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‘The ISIS playbook’: Death penalty trial over NYC truck rampage put to jury

Over five years after their client plowed a truck through a busy Manhattan bike path, defense attorneys quibble with the claim that Sayfullo Saipov did so explicitly to earn membership in the Islamic State terrorist group.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Prosecutors delivered closing arguments on Tuesday in the death penalty trial of the Uzbek immigrant who plowed a rented pickup truck into cyclists and pedestrians as New York City prepared to celebrate Halloween 2017.

If jurors find Sayfullo Saipov guilty in this first phase of the trial, then the same jury convene for a second punishment phase in which they will consider whether to impose a sentence of life in prison or execution on the 31-year-old. A death sentence requires unanimity, otherwise the sentence is life in prison. The long-awaited capital trial, which is the first of the Biden administration, entered week three on Monday.

Southern District of New York prosecutors say Saipov believed he was directed to carry out the deadly truck attack on American soil by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State group who was killed in a U.S. Special Forces strike in 2019.

“He listened when he was told how to commit an attack, when to commit an attack and where to commit attack. And to ‘run them over without mercy,’” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason A. Richman argued for the prosecution Tuesday morning. “This wasn’t nuanced. This was the defendant following orders from above. ... The leader of ISIS told him to commit an attack and he did.”

Throughout his summation, Richman repeatedly turned to a phrase from extremist Muslim terrorist propaganda that was shown at trial, featuring the image of a bloody tire, with the caption instructing: “Run over them without mercy.”

Richman said the timing, location and method of Saipov's October 31, 2017, attack followed the “ISIS playbook."

“He rented a truck, he ran over his victims, and he did it without mercy," the prosecutor underlined.

“How the defendant carried out his attack also tells you why he did it: to become a member of ISIS.

“He decided to use a truck because it was bigger and stronger — because it would kill more people. He needed to kill as many people as possible. He needed to do exactly what ISIS instructed. He didn’t come up with this on his own.”

The prosecution has noted that Saipov was carrying hand-drawn emblems and slogans of the Islamic State group as he sped the Home Depot pickup truck down the West Side bike path.

Saipov was arrested at the scene and then, as Richman noted, sought to hang the ISIS flag in his hospital room — a move that the prosecutor said belies the defense’s claim that Saipov did not explicitly commit the murders to become a member of the Islamic State group.

The wreckage of a rented Home Depot pickup truck is seen on Chambers Street at the scene of a fatal terrorist attack on Oct. 31, 2017. Sayfullo Saipov plowed the truck through pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path on the West side of lower Manhattan. (Department of Justice via Courthouse News Service)

ISIS eventually claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement that recognized Saipov as a “caliphate soldier.” Richman told jurors: “It’s not an accident the defendant called himself this phrase.”

At trial, prosecutors played for the jury a recorded call from prison in which Saipov described himself as a “soldier of the caliphate.”

“I am Allah’s warrior," Saipov had said, according to a translation of what he describes as a poem to his Uzbek family members. "I am the soldier of the caliphate.”

Jurors were shown ISIS propaganda images found in a group chat on Saipov’s phones. Prosecutors say the chat called “Dar al-Khilafa,” or “house of the caliphate,” was hosted on an encrypted messaging platform, and that it included ISIS members from the Islamic State group’s territory in Iraq and Syria.

‘This isn’t a religious discussion group online," Richman said. "This is House of the Caliphate on Telegram, the house of ISIS."

Saipov’s federal defenders do not dispute that their client was behind the wheel of the truck attack that killed eight people and injured many more. They argue, however, that the violent rampage was intented as religious martyrdom, not a bid to join ISIS.

The specific murder in aid of racketing counts allege that Saipov committed the attack “for the purpose of gaining entrance to ISIS." Saipov’s federal defender David Patton urged jurors on Tuesday to find Saipov not guilty on that point.

Patton insisted that Saipov was compelled to carry out the deadly rampage by a “religious obligation to commit a martyrdom attack” and “clearly expected” to die by police shooting.

“If you commit an attack, and you’re planning to die, you’re not planning on joining an organization," he said. "You’re not planning on becoming a member of any organization.”

Saipov immigrated to the United States in 2010 and had previously worked as a long-haul trucker in Ohio and Florida. At the time of the attack, Saipov was living in Paterson, New Jersey, and driving for Uber.

One year before Saipov's terrorist attack in New York, a different truck attacker killed 84 people at a Bastille Day fireworks celebration in Nice, France. The Nice attacker was shot dead at the scene by French police. The defense say this was the inspiration for their client.

Delivering his closing argument, Patton said the examination ISIS propaganda found on Saipov’s phone backs up the rationale that his attack was “affirmatively not about joining an organization — it’s about a religious obligation.”

Patton urged jurors to review a speech by Al-Baghdadi, the late ISIS leader, from the month before the New York attack.

“His messaging is not at all about joining ISIS,” Saipov’s lawyer said of the Al-Baghdadi’s directive, calling it “steeped” in religious justifications for martyrdom attacks, which the cleric says must “only done for Allah.”

Patton spent part of his summation disputing the government's repeated depiction of Saipov as a “solider of the caliphate.”

The phrase does not mean member, he said. “The Islamic State group has a term for members, and it is not “soldier of caliphate,” the attorney argued.

“This is not like the mafia where you carry out a hit to become a made man,” Patton said of the specific murder in aid of racketing charges, often deployed in gangland investigations. “That is clearly conduct that would be covered by this statute. These conduct are not.”

Jurors will begin deliberations Wednesday morning.

Saipov’s defense lawyers had asked the government to take capital punishment off the table, but prosecutors confirmed in a September 2022 letter that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland "decided to continue to seek the death penalty." The decision is at odds with Garland’s reinstatement one year earlier of a moratorium on federal executions — a policy nearly identical to one put in place by former President Barack Obama but lifted by former President Donald Trump, who carried out 13 federal executions in six months, the most that the country has seen in 120 years.

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