Network Take: NYC Attack Dark Preview of Violence to Come

Police in Manhattan
Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty

The Cipher Brief asked network experts from the NYPD, NCTC, CIA and FBI to weigh in on the deadly truck attack in New York that killed eight, carried out by a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant, apparently inspired by the so-called Islamic State. Prosecutors said Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who was charged in the deadly rampage Wednesday, had thousands of ISIS-related photos and videos on his phone.

Mitch Silber served as the New York Police Department’s Director of Intelligence Analysis, and created a deep web, dark net cyber intelligence unit that focused on terrorism threats to New York City.

The attack in New York demonstrates that Muslims in the United States are not immune to the type of “crowd sourced” terrorism that ISIS has hoped to inspire via its savvy utilization of different social media channels as well as English language magazines like Dabiq. Single attacker terrorism, inspired by ISIS has proven to be effective in spite of the Islamic State’s dramatic loss of territory and its Caliphate. Thus, even a “virtual ISIS” is a threat to US national security. After the success of attacks in Berlin, London, and Nice which utilized vehicles ramming into civilians, there was little reason to believe that the United States would be spared from this phenomenon.

Success in New York City for this attack has a much bigger impact than any other vehicle attacks which have been attempted to date. Beyond the media attention that a successful attack in New York receives, the success in New York City also pierces that shield of invulnerability which NYPD has been able to establish since 9/11. Now that NYC has shown that it can be hit successfully, I do expect more attempts against the city in the near term, especially as we enter the holiday season.

And there’s apparently little U.S. law enforcement could have done to spot the suspect, unless he’d chosen to share his affinity for the so-called Islamic State more publicly.

The only way to stop this assailant would have been if HUMINT intelligence picked up his radicalization to violence via investigations into groups in New Jersey that were supportive of ISIS or if the subject had presented a profile that alerted law enforcement and intelligence in the cyber/online world.  It appears that he radicalized here, in the US and thus, there would have been little basis to prevent his entry into the US.  Radicalization in the West seems to be the phenomenon at hand here.

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Matthew Olsen was Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the General Counsel for the National Security Agency and Special Counsel to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After Tuesday’s attack, Olsen warned ISIS’s continued outreach via encrypted apps and the dark web will continue to draw followers willing to kill.

We’re likely to continue to face the threat of this type of attack going forward, largely because of the infiltration of ISIS propaganda into the United States, where people are likely to consume that information.…The challenge is it’s very difficult to get advance warning of an attack like this when its carried out by someone on their own, who hasn’t triggered any of the types of warnings that law enforcement and intelligence services need to disrupt the attack before it occurs.

The high-profile target – and the lethal result – will only encourage more violence, Olsen said.

This attack definitely has gotten enormous attention, not just in this country but around the world, because it is so similar to what we’ve seen in places like Nice and Barcelona, and now for the first time, a significant terrorist attack using a car in the United States, indeed the largest terror attack in NYC since 9/11.

Of course, there’s concern about copy cats, but the bigger concern is the message this sends to ISIS and its followers that this type of attack is as successful here in the United States as in Europe in generating significant fatalities.

Olsen said intelligence and law enforcement would be combing through the suspect’s history to see what they might have missed.

But the reality is that as long as we live in an open and free society, it’s difficult if not impossible to stop every attack like this, and to vet every single person before they entered the country.

Remember, at this point it appears this individual was only radicalized after entering the United States, so there may have been no indication when he came here that he posed any threat whatsoever.

Of President Donald Trump’s threats to shut down the visa lottery program that allowed the suspect to enter the U.S.?

I do think we should take a look at any of these programs that allow people who enter our country to make sure we’re appropriately vetting them, but the answer is certainly not to shut down our borders. That’s inconsistent with both our strategic interests as a country and our values as Americans.

Olsen did not think much of Trump’s comments Wednesday calling the U.S. justice system, “a joke and…a laughingstock” and threatening to send the New York suspect to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now,” Trump told reporters.

The way this is being handled right now through the criminal justice system is appropriate and demonstrates that the FBI, the local police department and our criminal justice system is the best way to take someone like this off the street, and ensure that there is swift and certain justice. We’ve seen that play out right now with the fact that he has apparently provided a full confession in a form that can be used as evidence against him in court.

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General Mike Hayden is a retired four-star General in the United States Air Force; he was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006-2009 and the Director of the National Security Agency from 1999-2005.

 The attack was tragic but it was not surprising. This was within the band of ISIS capabilities and unfortunately below the band within which we can predictably detect attacks before they occur

 But unlike the other TCB experts interviewed, Hayden believes it doesn’t necessarily presage a rash of copycat attacks.

We have seen this before. And also, some supporters of the caliphate maybe move to action out of revenge for its physical destruction, others may become less motivated because of it’s obvious physical defeat.

He urged caution against jumping to the conclusion that law enforcement or U.S. intelligence could have spotted this, or of concluding that a particular community deserves scrutiny after the fact. 

We will do forensics on this and no doubt we will come up with indicators that might, repeat might, have been detected.  That said, you have to be sensitive to creating too many false positives as this will alienate the community you want to protect and on which you must rely for information.

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Former FBI agent John Perren served as the Assistant Director for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate and was the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Program with the responsibility to prevent and respond to all terrorism and weapon of mass destruction incidents in the National Capitol Region, among his many national security posts.

I think it confirms what we’ve already thought would happen. The smaller the caliphate is, the more they are getting their butts kicked in Iraq and Syria, you’re going to see these fighters migrate to western countries. We saw this happens in France and the UK.

I think this is something that could likely occur again.

It’s not the first time a vehicle has been used – an 18-year-old Somali immigrant injured 11 when he rammed a car into a crowd at Ohio State University last year. But Perren said the scale of the New York attack will provide even greater inspiration to the like-minded.

It could push that motivated person who has been thinking about it…over the edge to execute. They have a message that sticks to certain people who are looking at their websites, who are taking in all this hatred. Something like this kind of emboldens them. ‘If he did it, I can do it.’

Perren said every police force in America would now be planning to respond to attacks like this.

God bless ‘em…They are the ones going toward the screeching tires. It’s the new norm.

They are gaming this out in their heads….This is on their radar and they’re watching this closely and figuring out how they would respond.

That does not mean changing how Americans live and work, or putting barriers in front of every building.

We’re a free and open society. That’s the beauty of our country. It makes it a little easier for our adversary….If we start shoring everything up and making it look like a fortress, we’ve fallen victims to their ideology and what they’re trying to do to us.

Everyone should have a plan. You have to prepare yourself mentally.

[But] we should not stop. The next day, people should be riding those bikes and showing, ‘You can’t scare us that way.’ That’s kind of flipping them the bird.

Interviewed by Kimberly Dozier.

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