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Those Strange, Quickly-Emerging False Non-Terrorism Explanations

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

Those Strange, Quickly-Emerging False Non-Terrorism Explanations

A rarely-discussed aspect of post-9/11 terror attacks is that shortly after the first reports of casualties, a non-terrorism-related explanation tends to surface within a very short time. You probably recall the San Bernardino attack initially being described as “workplace violence.” The “underwear bomber” in 2009 was initially reported as someone attempting to set off firecrackers on a plane. There are still those who contend that the primary motive in the Orlando shooting was gay self-hatred on the part of the shooter, and not his pledge of loyalty to ISIS.

Yesterday afternoon, we received word of a truck running people down on a bike path – in a manner similar to other truck attacks committed by jihadists in Europe – and an assailant allegedly having a gun. The site of this attack was not far from Ground Zero in Manhattan. The bike path runs parallel to the West Side Highway but is separated by a low median with intermittent trees – making it difficult, but not quite impossible, for a truck to accidentally veer onto the bike path.

And yet… not too long after the initial reports, a Twitter account called “New York City Alerts,” describing itself as “a team of reporters tweeting NYC news and photos as it happens. We’re not official” started putting out new information that turned out to be… not accurate at all:

BREAKING UPDATE: NYPD official confirms, the incident in downtown Manhattan is NOT terror related.

— New York City Alerts (@NYCityAlerts) October 31, 2017

Per PD sources, a fight between two truck drivers lead to one truck hitting multiple pedestrians, and one truck driver opened fired

— New York City Alerts (@NYCityAlerts) October 31, 2017

This may be a little-known Twitter account, but in a moment of crisis, people hunger for explanation and don’t care if the source is familiar or new. Those two nuggets of inaccurate data were re-tweeted between more than 600 times Tuesday afternoon. More than a few folks on Twitter cited this report as a sign that anyone characterizing the event as terrorism was panicking and overreacting.

Of course, within a few hours, the authorities announced that this was exactly what it looked like, an Islamist terrorist, inspired by ISIS and imitating the style of attacks in European cities using trucks.

The rampage ended when the motorist — whom the police identified as Sayfullo Saipov, 29 — smashed into a school bus, jumped out of his truck and ran up and down the highway waving a pellet gun and paintball gun and shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before he was shot in the abdomen by the officer. He remained in critical condition on Tuesday evening.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the rampage a terrorist attack and federal law enforcement authorities were leading the investigation. Investigators discovered handwritten notes in Arabic near the truck that indicated allegiance to the Islamic State, two law enforcement officials said. But investigators had not uncovered evidence of any direct or enabling ties between Mr. Saipov and ISIS and were treating the episode as a case of an “inspired” attacker, two counterterrorism officials said.

Yes, immediately after a dramatic, violent event like this, eyewitnesses will give conflicting reports. Yes, there’s often confusion and contradictory information in those first reports.

But do these “PD” (police department?) sources even exist? If so, where did this idea of two truck drivers fighting come from? Who was this New York Police Department official who so quickly declared the “incident” was not terror-related? (Was this a misinterpretation of a comment that there was no preexisting intelligence or information indicating that a terror attack was imminent?)

Perhaps those erroneous initial reports are genuine errors and confusion about a breaking news story. But… perhaps not.

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