No, the Manhattan Attack is not the Result of ISIS Losing in Iraq and Syria
Americans are still trying to processes the horrid damage left behind by 29-year old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, who killed eight and injured at least ten people on Monday. It’s a painfully familiar scenario: an Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired young man plowed a rented truck through a crowd of innocents—this time on a bike path in Manhattan.
Emerging from recent discussions on the tragedy, which ISIS has not as of yet claimed, is a new narrative: Saipov’s attack is the result of ISIS desperation as it rapidly loses ground in Iraq and Syria; in other words, ISIS is losing, so it instead hits us at home.
But is this the case?
ISIS has wanted to hit New York City, more than any other American city, just as much as it did a year ago, and the year before that.
While it’s true ISIS has predictably ramped up its efforts to incite for attacks in the West amid its losses, the group has long vied for attacks in New York City, even at the peak of its conquests in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has wanted to hit New York City, more than any other American city, just as much as it did a year ago, and the year before that. To ISIS supporters, officials, and the entire global jihadi community, New York City—the largest city in America, a global market hub, and former home of the fallen World Trade Center buildings—in many ways is America.
Thus, official ISIS media has for years regularly put heavy emphases on New York City, from its most high-profile magazines to its most attention-grabbing videos, as an attack there would have the highest amount of symbolic value. Video releases contain shots of Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and other locations, implicitly suggesting them as attack targets.
For example, an ISIS video issued in April of 2015—when ISIS was still in a strong position and expanding its “Caliphate”—played a German language nasheed (religious chant) threatening terror attacks across the West. The video, in the most visually blunt manner possible, shows a man portraying an attacker preparing an explosive vest, and then detonating it in Times Square:
Its sadistic lyrics state in part:
Fill your car with gas.
My brother, Hurry up!
Your neighbor is a kafir,
Slandering the messenger,
Take a big knife,
And give him what he rightly deserves!
The nasheed was translated to multiple languages, and clips from the video were regularly reused in official ISIS releases. For example, two years later, a May 12, 2017 ISIS video showing various Western fighters in Mosul showcasing the groups weapons and inciting attacks echoed the threat on Times Square. With the same German nasheed playing in the background, the video shows a clip of Times Square (among other locations throughout the U.S.) as a narrator states:
And O you honest monotheists in America and Russia and Europe, O you supporters of the Caliphate, O you who were not able to immigrate and today you are sitting amongst the polytheists, roll up your sleeves and be earnest in your endeavors, and know that our battle with our enemy is a complete war, and his interests are easy to reach targets so distract them with themselves away from your Caliphate – the home of Islam…
ISIS’ threats to New York were issued from far outside of just Iraq and Syria. A December 2015 video from ISIS’ Barqah Province in Libya likewise shows the same priority on New York almost two years ago, this time through an English-speaking ISIS fighter stating:
France was beginning, tomorrow will be Washington. It will be New York and it will be Moscow. You Russians, don't you think we have forgot you. By Allah, your time is coming. It is coming and it will be the worst.
ISIS even provided a detailed blueprint for the terror America felt yesterday in the third issue of its Rumiyah magazine, which it released in November of 2016—a time when group was still firmly in control Raqqah and just a month into the Mosul Offensive. The issue’s “Just Terror Tactics” seciton advised on performing vehicular attacks, and made multiple references to the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City, the first of these references being made on the article’s first page:
An image provided later in the article also showed the Macy’s Day Parade, calling it “an excellent target.”
Supporters likewise threaten attacks on New York. Such threats are noteworthy as the pro-ISIS community online are a critical component to the group’s propaganda machine, echoing ISIS’ official media and following up on incitements with more details and suggestions.
Pro-ISIS artwork and incitements strewn across the Internet constantly use the city’s landmarks as icons with which to threaten all of the U.S. For example, after ISIS debuted its weaponized drones earlier this year, supporters flooded the internet with images threatening that the new weapons would be used in the U.S. Among those pictures was one showing an ISIS fighter launching a drone toward the Statue of Liberty:
Some materials disseminated by ISIS supporters ring eerily of yesterday’s attack in Manhattan. On August 22, just two months before Saipov’s attack, a user on a pro-ISIS Telegram channel posted a picture of a phone, showing the ISIS-associated black banner flag, being held in front of New York City’s Freedom Tower. The photo appeared to have been taken on West Street, less than a mile from where Saipov’s attack took place.
Another image, disseminated on Telegram around four days after the aforementioned photo, depicted Times Square billboards praising a killed IS fighter as a “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine, and instructing ISIS lone wolves: “Run Them Over.”
There is indeed a strong correlation between ISIS rhetoric and real-life attacks. Directives given by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and killed spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and attack guides in Rumiyah Magazine manifest into a years-long streak of attacks throughout the West. But these incitements have been floating on social media since the group declared its “Caliphate” in 2014.
Thus, the Manhattan Attack should not be viewed as ISIS' response to its current status, but rather a result the same fire it has been burning for years.