Details are gradually emerging about the terrorist attack carried out on the Hudson River Bike Path on 31 October.
The perpetrator, Sayfullo Saipov, is a 29-year old of Uzbek origin, who has been residing legally in the United States since 2010. Taken down by police gunfire, he has claimed from his hospital bed that the attack was carried out in the name of the Islamic State (IS), the main actor that has been opposed to the American anti-terrorist campaign in Syria and Iraq.
Saipov’s action is good news for the IS. The organization has been pushed out of some 90% of the territory that it had once occupied in Iraq and Syria. So, the attack in Manhattan – even if the IS was not operationally involved – says that the organization, while maybe not kicking too aggressively, is still alive.
The IS is not the only actor that can reap benefit from the events in New York City.
Al-Qaeda can profit. The perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks has been the IS’s main competitor since 2014. It has taken a rather different tack. Unlike the IS, it has not sought to seize and hold territory. It has presented itself as a more moderate force for jihad. In Syria. It has sought to forge alliances with other actors opposed to the IS. It has focused on the overthrow of Syrian President Assad. As such, it has avoided being a central focus of the military campaign waged against Assad by the Americans and its allies. Now, with the IS earmarked as the instigator of the attack on Manhattan, American military attention is likely to be even more concentrated on it, in the process leaving more room for maneuver to its al-Qaeda rival.
President Trump also profits. The attack on Manhattan introduces another narrative into the ongoing US political debate, one that can deflect attention from the Muller investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and the recent indictments of three individuals involved in the Trump campaign on charges of tax fraud, money-laundering and lying to federal authorities about contacts with Russian principals during the American election campaign.
Russian President Putin profits as well. The attack confirms the message that the Kremlin-controlled media has been systematically sending to its home audience to the effect that America is continuing its descent into dysfunctionality – and by implication, there is nothing special about Russia’s. It says at the same time that recent terrorist actions in Russia are not exceptional events, particular to Russia. The attack in Manhattan comes just a week after a Russian journalist in Moscow was stabbed by an individual who Putin also labeled crazy, just as Trump had in reacting to the recent US incident.
And both the American and the Russian Presidents can potentially profit if this most recent round of terrorism against their respective countries puts back in play the notion that the most important security problem facing them both is jihadist terrorism and that they need to work together to deal with it.
Trump has said that he may meet with Putin during his Asia trip and that they would discuss a range of issues – from North Korea to Syria to Ukraine – where cooperation between Washington and Moscow could be useful. Trump did not mention terrorism as a subject for discussion but I suspect that if the meeting takes place, it will be on the agenda.
This should not surprise. Dealing with terrorism was a central plank of Trump’s election campaign. For Putin, this is a much more fundamental issue. Terrorism has been crucially important to him through most of his professional life. Here are just a few examples.
Vladimir Putin made his career in the Russian security services, first with the KGB, then with the post-Soviet FSB. The Russian security services have a long and vile history of using terrorism to support the prevailing political power. It was the bombings of a series of apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 when Putin was still Prime Minster that clinched his promotion to the Presidency.
In 2006, in London, a former Russian secret service agent by the name of Litvinenko was poisoned in what was almost surely an action organized by the FSB. Litvinenko was a persona non grata in the Kremlin because he had written in a book published in 2002, under the title of Blowing Up Russia, that Putin had engineered the 1999 apartment attacks as a way of propelling himself into power.
Fast forward to 2013, as the IS was gathering strength in Iraq and Syria. There is evidence that Russian border controls were relaxed to facilitate the efforts of young men, mainly from the Russian Caucasus and Central Asian countries, to join the IS. This reduced the number of terrorists or potential terrorists from these regions that could threaten the Russian Federation. But it also increased the number of foot soldiers available to the IS.
This was crucially important for what was going on in the Syrian theatre. The main target of the IS in the Syrian Civil War were the rebel factions whose main target was the regime of Syrian President Assad.
And at the same time as the IS was taking on the Syrian opposition to Assad, the Russian military effort in Syria was not focused on the IS but on the Syrian opposition to Assad. Bottom line: Russia and the IS were complicit in working to destroy the democratic or proto-democratic opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Then there is the Tsarnaev case. In 2012, the two Tsarnaev brothers, Chechens who grew up in Russian Dagestan and Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, carried out a bomb attack on participants in the Boston marathon. In the subsequent investigations, it was ascertained that the older Chechen brother had made a trip back to the places he had grown up in preceding the attack. What he did there and who he talked to during this visit remains unclear but he returned to the United States with an agenda to kill. Some analysts have suggested that Moscow encouraged the Tsarnaev attack with a view to making a case for American-Russian cooperation in dealing with terrorism. Here, the Russian narrative would probably have been something to the effect that these guys were operating in a jurisdiction that we know well, and we can help you find out what happened.
Young men from the Russian Caucasus and the erstwhile Soviet Central Asia republics have constituted an important contingent of IS recruits. Uzbekistan and minority Uzbek communities in other Central Asian states have provided an estimated 500 to 1500 of the roughly 4000 effectives in the IS army that have originated from former Soviet space. Since the beginning of this year, Uzbeks have carried out terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Stockholm and St Petersburg, causing multiple deaths and casualties.
Putin and Trump have been coy about whether they will meet in Vietnam. If they do,I assume my is that they could come away from the meeting with a joint commitment to take on terrorism. This does not have to mean that Russia was complicit in rolling out the truck attack in Manhattan – but it could. It may be soon for this but I am rather sure that it’s time will come.
For more on Russia’s role in terrorism and the resort to political murder by the Putin regime, check out Amy Knight’s latest book Orders to Kill at https://us.macmillan.com/orderstokill/amyknight/9781250119346/