Shortly after the terrorist attack in New York on Tuesday, a new account, @cnnbrea, which described itself as “CNN Breaking News,” appeared on Twitter. Its crude, explicit and ungrammatical tweets vowed more ISIS attacks on the United States. One warned: “O, Nation of Cross in America We will continue to terrorize you and ruin your lives.” It attached a photo of American police overlaid with a headline: “RUN The Islamic State is Coming.” An imprint of the signature black-and-white ISIS flag was on top. The Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, identified the account for me as one of many—new and old—that lit up social media to celebrate the attack by Sayfullo Saipov on a bike path blocks away from the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The Twitter account was still up almost two days later.
ISIS’s constantly evolving and mischievous propaganda is one of the few tools left for the group to spread its toxic message and inspire lethal attacks. It has now lost about ninety per cent of the territory that made up its pseudo-caliphate, which was the size of Indiana in 2014. Most of the eight million people it once ruled have been liberated. ISIS has lost more than sixty thousand fighters, including a hundred and thirty leaders. Just hours before the Saipov attack, the Pentagon released the names of eleven additional major figures—nine in Syria and two in Iraq—“taken off the battlefield” in recent days. Even ISIS’s social-media profile has diminished, with the loss of the production headquarters and studios it ran in Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that was its capital until U.S.-backed forces retook the city last month. Many of its main media chiefs, including the loquacious braggart and chief spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, have been eliminated as well.
Yet ISIS’s propaganda was sufficient to animate Saipov to carry out the worst terrorist attack in New York since 9/11—as he has now confessed, waiving his Miranda rights. On Wednesday, the F.B.I., which had not put Saipov on any watch list, said that the initial investigation indicated that he had not been in direct contact with extremist groups or activists abroad. He had instead been radicalized after he came to the United States, from Uzbekistan, in 2010.
As John Miller, the New York Police deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday, the United States has not yet figured out how to deal with the arc of radicalization. “This is something that has vexed us since 9/11,” he said. “We have no effective counter-message today.”
According to the ten-page federal complaint filed against him, Saipov fell under the ISIS spell by viewing some ninety ISIS-related videos and almost four thousand images on his (at least two) cell phones. He was specifically inspired by issue No. 3 of the slick online magazine Rumiyah, which means “Rome,” an allusion to an old prophecy foretelling the fall of the infidel West.
In a three-page spread titled “Just Terror Tactics,” published a year ago, Rumiyah wrote that “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.” It listed the best vehicles to launch an attack, illustrating the page with the picture of a U-Haul truck. (Saipov rented a truck from Home Depot.) Rumiyah then cited the best events to crash, literally—pedestrian-congested streets, open-air markets, festivals, parades, and outdoor celebrations that “are fair game and more devastating to Crusader nations.” The list was illustrated with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Saipov chose Halloween.)
Saipov was so smitten by ISIS that he “wanted to display ISIS flags on the front and back of the Truck during the attack, but decided against it because he did not want to draw attention to himself,” the formal complaint against him reported. From a hospital bed after his capture, Saipov audaciously requested the infamous black-and-white ISIS flag to display in his room.
The lesson from the New York attack is that the military campaign against ISIS—the numbers killed or the territory lost—should not be the only measure of success, Hassan Hassan, a co-author of the best-selling “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” told me. “ISIS has received blows on many levels. Ideologically, it’s weaker than it was in 2014. Financially, it’s not as rich as it was in 2014. And it’s not as deadly as in 2014, despite its ability to kill and maim and attack,” he said. “It’s lost the space to operate and breathe and think and plan and train and indoctrinate millions of people.”
Yet, largely through its propaganda machine, ISIS has evolved since 2014, from a state focussed on ruling in Iraq and Syria, into a full-fledged jihadi organization “with the ability to project power and images globally,” Hassan told me. “It’s evolved from a corner grocery store to an international chain.”
ISIS now has more than three dozen wilayats, or provinces, on three continents, including in the Muslim former Soviet republics. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged bayat, or loyalty, to ISIS in 2015. Some franchises are small, some dormant, but all have been deadly—and all have fed the ISIS propaganda machine. According to the International Crisis Group, somewhere between two thousand and four thousand people from the former Soviet Central Asian republics have joined ISIS. The largest group came from Uzbekistan. The group notably publishes Rumiyah and other materials in Russian and in Central Asian languages.
ISIS was never going to defeat its enemies on the battlefield, Bruce Hoffman, a political scientist at Georgetown University and the author of the book “Inside Terrorism,” told me. “It has a long-term strategy of attrition—creating polarization and divisions in society and getting liberal states to embrace illegal tactics,” he said. “That’s what ISIS is all about now—how it survives. It defaults to a lower level that still plays into the terrorist narrative and maintains relevance.”
Two examples of illiberal reactions emerged from the White House less than twenty-four hours after the attacks. President Trump threatened to send Saipov, now a permanent U.S. resident, to the extraterritorial prison at Guantánamo Bay and to totally eliminate the popular diversity-visa program, through which Saipov gained entry to the United States. (Prosecutors in New York made clear that they want to try Saipov in their jurisdiction.) Then, on Thursday, the President tweeted twice that Saipov should get the death penalty. The Trump statements, terrorism analysts told me, could feed the alienation and sense of a clash of civilizations—and fuel more terrorism. And that is just what ISIS wants.
By Thursday morning ISIS had not formally claimed responsibility for the New York attack, despite Saipov’s confession. It may be because he survived. In the past, ISIS has not claimed ties to other perpetrators when they are not “martyred.” In his first speech declaring the caliphate, in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers not to be “stingy” with their lives. “We will never be truthful as long as we do not sacrifice our lives and wealth in order to raise high the word of Allah and bring victory to the religion of Allah,” he said from the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
But that didn’t prevent ISIS supporters from lighting up social media and online accounts to hail Saipov, a former Uber and truck driver, as a hero to the ISIS cause. According to research by MEMRI, the institute that studies terrorism, they “rejoiced in the fact that the operation was carried out in the heart of enemy territory.” Writing under hashtags such as #Manhattan, #NewYork and #Halloween (in English or in Arabic), many stressed that the attack was revenge for U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria—for example, on the former ISIS strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. They also made noxious new threats in inflammatory language, and flaunted graphic posters depicting future attacks.
At 12:46 A.M. on Wednesday, the pro-ISIS media foundation Al-Wafa released a new poster showing the New York skyline, a careening semi truck, and the profile of a fighter armed with an assault rifle and with a kaffiyeh wrapped around his face. Underneath, in all caps, it read:
O WORSHIPPERS OF THE CROSS IN USA OUR LONE WOLVES WILL COME TO YOU FROM WHERE YOU DO NOT KNOW AND WE WILL TERRORIZE YOU WHEREVER YOU ARE AND WE WILL SHOW YOU MULTITUDES OF TERROR AND PAIN THAT YOU SHOWED TO THE MUSLIMS, AND WHAT IS COMING IS MORE BITTER AND GREATER.
For all the ISIS bluster, and the fear it triggered, the attack in New York had a death toll that was in the single digits—eight, far lower than the nearly three thousand people who died in the September, 2001, attacks. It did not involve a team of operatives who acquired sophisticated skills over many months under the noses of the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities. The perpetrator was captured within minutes, identified within several hours, and the basics of his life unravelled within a day. And the latest issue of Rumiyah, a monthly publication known for its punctuality, is now three weeks late.
As Hoffman told me, “Terrorism is here to stay—at one level or another—for the foreseeable future.” The fact that the attack was carried out in New York, which has “iconic stature for terrorist groups,” also counters some of the recent ISIS losses, he said. Yet in the sixteen years since 9/11, terrorism is notably smaller in scale, less deadly, and less impactful in the United States. And all the ISISpropaganda in the world won’t change that.