NEW YORK (AFP) - The Uzbek immigrant who killed eight people in New York’s worst attack since Sept 11, 2001 planned the assault for weeks and left behind handwritten notes in Arabic hailing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, police confirmed on Wednesday (Nov 1).
The driver, who moved to America legally in 2010, moved down pedestrians and cyclists at high speed down a bike path on Lower’s Manhattan’s West Side, as children and their parents prepared to celebrate Halloween on Tuesday afternoon.
Police shot 29-year-old suspect Sayfullo Saipov in the abdomen after he crashed into a school bus and exited his pickup truck, brandishing paintball and pellet guns. He has been interviewed in hospital and is expected to survive.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said the suspect was associated with the ISIS militant group, called him a “depraved coward”.
“That’s what this was – the actions of depraved coward. There is a no grand statement to what was done,” he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Handwritten notes in Arabic, pledging allegiance to ISIS were found at the scene in the upmarket neighbourhood of TriBeCa, close to schools and not far from the 9/11 Memorial to the victims of the 2001 Al-Qaeda hijackings.
“The gist of the note was that the Islamic State would endure forever,” said John Miller, the head of New York police intelligence and counter-terrorism. Saipov also reportedly yelled “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) during the attack.
Vehicle rammings have been a frequent tactic deployed by ISIS sympathisers in the West, including in Barcelona, London, Stockholm and in Nice, where a Tunisian suicide truck bomber killed 86 people on Bastille Day last year.
Police said it was too early in the investigation to determine when Saipov may have become radicalised, but Cuomo told CNN that it happened after he moved to the United States. He had been a legal permanent resident after arriving in March 2010.
While The New York Times said the attacker had previously been on the radar of federal authorities, Miller said Saipov had “never” previously been the “subject” of either a New York police intelligence or an FBI inquiry.
'NOT BE COWED'
New York would remain resilient, Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted, with the annual marathon going ahead as planned on Sunday. Police said the event, which attracts more than 50,000 runners and 2.5 million spectators, would be the most protected ever with rooftop observation posts and sniper teams doubled.
“This was an attack on the United States of America and an attack on New York City,” de Blasio said. “We will not be cowed, we will not be thrown off by anything.”
While officials say preliminary evidence suggests Saipov acted alone and was not part of a wider plot, Cuomo has drastically stepped up security at airports, tunnels and Penn Station, which he called the busiest rail hub in the hemisphere.
Still some New Yorkers admitted to feeling nervous.
“I am scared,” said Megan Brosterman, a 38-year-old mother dropping off two children at school on Wednesday close to the scene.
“It does bring memories from 9/11... I can’t change my routine because of this,” she told AFP.
“Life goes on.”
Five of the dead were Argentines, visiting for a school reunion. A Belgian woman was also killed. Of the 12 injured, nine remain in hospital – four critical but stable and the others serious, said fire department chief Daniel Nigro.
Injuries include a bilateral amputation, and serious head, neck and back trauma, he said. One Argentine, a German and three Belgians, were among the injured.
Saipov reportedly lived in Florida and Ohio, before moving to Paterson, a former industrial hub in New Jersey about 30km north east of New York, where he lived with his wife and three children. The truck was rented in New Jersey.
Hundreds of FBI and police detectives are now working 24-seven, following leads in New York, New Jersey and around the country.
President Donald Trump, facing what appears to be the worst jihadist-inspired attack of his less than one year in office, denounced Saipov as an “animal” and said he would “certainly consider” sending him to America’s military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We also have to come up with punishment that is far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now,” Trump told reporters at the start of a Cabinet meeting.
“We need quick justice, and we need strong justice. Much quicker and much stronger than we have right now.”
The US President announced a stepping-up of his “extreme vetting programme” for foreign travellers and said he was moving to terminate the green card lottery which enabled the suspect to enter the country.
Trump’s targeting of the lottery – and of Democrats who support it – was immediately criticised in New York, a Democrat-run state and city, which prides itself on the diversity of its more than 8.5 million-strong population.
In March 2015, two Uzbeks and a Kazakh living in New York were arrested on charges of supporting ISIS. One of them, who threatened former president Barack Obama, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week.
Uzbekistan, a majority Muslim country that borders Afghanistan and formerly part of the Soviet Union, is a landlocked country racked with poverty, corruption and stifling authoritarian regime.
In less than a year, three other men with Uzbek links have been blamed for a deadly nightclub shooting in Istanbul, a Saint Petersburg metro bombing and Stockholm attack.