The suspected Chelsea bomber is now in custody. But after a bloody weekend, fears remain that a new wave of low-grade terror has begun in the United States.
A 28-year-old man originally from Afghanistan, Ahmad Khan Rahami, has been arrested in Linden, New Jersey, in connection with the bombing in New York City on Saturday night that wounded 29 people. There reportedly was a brief shootout in which two police were wounded and Rahami was injured in the shoulder. Video from the scene shows the wounded suspect as he was being loaded into an ambulance, a stocky figure with a heavier beard than appears in the “wanted” poster photograph distributed by the FBI.
Earlier, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, talking to CNN, said Rahami should be regarded as “armed and dangerous.”
“Things are moving very quickly,” De Blasio said, but he would not confirm that Rahami was part of an operating cell or that it had connections with jihadists overseas, whether al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, or another organization. Investigations continue to determine whether Raham was part of a more extended cell or organization in the United States. It was not clear whether he had constructed the crude explosive devices found in New York and New Jersey, or whether other bomb makers connected to the attacks remain at large.
What to make of all this?
“Terrorists are now doing what we had long expected them to do and wondered why they didn’t do,” former acting CIA director John McLaughlin told an audience in New York last week. “They are going for soft targets.”
He was talking about attacks in Europe.
This week, he could say the same thing — exactly the same thing — about the United States.
It appears all but certain to counterterrorist officials in Europe and the United States that the long-anticipated jihadist strategy of random terror carried out with such devastating social and political consequences in France and Germany over the last year has now begun in America.
The implications in this deeply troubled election year, right as the United Nations General Assembly is convening in New York City, are enormous.
Mass killings like the slaughter on the beach front in Nice, France, in July, or the murderous shooting spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June, may remain fairly rare, but they will take place against a background of more or less constant small-scale attacks.
Authorities were careful on Sunday to say the New Jersey and New York City attacks might have nothing to do with “international terrorism,” or even with each other. By Monday, investigators were focused on the possibility that Raham might be part of a terrorist cell with several other members based, most likely, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the Raham family has a business called, as it happens, First American Fried Chicken. If these leads continue to develop, it may turn out Rahami or the cell are connected to jihadist groups other than ISIS. Possibilities would include al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, whose agent, Faisal Shahzad, tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010.
On the other hand, we know for certain that the would-be killer wielding a knife at a mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on Saturday—a less publicized incident—is typical of the young men and women exploited by the putative Islamic State, and his attack subsequently was claimed by the group’s so-called news agency, Amaq.
Identified by his family as Dahir Adan, a 22-year-old college student of Somali extraction, he reportedly had shouted “Allah akbar” as he slashed and stabbed his way through the mall, wounding nine people before an off-duty cop shot him dead.
“The executor of the stabbing attacks in Minnesota yesterday was a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls to target the citizens of countries belonging to the crusader coalition,” Amaq said in a statement.
By “crusader coalition,” ISIS means any of the many countries, including several Arab and Muslim countries, attacking its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
This could have been an opportunistic claim by ISIS. But in recent months we have seen several similar attacks followed by similar claims in Europe: An ax-wielding Afghan immigrant attacked passengers on a train in Germany. A young thug used a knife to kill two police officers, a husband and wife, at their home outside of Paris. He live-streamed his boasts about the murder as the couple’s three-year-old son looked on. Two men went into a Catholic church in Normandy and slit the throat of an aged priest.
All of those attackers, like Adan in Minnesota, were shot dead soon after their rampages, and initially were described by authorities and the press as “lone wolves.” But we now know that both of those murders in France were directed and even micro-managed by a handler in the ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq who used the encrypted message app Telegram to communicate with his deadly minions.
It would not be surprising to discover Adan had similar contacts, although his father and neighbors told the Minnesota Star Tribune they had no inkling that he had jihadist views.
Such incidents can inspire terror attacks by other groups that may have different motives and agendas. That could be the case with the New York and New Jersey bombs, which have not been claimed by Amaq or ISIS, and had spawned on Sunday a variety of bizarre, often improbable claims and accusations.
But investigators are focusing on the strong possibility that these attacks and attempted bombings were inspired if not directed from abroad and involve a domestic terror cell, possibly based in New Jersey.
As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN on Monday morning, the evidence “might suggest a foreign connection to the act which would then obviously raise the issue of the foreign nature of this attack.”
Authorities report that the device in New York and also the devices in New Jersey used flip phones to trigger explosions. This technique is not new. Flip phones were used to detonate the backpack bombs in the Madrid train station in 2004 that killed 192 people. In that case they were used as timers. In Iraq, they have been used to trigger IEDs when the bomber dials the number.
Multiple bombs have been found at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, train station, at least one of which was detonated by authorities using a robot to try to defuse it.
Law enforcement officials had a number of clues that allowed them to track down Raham quickly. There was surveillance video that appeared to show him where one bomb went off on West 23rd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, and also at the scene where an unexploded pressure cooker bomb, similar to the ones used to attack the Boston Marathon in 2013, was found on West 27th Street. That unexploded bomb and the attached cell phone appear to have provided critical information to investigators, possibly including fingerprints and DNA.
A “vehicle of interest” also was stopped on the Verrazano Bridge and five people taken in for questioning by the FBI.
Meanwhile, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered 1,000 state troopers and members of the National Guard to New York City as the city hosts the General Assembly of the United Nations, with scores of heads of state headed to Manhattan from around the world.
French criminologist Alain Bauer, an advisor to several French government officials as well as to police forces in the United States, borrows an old Marxist term to describe this soft-target trend: “It’s lumpen terror, the lowest level of terror,” Bauer told The Daily Beast. “But thanks to the media even if it fails, it works. Terror is about violence and communication, and this is effective.”
Why did it take so long for al Qaeda or ISIS to start random soft-target attacks in the United States?
“Because it was not good enough,” said Bauer. “It was not rewarding enough for them. You did the World Trade Center, or you attacked police or soldiers, targets you could ‘proud’ of.”
But ISIS has “changed their marketing strategy,” said Bauer. This low level terror is like “the worm that attacks the lion,” he said in a colorful metaphor. “The worm will not kill the lion, but it will make it crazy with little bites here and there.”
“These attacks create a climate of terror,” said Bauer. “That exists even when nothing happens. And the public, which doesn’t believe the threat at first, then believes everything, the mood goes from one extreme to another.”
By Christopher Dickey
Christopher Dickey, a veteran foreign correspondent, is The Daily Beast’s World News Editor. He is the author of seven books, including Securing the City and, most recently, Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South.