By Nauman Sadiq
Eight people have been killed and more than a dozen injured after a truck mowed down people on a bike path in Lower Manhattan. FBI is treating the incident as an act of terrorism and the driver of the vehicle has been shot by the NYPD and taken into custody alive.
The suspect has been identified as a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, which is a Russian variant of the Arabic name Saifullah Saif meaning the sword of Allah. It’s worth noting that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in mid-2015, is one of the most fearsome affiliate of the Islamic State in the Central Asia region because its recruits have been motivated to fight to death.
What lends credence to the theory that the atrocity has been perpetrated by the Islamic State’s recruit is the fact that handwritten notes pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and the terror group’s flag have reportedly been found near the vehicle. Moreover, when the driver of the truck exited the vehicle, apart from shouting Allahu Akbar, he was also brandishing imitation firearms.
Thus, this truck-ramming incident bears all the trademarks of the Islamic State-inspired terror attacks as is evident from the recent spate of shootings, bombings and vehicle-ramming attacks in Europe during the last couple of years. It bears mentioning that via its Amaq news agency, Islamic State has directed its followers to always shout the battle cry of Allahu Akbar to let their affiliation with the Islamic State be known and has also instructed its recruits to wear fake suicide vests and brandish imitation firearms so that they are not captured alive.
In order to understand the motive for the atrocity, we must bear the context in mind: the Islamic State has recently been routed from its de facto capital Raqqa in Syria which it had occupied since 2013. The so-called “Islamic caliphate” that once spanned one-third of Syria and Iraq has been reduced to a few small pockets in both these countries, and it is only a matter of time before the jihadist group is completely routed. Therefore, it is only natural for the Islamic State to use all means available at its disposal to seek revenge for its battlefield defeats at the hands of the US.
More to the point, we should also bear the background of the Western foreign policy in the Middle East during the recent years in mind. The six-year-long conflict in Syria that gave birth to scores of militant groups, including the Islamic State, and after the conflict spilled over across the border into neighboring Iraq in early 2014 has directly been responsible for the recent spate of Islamic State-inspired terror attacks against the West.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to June 2014 when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, an informal pact existed between the Western powers, their regional allies and Sunni militants of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis. In accordance with the pact, Sunni militants were trained and armed in the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan to battle the Shi’a-led Syrian government.
This arrangement of an informal pact between the Western powers and the Sunni jihadists of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis worked well up to August 2014, when the Obama Administration made a volte-face on its previous regime change policy in Syria and began conducting air strikes against one group of Sunni militants battling the Syrian government, the Islamic State, after the latter overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq from where the US had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
After this reversal of policy in Syria by the Western powers and the subsequent Russian military intervention on the side of the Syrian government in September 2015, the momentum of Sunni militants’ expansion in Syria and Iraq has stalled, and they now feel that their Western patrons have committed a treachery against the Sunni jihadists’ cause, that’s why they are infuriated and once again up in arms to exact revenge for this betrayal.
If we look at the chain of events, the timing of the recent spate of terror attacks against the West has been critical: the Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014, the Obama Administration began conducting air strikes against the Islamic State’s targets in Iraq and Syria in August 2014, and after a lull of almost a decade since the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the first such incident of terrorism took place on the Western soil at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and then the Islamic State carried out the audacious November 2015 Paris attacks, the March 2016 Brussels bombings, the June 2016 truck-ramming incident in Nice, and this year, three horrific terror attacks have taken place in the United Kingdom within a span of less than three months, and after that the Islamic State carried out the Barcelona attack in August and now another truck-ramming atrocity has taken place in Lower Manhattan that has all the trademarks of the Islamic State.
Regarding the argument that how Washington’s foreign policy of lending indiscriminate support to Sunni militants against the Shi’a-led government in Syria has been responsible for the recent wave of terror attacks against the West, remember that Saudi Arabia which has been vying for power as the leader of Sunni bloc against the Shi’a-led Iran in the regional geopolitics was staunchly against the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2003.
The Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein constituted a Sunni bulwark against Iran’s meddling in the Arab World. But after Saddam was ousted from power in 2003 and subsequently when elections were held in Iraq which were swept by the Shi’a-dominated parties, Iraq has now been led by a Shi’a-majority government that has become a steadfast regional ally of Iran. Consequently, Iran’s sphere of influence now extends all the way from territorially-contiguous Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the northern border of Israel.
Saudi royal family was resentful of Iranian encroachment on traditional Arab heartland. Therefore, when protests broke out against the Assad regime in Syria in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Gulf Arab States along with their regional Sunni allies, Turkey and Jordan, and the Western patrons gradually militarized the protests to dismantle the Shi’a Iranian axis comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Finally, although the Sunni states of the Middle East and their jihadist proxies still toe Washington’s line in the region publicly, but behind the scenes, there is bitter resentment that the US has betrayed the Sunni cause by making an about-face on the previous regime change policy in Syria and the subsequent declaration of war against the Islamic State.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.