Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in this weekend’s New York City and New Jersey terrorist attacks, is in many ways quite typical of jihadist terrorists in the United States since 9/11.
He is an American citizen, not a foreigner, a refugee or a recent immigrant.
That is overwhelmingly the profile of the approximately 360 jihadist terrorists who have been indicted or convicted in the States since 9/11 of crimes ranging in seriousness from sending small sums of money to an overseas terrorist organization to murder. According to research by New America, 80% of these militants are American citizens or legal permanent residents.
FBI Assistant Director William Sweeney said Monday there is no evidence that Rahami was part of a cell, which also makes him also a typical American terrorist in the post-9/11 era.
Every lethal terrorist attack since 9/11 has been carried out by a so-called “lone wolf” or a pair of terrorists who were not part of a larger cell.
Indeed, in many ways Rahami’s background is similar to that of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 at an Orlando nightclub in June and was also an American citizen of Afghan descent born in New York who carried out his plot by himself.
The bomb that went off in the Chelsea neighborhood this past weekend, injuring 29, is the first jihadist terrorist attack in Manhattan since 9/11.
The bomb device in Chelsea was almost identical to those used in the Boston Marathon attacks three years ago. Pressure cookers were used to house the devices; shrapnel was added to increase the lethality of the charges, and Christmas lights were used to initiate the explosions, according to law enforcement officials.
Terrorist groups have posted these recipes online.
Just as is often the case in school shootings, jihadist terrorists also study previous attacks and it’s interesting to note the close match between the Boston bombs and the device used in Chelsea. Adding to the similarities to the Boston attack, a pipe bomb in Seaside, New Jersey, that Rahami is believed to have planted also targeted a running event, a Marine Corps charity run, but the device didn’t injure anyone when it detonated on Saturday.
Now that Rahami is in custody, law enforcement will have a number of questions: Is he a purely “homegrown” terrorist, or was he trained overseas in Afghanistan, a country he visited often? Was the attack ISIS-inspired? If so, is there any indication Rahami was in direct touch with members of ISIS using encrypted communications? Or was he inspired or directed by some other jihadist group based in the Afghan-Pakistan region, such as al Qaeda or the Taliban?
Also this past weekend, Dahir Adan was identified as the attacker in the Minnesota mall, where he stabbed 10 people. According to an American counterterrorism official, Adan had also grown up in the States.
Adan was quickly adopted by ISIS as a “soldier” of its so-called caliphate, the same nomenclature it used to describe Mateen after his attack in Orlando. Similarly ISIS embraced the perpetrator of the attack in Nice, France, that killed 84 people as a “soldier” of the caliphate.
There is no evidence these attacks were tied to ISIS in any way other than that the terrorist group supplied some degree of inspiration for them, and it only claimed responsibility for them after the fact. ISIS may also opportunistically claim Rahami as one of its soldiers.
There is already political fallout from the Chelsea attacks.
On Monday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told Fox that such attacks would proliferate “because we’re allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country and make it unsafe for people.”
In fact, Rahami is a naturalized American citizen who arrived in the States around age 7. Friends describe him as very Americanized, which is not surprising given the fact he has lived in the States for the past two decades.
And this is precisely the challenge US law enforcement faces. Despite the fact that the FBI says it is conducting 1,000 investigations of suspected Islamist militants in all 50 states, by the law of averages terrorists using low-tech weapons such as pressure bombs or legally acquired semiautomatic weapons will occasionally slip below the radar.
Rahami, like the married couple who killed 14 in San Bernardino, California, last December, was not known to US law enforcement for his militant views or actions, according to the FBI.
Going forward there were will be others like Rahami who will carry out low-tech terrorist attacks. Because they are American citizens, barring immigrants from Muslim countries or places where terrorism is endemic will do nothing to stem this problem.
These jihadist militants are already here.