The Danger of Homegrown Terrorism

On Tuesday, October 31st, Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck into a bike path in Lower Manhattan in New York City, killing eight people and injuring twelve. On Wednesday night, federal prosecutors filed terrorism charges against Saipov, making the event the deadliest terror attack in New York City since 9/11.

Seventeen years after 9/11, terrorism seems to be increasing not only in the United States, but across the world. In 2015, terrorist attacks occurred in nearly 100 countries. People are more afraid in response – the Pew Research Center reported “ISIS was viewed as the top threat in eight of 10 European countries”, more so than climate change or global economic instability. In Europe, there have been terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, to name a few, in only the course of a year.

The victims of the New York City attack were primarily tourists from other countries – five men from Argentina, a Belgian woman and two Americans. After driving for almost 20 blocks, the truck smashed into a school bus, where Saipov got out of the truck and was shot by a police officer.

The suspect had spent a year planning the attack and was inspired by violent propaganda videos made by the Islamic State (IS). Though the IS has yet to claim the attack, a note was found in the vehicle, which included a message that ‘the Islamic State would endure.’ This letter suggests that the attack was done in the name of ISIS. New York Police’s Deputy Commissioner John Miller said Saipov had “followed almost exactly to a ‘T’” IS instructions on how to carry out an attack. While in custody, the suspect said he intentionally chose Halloween because there would be more people in the streets, and had also planned to target the Brooklyn Bridge.

Saipov had immigrated legally to the United States from Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 2010 on a diversity immigrant visa. The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program awards visas up to 50,000 individuals per year, with the hopes of promoting immigration in places that would not otherwise send many immigrants.

According to governor Andrew Cuomo, Saipov was “radicalized domestically” and “that after he came to the United States is when he started to become informed about ISIS and radical Islamic tactics.” This fits a grim pattern in the United States: every fatal terrorist attack since 9/11 has been carried out by American citizens or legal permanent residents. None of these attackers have had formal connections or training with foreign terrorist organizations. Furthermore, none of these attackers have been refugees.

Because 9/11 was carried out by a foreign terrorist organization, Americans can tend to assume terrorist attacks are carried out by foreigners, not fellow citizens. Home-grown terrorism has actually been the biggest terror threat to the United States in recent years. This can be seen in the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 – Nidal Hasan was a born citizen and major in the US Army – in the Tsarnaev brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, both naturalized citizens, in the couple responsible for the 2015 San Bernardino attack (a born citizen and a legal resident), and in Omar Mateen of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, also a natural-born citizen.

In no way is homegrown terrorism limited to violent Jihadist movements – far-right violent extremists are responsible for a comparable number of deaths. In fact, they outnumbered deaths caused by jihadist-related attacks until the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Despite this, homegrown terrorism isn’t always the form of terrorism being addressed. Usually, government leaders focus on preventing foreigners from entering the country and Americans from joining ISIS and training. And while these scenarios are possible, they are statistically not the problem at hand. The killers behind most terrorist attacks are people who felt alienated and were inspired by propaganda. In the case of Islamic extremism – like the New York attack, the Boston marathon bombing, and others – the attacks were fostered by the perception that the United States is at war with Islam. If they needed training or instruction, they got it from the Internet.

Furthermore, homegrown terrorism is a positive feedback loop – even though the number of people prone to commit terrorism is quite small, attacks like this can create a backlash (anti-Muslim violence for example) that could in turn spur on more terrorism.

Addressing terrorism as a whole is clearly a complicated problem, but homegrown terrorism is a particularly threatening part of it that has yet to be afforded enough attention. According to an article from The Atlantic, “the kind of terrorism that’s hardest to fight is the kind that ferments at home.” The lone wolves that have no real connections to terrorist groups are hard to see coming and just as hard to prevent. The way the government decides to handle homegrown terrorism is not only crucial to the safety of civilians, but also crucial to how we handle ISIS and the greater threat abroad. Because of this, it is necessary that homegrown terrorism receives the attention it requires.

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