Halloween Attack in NYC: 4 Issues to Watch

November 2nd, 2017 by Christopher Ryan

Photo Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times


A terrorist killed 8 and injured at least 12 in New York City on Tuesday when he purposely drove a small truck into unsuspecting civilians on a bike path.  After driving 20 blocks, the driver crashed into a school bus and exited the vehicle with what appeared to be two firearms before being shot by a police officer. An initial review of information about the attack raises several issues on which homeland security and emergency management professionals should focus to derive potentially compelling insights and strengthen public safety.

Homegrown violent extremism. The alleged attacker arrived in the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reported on Wednesday morning that early “’evidence shows…that after he came to the United States is when he started to become informed about ISIS and radical Islamic tactics.’” Unlike recent attacks by domestically radicalized terrorists at San Bernardino and Orlando, Tuesday’s alleged perpetrator survived the attack and in now in police custody.  Homeland security and emergency management professionals should plan to carefully review reports about the interrogations to learn more about the personal contacts and/or material that helped radicalize the attacker. Understanding more about successful radicalization methods may help public safety personnel develop more effective countermeasures.

Physical security.  Like Tuesday’s attack, recent vehicular attacks in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain each exploited “soft targets” that lacked physical security measures to ensure that vehicles stayed on roads and away from bystanders.  Though installing vehicular barriers at all soft targets is not feasible, New York City (NYC) officials demonstrated a potentially useful best practice after the attack when they deployed trucks filled with sand to serve as protective barriers between traffic and participants in the city’s annual Halloween parade.  NYC used the same approach last year to protect the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in the aftermath of the vehicular attack in Nice that killed 80. Homeland security and emergency management professionals should consider emulating NYC by strategically deploying mobile barriers to protect planned events with large crowds of pedestrians from the threat of vehicular attack.

Keeping guns from terrorists. Reports indicate that the alleged shooter eventually exited the vehicle with what appeared to be guns in each hand, but the guns turned out to shoot only paintballs and pellets, not bullets. Other reports state that federal authorities interviewed the alleged attacker in 2015 about possible connections to terrorists. From a strategic perspective, the attacker’s decision to rely on recreational guns that lack the deadly force of a firearm is baffling, and may indicate that he was unable to obtain a firearm. Homeland security policymakers should stay tuned to determine whether the attacker’s failure to use a firearm relates to any existing gun control policies, which continue to be politically divisive.

School safety planning.  The attack took place right near Intermediate School 289 a few minutes after dismissing students for the day. The New York Times reports that the alleged attacker encountered students after he left the truck, and students fled back into the school building and followed staff’s instructions to hide.  Many schools have made great strides toward enhancing safety from armed attacks by developing plans and conducting drills in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings.  It is unclear, however, whether schools’ plans and policies would provide useful guidance if students that were already dismissed needed to return to the building to shelter-in-place.  School active shooter plans are likely to direct that, at a minimum, all entrances and exits are closed and locked when an active shooter is on school grounds, but following such directions in this case would have left students outside and a greater risk for being shot. School safety personnel should review their active shooter plans to develop clear policies and guidance for how to handle similar emergencies in the future.

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