Why The NYC Attack Was Called An 'Act Of Terror' NPR's Rachel Martin talks with terrorism expert Dan Byman of Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution about why officials are describing Tuesday's attack in New York as an act of terrorism.

Why The NYC Attack Was Called An 'Act Of Terror'

Why The NYC Attack Was Called An 'Act Of Terror'

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NPR's Rachel Martin talks with terrorism expert Dan Byman of Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution about why officials are describing Tuesday's attack in New York as an act of terrorism.


We turn now to someone who has thought a lot about the threat from terrorism both in the U.S. and abroad. His name is Dan Byman. He served on the 9/11 Commission. He's now a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

DAN BYMAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So in this case, a man rented a truck from Home Depot, used it to kill at least eight people. We are seeing more and more of these vehicle attacks. We've seen them especially in Europe, now here in the U.S. Is it possible at all to defend against an attack like this?

BYMAN: It's exceptionally difficult. There have been calls to force people who rent trucks to be - their names to be checked against an FBI-type watchlist. There have been calls for some defensive barriers in key areas. But, as we know, it's easy for someone to acquire a car, and it's easy to use that car to kill someone. So it's exceptionally hard to stop.

MARTIN: Do we know at this point if the driver of that truck, Sayfullo Saipov, was he on any terrorist watch list?

BYMAN: From the initial reports, there doesn't seem to be anything to indicate that.

MARTIN: So New York City officials were quick to call this an act of terror, though. No known connections to ISIS at this point for this driver, but it does have the hallmarks of an ISIS-inspired attack. Does it not?

BYMAN: Absolutely. What ISIS has been doing in recent years is trying to make vehicular attacks one of its signature modes. In November 2016, one of its main media outlets called for almost exactly this type of attack - where you rent a vehicle, you run people down, then you get out and attack people. And to make sure everyone knows it's ISIS, you leave a note in the car. This really fits the model ISIS has been pushing.

MARTIN: So President Trump tweeted yesterday about this. He wrote on Twitter, (reading) I've just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already extreme vetting program. Being politically correct is fine but not for this.

We should say, the driver of this car, Saipov, came to the U.S., immigrated from Uzbekistan. He had a green card. He was here legally. But still, he came to this country. Would any of the administration's current proposals about so-called extreme vetting - would they have prevented this man from coming to the U.S.?

BYMAN: Unless new information arises, the answer would be probably not. He came from an area that wasn't on the list of top countries of concern. The proposals don't call for constant monitoring once someone is in the country. And it seems like this individual became much more radical relatively recently. So the ideas on the table don't seem particularly relevant to this attack.

MARTIN: It is worth noting that this happened just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorial. You were on the 9/11 Commission looking at what caused that attack, what - if anything - could have been done to prevent that attack. I wonder if you could just walk us back to that time. Did you have any idea back then that the terrorist threat - then posed by al-Qaida - that it was expected to evolve as it has?

BYMAN: I don't think anyone was expecting this particular evolution. But people who follow terrorism know that it's almost always a fast-changing terrorist world - that you have groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State that rise and fall. They splinter. They compete. And in that environment, we see a lot of innovation and a lot of change. And at times, to be clear, things get better. Some of these groups diminish. The attacks are fought successfully. But at times, you see the competition and the groups becoming much more dangerous and much more radical.

MARTIN: We have seen the ISIS caliphate fall - that U.S.-backed forces have been able to retake the city of Raqqa, which was so central to the ISIS ideology that it held physical ground. What does that mean for al-Qaida, which was the originator of the terrorist threats that we see today - gave birth, in many ways, to ISIS?

BYMAN: The fall of Raqqa, in some ways, is good news to al-Qaida. They've long claimed that the Islamic State was pursuing the wrong model - that despite the excitement generated by its caliphate, it was rushing much too quickly and that, as a result, it was going to lose its territory and jihadists would be killed or would not be able to achieve their goals. Al-Qaida has been trying to be more patient, has been playing a long game. And it hopes to capitalize on a lot of the people who were attracted to the Islamic State and now see it as a group that doesnt have a future.

All that said, al-Qaida, especially core al-Qaida, has also been hit very hard. This has been a tremendous counterterrorism success in recent years. And we should recognize that even though core al-Qaida is going to try to revive itself, there is absolutely no guarantee that it will.

MARTIN: And yet, here we are living with this threat for so long after you sat on that original commission after the 9/11 attacks.

Dan Byman of the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University, thanks so much for your time this morning.

BYMAN: Thank you.


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