NEW YORK – In a city rocked by the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11, the police with the promise of an unprecedented security effort to try to get a soft target, distributed over five municipalities and 26.2 miles: the New York City Marathon.
City officials have sought to calm the nerves of more than 50,000 runners and the huge crowds of spectators expected to line the marathon route to penetrate it should go off on Sunday without a hitch just a few days after a truck attack killed eight people in lower Manhattan.
The security detail will be hundreds of extra uniformed patrol and plainclothes officers, roving teams of counter-terrorism commandos armed with heavy weapons, bomb-sniffing dogs and snipers on the roof, ready to shoot if a threat arises.
The Police is also turning to a tactic it has used for the protection of the Trump Tower and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: 16-ton sanitation trucks filled with sand. The trucks, along with “blocker cars” posted on the major intersections to try and prevent someone from driving on the course.
Marathoners from around the world that are streaming into the city, in anticipation of the race expressed mixed feelings about running so soon after the massacre.
“I can be really scared of when I am home and in front of the TV,” Annemerel de Jongh, 28, den Haag, the Netherlands, said Thursday as she picked up her bib number on a Manhattan convention center. “But if I am, I feel maybe a little invincible, like nothing can happen to me. I may be out of the way.”
The New York Police Department said that it was not information pointing to a credible threat against the race.
There is no question, however, that in the course provides a security challenge, even for a police department of 35,000 officers.
The start of the race in a relatively safe location. The runners will gather on Staten Island, Fort Wadsworth, a former military installation now partially occupied by the U. S. Coast Guard.
From there, though, the race heads through residential areas with hundreds of spots where an attacker could send a vehicle on the thick packed course. Streets on the course are closed, but many of them, in most years, the only barrier is a blue, wooden table and a thin plastic tape.
The crowd is large, runners start in waves, which means that some people still standing in the first line, while the competitors in the wheelchair division cross the finish line.
“It will be a special event, as it always is,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week during a press conference. “It will be well protected, as it always is.”
The attack Tuesday on a bike path miles of the marathon route, was a grim reminder of how the Islamic State group is using its propaganda to encourage radicalized “lone wolves” to cause damage with simple means, in an easily accessible settings.
The attack by an alleged Islamic State group supporter “seems to have followed almost exactly to a T, the instructions ISIS has in the social media channels,” said the NYPD’s top counterterrorism official, John Miller.
An online Islamic State group magazine posted last year acclaimed by trucks to killing of innocent victims, saying: “Vehicles like knives, they are very easy to acquire.” It is also advised “identification of the route for obstacles, such as poles, signs, barriers, speed bumps, bus stops, dumpsters, etc. that is important for the pavement-mounted attacks.”
Researchers say there is evidence the suspect, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, was doing exploration for the control of a Home Depot rental truck by means of an unobstructed access to a bike path in lower Manhattan and mowing down cyclists and pedestrians. A police officer shot and injured Saipov before he was arrested and was charged with support of terrorism, and other federal counts.
The shift of advanced large-scale attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, smaller on soft targets has forced law enforcement to become more adept in preventing and responding to terrorism, said Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham Law School Center on National Security.
“I don’t think people should be worried,” Greenberg said. “The police know what they are doing. Look at how few successful attacks there have been.”
Security modifications made by the organizers of the New York City Marathon after the bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013 — such as the ban on backpacks and costumes — remain in place, said Chris Weiller, spokesman for New York Road Runners. Despite widespread news reports and photos of the trail of the bodies by the truck attack, the cancellation rate has remained about the same, ” he said.
Boston Marathon organizers, working with local, state, and federal law enforcement, also significantly improved safety along the trail after 2013 attack, including more officers deployed on the race day, a no-fly zone on the course and drones to help with surveillance.
The New York Marathon participant Kris Ledegen, 49, of Meldert, Belgium, said he never considered skipping the race. One of the women killed in Tuesday’s attack was from Belgium. The country was also the scene of an attempt to make the car fall this year in Antwerp.
“It happened here, and it happened also in Belgium,” Ledegen said. “So it can happen anywhere.”
Associated Press writer Rebecca Gibian contributed to this report.