Would Extremer Vetting Have Stopped This Week's Attack in Manhattan?

It is hard to see how anyone could have predicted Sayfullo Saipov's seven-year journey from eager immigrant to Islamic terrorist.


St. Charles County Department of Corrections

In response to this week's terrorist attack in New York City, Donald Trump promised that "the United States will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures," because "the safety of our citizens comes first!" But the more we learn about Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek immigrant accused of running down pedestrians and bicyclists with a pickup truck in Manhattan on Tuesday, the harder it is to see how extreme vetting, extremer vetting, or even extremest vetting could have stopped him.

Last night ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and Saipov has said the group inspired him. But so far there is no evidence that he was directly recruited or instructed by ISIS, contacts that might have offered an opportunity to catch him before he carried out his plan. More to the point, when Saipov immigrated to the United States in 2010, there was no reason to think he would one day murder eight innocent people in the name of Islam.

The New York Times, citing the Uzbek government, reports that Saipov "grew up in a well-off family who practiced traditional Islam and never embraced extremism." The government said he never did anything that raised his neighbors' suspicions and never had trouble with the police. When he entered the United States after winning a diversity-lottery visa, Saipov, who had worked as an accountant at a hotel in Tashkent, hoped to get a job in the hospitality industry, despite his limited English skills. Instead he ended up working as a truck driver, moved around a lot, and became increasingly embittered, alienated, and angry over the years.

Although he was not very observant to begin with and did not know much about his religion (according to a local imam), he was drawn to Islamic extremism. In particular, Saipov cited a video in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asked what Muslims in the United States were doing in response to the killing of their coreligionists in Iraq. Investigators found several other ISIS videos on Saipov's phone, and he made an effort to closely follow the group's published guidelines for terrorist attacks.

Contrary to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' claim that recipients of diversity visas come to this country with "no screening," Saipov would have been interviewed and undergone background checks before entering the United States. One can always argue that screening should be more thorough, but it is hard to imagine what procedure or criterion could have identified Saipov as a future terrorist seven years before the fact. How could anyone have predicted the path he would follow between then and now, which was contingent not only on his personality but on his post-immigration experience? For all we know, Saipov never would have turned violent if he had landed the sort of job he wanted or if the trucking businesses he started had been more successful.

I do not know what Trump means by "much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures." I am not sure he knows. But unless those procedures involve psychics or time travel, they cannot rule out the possibility that seemingly moderate and eager immigrants will become radicalized years after arriving in the United States.