Police hunt terror links of New York attacker

Radicalised: Donald Trump described Saipov as a “very sick and deranged person”. © Getty

Should we describe the attacker as a lone wolf? Eight people were killed when a truck ploughed down a cycle path in New York. It is the deadliest terrorist attack on the city since 9/11.

Now the questions begin. Why did it happen? Could it have been stopped? Was the attacker acting alone? One thing we are certain of is the devastation it caused.

On Tuesday Sayfullo Saipov smashed a truck into a crowd of pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight people. Five friends from Argentina were killed. A Belgian woman and two Americans also died.

Saipov was shot and arrested by police at the scene. According to police he had been planning the attack “for weeks”. Handwritten notes were found in which Saipov allegedly pledged his allegiance to the terror group ISIS.

Despite this, no concrete connections to the group have been found. The Washington Post called Saipov a “lone wolf” after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed that there was “no evidence yet of associations or continuing plot”.

If this remains the case, the event would be the latest in a string of similar attacks. Last year a terrorist killed 86 people by driving into a crowd in Nice. And 49 people were shot dead in an Orlando nightclub. Both incidents were described as “lone wolf” attacks.

The phrase is increasingly common. Journalist Jason Burke calculated that it appeared in 300 news articles between 2009 and 2012. But between March 2016 and March 2017 it appeared over 1,000 times.

Historically, terrorism has often been equated with organisations. Nationalist groups like the IRA were composed of formal members. And the 2001 September 11th attacks were coordinated by Osama Bin Laden and 19 others under al-Qaeda’s banner. In these cases, attacks were carried out by groups, not individuals.

Now the boundaries are blurred. And as the strongholds of ISIS fall, experts worry that ISIS propaganda will turn more individuals into terrorists. Security expert Jean-Marc Rickli claims: “The physical elimination of one group in one location doesn’t mean the elimination of the entire cancer.”

So should we call the New York attacker a lone wolf?

No “I” in terror

According to Burke, lone wolf terrorists are a “myth”, and some agree. While terrorists may plot alone, they share the ideas that drive groups like ISIS. Ideology is not the preserve of organisations, but is also amplified by informal networks of acquaintances who share certain beliefs. By calling terrorists “lone wolves” we become blind to these networks, and make it harder to spot potential attacks.

“The term makes us realise the danger,” reply others. The attack was not an elaborate plot but the actions of a disturbed individual. This makes the situation all the more scary. With no organisation to target, attacks like this come out of nowhere. The “lone wolf” concept reflects this hard reality and encourages citizens to be more vigilant.

You Decide

  1. Can a terrorist ever truly be described as a lone wolf?
  2. Will the conflict between the West and Islamic terrorism ever be resolved?


  1. Without looking at a dictionary, write down a definition of the word “terrorism”. Compare your definition with your classmates. Are there any differences in what you have written?
  2. There have been several terrorist attacks involving vehicles in recent years. How do you think cities should plan and prepare for them? Research what proposals have already been made and write down more of your own.

Some People Say...

“Terrorism has become the systematic weapon of a war that knows no borders or seldom has a face.”

Jacques Chirac

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Saipov is currently in custody at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. The Federal authorities were previously made aware of him for reasons unrelated to this case. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that Saipov was “radicalised domestically” after entering the USA.
What do we not know?
We do not know for certain that Saipov was acting alone, or if he received direct support from terrorist groups. In the aftermath of the attack Donald Trump tweeted: “We must not allow ISIS to return.” However, ISIS has not yet officially claimed responsibility for the attack.

Word Watch

Sayfullo Saipov
An Uzbek national who moved to the USA in 2010. He has lived in Florida, Ohio, and New Jersey, and worked as an Uber driver.
Lone wolf
The blue-print for lone wolf terrorism was developed by far right American extremists in the 1980s. White nationalist Louis Beam encouraged extremists to form “one-man cells of resistance” in a 1983 manifesto.
The truck was driven by Tunisian national Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. Prosecutor François Molins claimed that he had a "clear, recent interest in the radical jihadist movement".
During a phone call to emergency services (911) shooter Omar Mateen described himself as an “Islamic soldier” acting “on the behalf of Islamic State”.
News articles
Burke’s survey was of “major English-language news publications”.
A paramilitary organisation dedicated to the unification of Ireland through armed struggle. It conducted many bomb attacks throughout the British Isles predominantly in the 1970s and 80s.
In October the Syrian city of Raqqa was liberated from ISIS forces. This followed the recapture of Mosul in Iraq from ISIS.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.