Manhattan Terror Attack: Vehicle or Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Picture of Noah Reiter By Noah Reiter


On October 31, 2017, a 29-year-old male drove a Home Depot pickup truck through a biking path along the Hudson River in New York City, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. The driver, whom police have now identified as Sayfullo Saipov, crashed into a school bus, left the vehicle shouting and holding a paintball and pellet gun, and was shot in by law enforcement. The suspect is alive in custody and in critical condition, and Tuesday evening, Mayor Bill De Blasio declared the incident a terrorist attack. The vehicular rampage on Tuesday is, sadly, not the first of its kind. The New York City attack is one of many acts of car-related violence that occurred not in the past year, but just this month.

Manhattan Terror Attack Emergency Response vehicle weapon

In the wake of this tragedy, law enforcement and public officials must ask the question - how could one foresee an everyday object being used as a killing machine? The answer is complicated. Federal Investigators found handwritten notes in Arabic near the vehicle that indicated the attack was motivated by the Islamic State, and it was revealed on Wednesday that Saipov was under investigation for an unrelated incident. However, at this time investigative authorities have not found evidence of direct ties to ISIS. According to the New York Times, counter-terrorism investigators are treating the incident as “a case of inspired attacker”. The fact that many of these incidents are perpetrated by lone wolf attackers make them, by nature, more difficult to anticipate.

In addition to the Manhattan terror attack, here is an incomplete list of the attacks that involved vehicles used as weapons:

  •  July 14, 2016: A man drove a large truck two kilometers along the main street in Nice, mowing down people who had gathered to watch fireworks and killing 80 people.
  • November 28, 2016: A man drove a truck into a campus building at Ohio State University, then stepped out of the van and attempted to stab nearby witnesses; 13 people were injured.
  • August 12, 2017: A 20-year-old man drove his car through a large crowd in Charlottesville, VA; one person was killed and more than 19 others were injured.
  • August 17, 2017: A van plowed through crowds of people on a busy street in Barcelona, killing 14 people and more than 100 others were injured.
  • August 23, 2017: A man drove his car through a group of protestors in St. Louis, MO; victims walked away with minor injuries.
  • October 7, 2017: A motorist plowed into a crowd of pedestrians in a busy London tourist area injuring 11 people.
  • October 26, 2017: A group of immigration policy demonstrators in Brea, California were struck by a man in his car; victims experienced minor injuries.
  • October 31, 2017: A 29-year-old male drove his truck onto a biking and walking path in Manhattan killing 8 people and injuring many others (the total number of people injured is still unknown).

Prevention Tactics

Federal and local agencies are somewhat limited in their ability to prevent a low-tech attack perpetrated by a lone terrorist, such as what occurred in Manhattan on Tuesday. When the target is a civilian setting like a city street, bike path or other publicly accessible location, it becomes even more difficult to prevent these situations.  However, at locations with controlled access, such as festivals, school campuses, and business facilities, attacks can be mitigated or prevented through the use of physical security measures such as vehicle barriers, walls, and boundaries between guests and outside attackers.

It is also critical that the public is able to take responsibility for their personal safety as well. For instance, there is power in eliminating distractions. While it may not always be possible to escape a violent attack, individuals need to be equipped to react quickly in situations such as the vehicular attack Tuesday. When the driver exited the vehicle near the Hudson River, citizens reportedly shouted out to warn others that the man was potentially armed and to get to safety. If people are able to remove hindering objects such as smart devices, headphones, written materials and be on high alert, pedestrians can help minimize the toll of these attacks.

The Manhattan terror attack on Tuesday were not the first time an assailant exited the vehicle and was armed in a public space. In November 2016, a terrorist at Ohio State University crashed a truck into a campus building, left the vehicle, and attempted to continue the attack armed with a knife. These are scenarios where communication technology can provide crucial information. By opting into the emergency notification system used by your local homeland security or campus police, emergency management, and law enforcement officials are able to help citizens and residents stay updated on any major incidents, threats, and developments requiring action.

Immediate Response Strategy

The best way for a city, county, university, or business organization to plan ahead for this type of incident is through effective communications. It is critical that safety professionals actively control the dissemination of immediate and follow-up information through multiple mass notification channels including email, phone, and social media to control any rumors and provide timely instructions and updates.

During the Manhattan terror attack multiple agencies, including the NYPD, paramedics, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, responded to the scene to neutralize the threat and render medical aid as quickly as possible. If the city prevents confusion and contradictory statements to the public and/or media, there must be an enhanced interoperable communication strategy in place, and there are systems available that allow for both better internal communication as well as enhanced on-scene incident awareness that are designed to assist in these areas.

The Manhattan terror attack that killed eight people occurred in the immediate proximity of several New York City schools. “We heard people screaming ‘gun’ ‘shooter’ and ‘run away’” Sirus Minovi, a 14-year old student who was near the attack, told the New York Times. “We thought it was a Halloween prank.” Luckily, Minovi and other students in the area were able to assess and understand the threat, but his story does demonstrate the need for effective communication.

The schools were put on lockdown following the truck attack and students were not sent home until the danger passed. While the nearby students prove a sobering reality about these attacks, the institutions’ rapid response and ability to protect young students highlight the importance of constant and proactive coordination between local schools, businesses, and public safety to ensure measures are put in place that will enable timely, information-rich communication and minimize further damage.

Empower & Educate Bystanders

Another area of consideration is to empower the bystanders already at the scene. Stop the Bleed is a national campaign that was launched by the White House in 2015.  On the campaign webpage, the awareness event is “intended to cultivate grassroots efforts that encourage bystanders to become trained, equipped, and empowered to help in a bleeding emergency before professional help arrives.” Meaning, with the appropriate training, witnesses to an attack can help keep victims alive before emergency responders arrive.

Take the Boston Marathon Bombing for example — while there were hundreds of people critically injured at the scene, there were also dozens of bystanders that ran toward the explosions to help and whose actions directly saved lives. The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas also demonstrated the compassion and heroic nature of others. Despite the risk or danger, bystanders were ready to help others to safety and apply pressure to wounds with severe bleeding.

The “See Something, Say Something” methodology can also be applied in this case, especially in controlled areas such as a college campus. For instance, a higher education community can empower its students and staff members to use their mobile devices as a tool to anonymously communicate the details of an incident and submit photos to campus police. 

Citizens rely on government and law enforcement organizations to protect them in the instance of an attack, even one involving premeditated vehicular destruction, as was the Manhattan terror attack on Tuesday.  While information is key in preventing these attacks, there are steps that law enforcement agencies, local governments, and even civilians can take to increase personal security and minimize the damage if such a situation should occur.

This story is developing and updates will be provided on the Manhattan terror attack emergency response efforts as more information becomes available. 


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Noah Reiter

Written by Noah Reiter

Noah Reiter, MPA, ENP is Vice President of Customer Success for Rave Mobile Safety, where he is responsible for ensuring customer engagement with Rave's solutions and, ultimately, their ability to impact emergency response, communications and safety through technology. He has previously served in various public sector and public safety roles, including Assistant City Manager for the City of Sandy Springs (GA), EMS Director for Grady Health System (Atlanta), and as the Director of EMS, Security, and Emergency Preparedness for Lenox Hill Hospital (NYC). Noah has been with Rave for over 6 years.


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