrorist returnees.
In addition to the challenge of homegrown terrorism, our immigration systems are not immune to these threats. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have increased vetting of immigrants and refugees to deal with the ways terrorist operatives target migration flows and programs. Former FBI Director James Comey in 2015 Congressional testimony noted that 15% of refugees (300 out of 2,000-plus open FBI cases) are under FBI investigation for “some contact with foreign terrorists.”
Terrorists exploiting immigration and refugee programs is a bigger problem, however, in Europe, where ISIS operatives in the Paris (2015) and Belgium (2016) attacks, among others, used refugee flows and passports to skirt border security measures.
Likely, the visa lottery program3 Saipov used to enter the US in 2010 will come under scrutiny.4 While a small program,5 after the San Bernardino attack in 2015, President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson and lawmakers—including Central New York’s John Katko, who leads the House bipartisan Task Force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel—reevaluated the K-1 VISA program for fiancée/spouses, some recommending social media surveillance of individuals.
The vetting process for the K-1 program was determined to be less rigorous than refugee vetting processes and therefore changed. In this case—as in the case of San Bernadino killer Tashfeen Malik, who was determined to have been radicalized before entering the US—an important question is whether Saipov exhibited signs of radicalization before he entered the US and whether he was properly vetted.
1 Sayfullo Saipov’s first name translates into “Sword of Allah.” Reportedly, he pledged allegiance to ISIS and had ISIS flags in his vehicle.
2 Here’s a sample from Rumiyah[PDF]: Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner. This was superbly demonstrated…by the brother Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who, while traveling at the speed of approximately 90 km p/hour, plowed his 19-ton load-bearing truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, harvesting through his attack the slaughter of 86 Crusader citizens and injuring 434 more. The method of such an attack is that a vehicle is plunged at a high speed into a large congregation of kufar, smashing their bodies with the vehicle’s strong outer frame, while advancing forward—crushing their heads, torsos, and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis—and leaving behind a trail of carnage.” (Rumiyah, 2016, Issue 3, p. 10)
3 There were 1,051,031 new legal permanent residents (“Green Card” holders) in FY 2015[PDF], with about 5% coming from the “diversity” visa lottery program and most (66%) coming from family relations preferences.
4 News outlets are also reporting that Saipov was in fact investigated by the FBI in 2015 over his ties with suspected terrorists. He was further listed as a “point of contact” for 23 visitors and immigrants, two of whom were found in DHS’s counterterrorism database and overstayed their tourist visas, itself a growing problem in the US (more than 700,000 overstayed their visas in 2016). One individual was flagged as arriving from a threat country while the other was identified as a “suspected terrorist.” Vetting procedures were again changed—this time to link classified (US Department of Defense) and unclassified data on jihadists—when it was discovered that two Iraqi refugees arrested on terror offenses in Bowling Green, Kentucky had previously committed IED attacks against US soldiers in Iraq.
5 The Diversity Visa Program prioritizes immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the US. Congressionally mandated as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, the program creates priorities—diversity—beyond traditional US immigration policy of immigrating family members or US employment needs. The program allows for 55,000 immigrants per year (beginning in 1995) with countries excluded that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous 5 years.