The terrorist suspect who allegedly used a rented truck to kill eight people and injure 12 in the Manhattan attack had been planning the incident for weeks and followed Islamic State guidelines “to a T”, New York police said on Wednesday.
As the twisted and gnarled truck that was used to plough down unsuspecting tourists and cyclists remained on the spot where it had come to a halt on Tuesday afternoon, FBI and NYPD officers fanned out across the city and through neighboring New Jersey. They were armed with search warrants relating to Sayfullo Saipov, the 29-year-old Uzbekistan-born suspect who was shot in the stomach and who is still under guard in stable condition at the city’s Bellevue hospital.
At a press conference on Wednesday, police and city authorities revealed vivid details of items that were found at the scene of the worst terrorist incident that New York has suffered since 9/11. Inside the truck, notes were found handwritten in Arabic proclaiming that “Islamic State would endure for ever”. A number of knives were scattered around the vehicle, as were two dummy guns.
Police said the aim now was to “peel back” Saipov’s communications to reconstruct his every move, day by day. They would be interviewing relatives and friends, collecting footage from security cameras along the route of the attack, scouring Saipov’s family home where he was living with his wife and three children in Paterson, New Jersey, as well as searching the rented Home Depot truck and his own white van left at the rental location.
Social media sites linked to the suspect showed signs of Isis material, police said. One officer bluntly stated that the suspect had followed the terrorist group’s instructions “almost to a T”.
Pictures of the suspect captured at the crime scene showed him to be a slight man with a bushy beard, dressed in a blue and red tracksuit. Eye witnesses reported that as he stumbled out of the Home Depot truck, wielding objects that turned out to be a pellet gun and a paintball gun, he exclaimed “Allahu akbar” (God is great).
The scale of the attack became clear on Wednesday, with the crime-scene tape acting as a guide to the journey taken by the assailant. The yellow band stretches cruelly on for about a mile, past 18 complete blocks of New York real estate in the Tribeca district, following the water-fronted West Side bike lane that in normal times is cherished by New Yorkers as a place to run, relax and enjoy the river.
At dawn on Wednesday, the usually hectic West Side Highway was stripped of traffic and strangely silent, save for the relentless thrum of a police helicopter overhead. Mangled frames of two bicycles were still visible along the lane, and at Vestry Street FBI agents dressed in white forensic science suits were huddled around an undefined artifact.
The attacker turned into the bike lane at about 3.04pm on Tuesday at West Houston Street, opposite Pier 40 where schoolchildren were playing soccer on pitches suspended above piles over the Hudson river. Then he picked up speed as he careened his four-wheeled weapon – stamped with the slogan: “Rent me starting at $19” – towards the crowd.
He hurtled past the Tribeca dog run and the kids’ playground at Pier 25, speeding between trees whose leaves have turned an autumnal brown. Along the way south, he struck from behind – the ultimate act of cowardice, the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, called it – mowing down unsuspecting cyclists and pedestrians who were out enjoying the sunny afternoon.
He hit three people early on in his death ride, followed by a six-block gap before he took down a further three, and then another gap before he struck his last two victims.
Finally, the truck rammed into a school bus and swerved to a stop on Chambers Street, just four blocks shy of Ground Zero, under the shadow of 1 World Trade Center and the previous terrorist carnage of 16 years ago.
He was stopped by NYPD officer Ryan Nash, 28, who fired nine rounds and hit him in the stomach. He had rented the vehicle at 2.06pm, crossed the bridge into New York City 37 minutes later and by 3.08pm had killed eight and injured 12 people. Nine remain in the hospital, four of them in critical condition, with injuries ranging from head, chest, back and neck, to one patient who needed a double amputation.
Hours later the truck remained where it came to a halt, surrounded by a heavy police presence, its doors with their Home Depot logo ajar and the front of the vehicle twisted and gnarled in a grotesque reminder of the pain he had inflicted.
After the initial shock of the attack had passed, details of the victims began to emerge. Six died at the scene, two more in the the hospital.
Five of the eight had come from Buenos Aires as part of a 30-year school reunion, their nostalgic celebration of friendship torn asunder by hatred. The Argentinian government named them as Hernán Mendoza, Diego Angelini, Alejandro Pagnucco, Ariel Erlij and Hernán Ferruchi.
Of the remaining three victims, one was Belgian and two American. The father of one of the Americans, 32-year-old Darren Drake, who grew up in new Milford, New Jersey, said his son was one of the dead, and had been out for a bike ride between meetings when the truck hit him.
After the Twin Towers attacks on 11 September 2001, the US responded with a display of national unity that resonated around the world. In November 2017, the response was just as instant and striking, but this time where there had been concord there was only division.
George Bush stood amid the rubble after 9/11 and declared through a bullhorn “I can hear you!”. Donald Trump by contrast leapt to his Twitter feed to turn the attack into a partisan tirade against the Democratic party.
The current US president accused the lead Democrat in the Senate of facilitating the entry of the attacker into the country by supporting a 1990s scheme for immigrants known as the “diversity visa lottery”.
“A Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump snarled.
“I guess it’s not too soon to politicise a tragedy,” a mournful Schumer responded.
Trump returned to the theme later on Wednesday, making a televised statement at the start a cabinet meeting in which he vowed to clamp down on immigration and punish the “animals” committing terrorism. “Diversity lottery,” he said. “Sounds nice. It’s not nice. Not good. We are against it.”
Asked if Saipov should be held as an “enemy combatant” and taken to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Trump replied: “I would certainly consider that, yes. Send him to Gitmo. I would certainly consider that, yes.”
However, Saipov would be entitled, under the sixth amendment, to the same protections as any American or permanent resident to a trial by an impartial jury of the state and district were the alleged crime was committed.
Despite the barbs emanating from the White House, the striking aspect of the New York attack, and the city’s response to it, was how measured and reflective it was. While the president called for more “extreme vetting” and used the occasion to rail against “political correctness”, New Yorkers took in the news of the tragedy, then went about their daily lives.
That spirit was evident on Tuesday night, just hours after the mayhem, when more than a million New Yorkers threw fear and caution to the winds and turned out for the annual Halloween parade. “I’m not going to let terrorists stop my life,” one reveler, dressed as the fish in Finding Nemo, told the Guardian.
By Wednesday morning, joggers were back out on the streets, improvising their run along parallel routes to the bike lane that remained closed. New Yorkers were back at work, negotiating routes to their offices past police cordons.
Schoolkids, too, were back in their classrooms, even at Stuyvesant high school, which is located just feet away from where the killer’s truck came to a grinding stop. Their homework had been cancelled overnight – no small matter in a school famous for its academic stringency – and crisis counsellors were available throughout the day.
But in all other respects it was business as usual. “We stand strong as New Yorkers,” the school leadership said.