NY attack part of ISIS' leaderless jihad

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By relying on lone wolf attacks, the terror group can project a greater reach

On Tuesday, a driver rammed a pickup truck through a crowded bike path in New York City, killing eight people and injuring 12 before he was shot by police.

New York police identified the assailant as Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant, who left a handwritten note in the truck that pledged his allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

American security officials did not immediately find evidence that directly tied Saipov to ISIS. So far, US officials consider him a lone wolf attacker who was inspired by the militant group but not directed by its leaders or operatives.

US officials say Saipov appears to have followed instructions distributed by ISIS in one of its magazines, Rumiyah, which in November last year called on sympathisers to carry out truck attacks against Western targets. It also urged followers to leave behind notes declaring support for the group.

With the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the last urban centres under ISIS' control in Iraq and Syria, the group has now lost most of the territory it once dominated.

But it poses a new threat: as a militant organisation that can still exploit social media and recruit sympathisers around the world to kill in its name. ISIS will now invest more of its resources in a "leaderless jihad" that does not need a physical state.

The latest wave of attacks fits into appeals by ISIS' leaders for supporters to carry out self-directed assaults that use any means necessary - including trucks, cars, knives and axes - to kill civilians.

These lone wolf attacks are the result of an organised, decade-old movement within Islamist jihadism to decentralise attacks. This trend predated the emergence of ISIS and it can be traced back to Al-Qaeda after the Sept 11 attacks in the US.

Some of Al-Qaeda's leaders were worried that the US-led war after Sept 11 would hamper their ability to carry out centrally planned attacks, so they sought ways for sympathisers to act on their own.

ISIS expanded that strategy far beyond Al-Qaeda's original conception. In relying on lone wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalised and have only a tangential understanding of jihadist ideology, ISIS is able to project a greater reach than it actually has.

In March, a driver mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, killing five people before being shot by security forces as he tried to break into Parliament.

In May, a suicide bomber killed 22 in an attack on a concert arena in Manchester.

The threat extends beyond the West and the Middle East. ISIS fighters from South-east Asia - including some who recently battled Philippine security forces in Marawi - are returning home, especially to Malaysia and Indonesia.

These militants would pose a threat because of their battlefield experience, guerilla warfare training and networks they established while fighting in Iraq and Syria.

To combat this more complex range of threats posed by ISIS and its sympathisers, governments throughout the world will need to do more than simply continue military strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.

It will also mean greater vigilance in monitoring clandestine networks set up by ISIS operatives and adjusting to a new enemy who is constantly adapting its methods. - REUTERS

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.