Confirmation the suspect in the New York City terror attack came to the United States from Uzbekistan is reigniting concerns about the ability of terrorist groups to weaponize immigrants and refugees after they cross into the West.
U.S. and European counterterror officials caution there is no “straight line” from immigrant or refugee to terrorist, but they worry groups like Islamic State (IS) have been growing ever more adept at manipulating some of the more vulnerable members of those populations.
So far, the case of 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, who came to the U.S. in 2010 and was a permanent, legal resident, appears to be following that narrative.
“He was radicalized domestically,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN Tuesday.
“It’s not the first time,” Cuomo said, adding, “It’s a global phenomenon now.”
And while court records show Saipov had some traffic violations, until now he had done little to get the attention of law enforcement officials.
“Saipov has never been the subject of an NYPD intelligence bureau investigation, nor has he been the subject of an FBI investigation,” said John Miller, New York deputy police commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism.
Still, investigators believe Saipov came into contact with potentially dangerous people.
“It appears he will have some connectivity to individuals who were the subjects of investigations, though he himself was not,” Miller said.
Officials say once that happened, it would not necessarily have taken long for Saipov to have become radicalized.
U.S. and European counterterror officials say recruiters, both online and in-person, have become so adept that they can sometimes turn potential recruits in a matter of days.
“The process is very individualized,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA. “There’s not necessarily one key.”
And while increasingly the so-called “flash-to-bang” ratio, the amount of time between when a terrorist decides to attack and then acts, has grown shorter, officials say waiting weeks to launch an attack, as Saipov apparently did, would not be unusual.
The Islamic State terror group has been especially opportunistic, using a combination of online expertise and a well-honed personal touch to seemingly “strike at will,” according to some counterterrorism officials.
Investigators believe, at the very least, the group managed to inspire Saipov.
“He did this is the name of ISIS,” NYPD’s Miller said, using an acronym for the terror group, and citing a note handwritten in Arabic.
“The gist of the note was the Islamic State would endure forever,” Miller said.
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Experts say the importance of that message cannot be overlooked.
“It’s a key kind of catchphrase used by the organization in multiple regards,” Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said.
“You’ve seen it especially more as their territory crumbles in Syria and Iraq,” Clifford said. “This idea that they will stay and remain or endure in this instance is a common kind of theme of ISIS propaganda as well as the message that’s shared by their supporters worldwide.”
Tuesday’s attack also closely follows the IS playbook for vehicular attacks as laid out in its online magazine, Rumiyah, and other social media outlets, officials say.
Still, there are reasons to question whether Saipov was weaponized by IS operatives, or whether the group’s online propaganda simply helped him along.
“The level of sophistication of the attack suggests an independent actor or a networked actor rather than one directed by an external operations coordinator in IS-controlled territory,” Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI), said.
Nor has Islamic State issued any formal claim of responsibility, though officials and analysts say that is not unusual in cases in which the attacker survives.
In the meantime, though, Islamic State supporters have played up the attack on the group’s key social media sites, producing posters and other unofficial propaganda.
And there are concerns the surge in propaganda may make it easier the next time Islamic State tries to get a follower or potential follower to take action.
“These celebrations also show Islamic State supporters who may be thinking about executing attacks that their efforts are appreciated by the group, even if it does not issue an official claim for their attacks,” said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst who specializes in the influence operations of IS and al-Qaida.