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New York truck attack was predictable, just not preventable

Celia Imrey pauses after laying flowers at the edge of a Manhattan bike path where eight people were killed on Tuesday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

“Vehicles are like knives, as they are extremely easy to acquire,’’ advised Islamic State’s online magazine in an article published in November 2016.

A year later, a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant who authorities said used a Home Depot pickup truck to mow down cyclists and pedestrians, killing eight along the Hudson River Greenway — an 11-mile waterfront path for bicycles and pedestriansin Lower Manhattan. The only thing that couldn’t have been anticipated was where it would happen and when, but the attack itself was entirely predictable.

Just not preventable.

In fact, New York was girded for exactly this type of attack — called vehicular ramming in the parlance of counter-terrorism expertise. For the last two years, the New York City Police Department and FBI have been working closely with the industry to control the use of rental trucks in terror attacks.

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John Miller, deputy police commissioner for intelligence and counter-terrorism, said that police had visited 148 truck rental locations in the New York area — U-Haul, Ryder, and Home Depot, among them. They followed up with phone calls and emails after particularly lethal attacks last year in Nice, France, and at a Christmas market in Berlin.

“We went and did extensive outreach to the truck rental business,’’ Miller said at a briefing on Tuesday. “So the industry has a high level of awareness on this matter.’’

The trucking rental industry also published a brochure to advise rental agents on what signs might indicate malevolent intent. A high-level meeting at FBI headquarters is scheduled for Nov. 14.

However, Jake Jacoby, president of the Truck Renting and Leasing Assn., is pessimistic about the industry’s ability to stop attacks.

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“If somebody has a valid driver’s license and they’re not on any kind of watch list, it is very, very difficult to prevent them from renting a vehicle and conducting a lone wolf attack,’’ Jacoby said.

The Transportation Security Administration in May released a report that described 17 vehicle ramming attacks since 2014 that killed 173 people and injured 667 others. That report did not include deadly attacks later in the year in London and Barcelona, Spain.

New York City is also considering adding bollards — sturdy vertical posts that block vehicles — to vulnerable locations. A bollard cut short the trajectory of a mentally ill driver who plowed into tourists at Times Square in May.

Terrorists have often picked holidays to strike, such as the attack in Nice which took place on Bastille Day, July 14th, 2016, and left 86 people dead. Counter-terrorism specialists have speculated that the original target of Tuesday’s attack was the Halloween parade, which takes place annually in Greenwich Village, less than a mile away.

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The online Islamic State magazine, Rumiyah Magazine, had suggested an attack on another New York institution, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

“Using a vehicle is one of the most comprehensive methods of attack,’’ the magazine wrote. “It is one of the safest and easiest one could employ against the kufar (non-Muslim) while being from amongst the most lethal methods of attack and the most successful in harvesting large numbers of the kufar.’’

“ISIS has gotten it down to a simple formula that they can put on the internet and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to rent a car, rent a truck,’’ New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told CNN on Wednesday.

Truck rental agencies have been trained to reject customers who do not present a valid driver’s license or credit card or who make suspicious inquiries about the weight of the truck, according to Jacoby.

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They are discouraged from turning customers away because of race or ethnicity. A large number of professional drivers and taxi drivers in New York City are immigrants from Muslim-majority nations.

“I don’t think our members would ever turn people away because they are Muslim,’’ Jacoby said.

Sayfullo Saipov, the 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant suspected in Tuesday’s attack, was an experienced truck driver who had registered to start several trucking businesses after arriving in the United States in 2010. He had been most recently driving an Uber.

Public records show that he had several citations for motor vehicle violations, but nothing uncommon in the trucking industry that would raise a red flag as to his intentions.

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According to Cuomo, the New York State Police once helped Saipov get his truck out of a ditch.

Times staff writer Nina Agrawal contributed to this report from New York.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick

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