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The Military Alone Will Never Defeat Terrorism

U.S. - Ahmad Khan Rahami being loaded into an ambulance after a shoot-out with police in Linden, New Jersey, U.S., September 19, 2016
U.S. - Ahmad Khan Rahami being loaded into an ambulance after a shoot-out with police in Linden, New Jersey, U.S., September 19, 2016

Ahmad Khan Rahami nearly became a household name. Instead, he will likely fade from memory.

The 28-year old naturalized American citizen stands accused of placing four different bombs across New York and New Jersey. One of those devices exploded as intended on September 17, injuring 29 people. Another was placed nearby, possibly intended to injure people fleeing from the first explosion, but it did not go off. Another, discovered earlier that day in Ocean County, New Jersey, near the start of a charity run to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps, misfired, resulting in no injuries, but triggered memories of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded 280. A fourth device was found in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near a train station and a busy pub.

To say that America got lucky is an understatement.

The Boston Marathon bombers used two bombs, and when the carnage was done the killers were still on the loose and able to kill again -- which they did three days later when they shot MIT police officer Sean Collier, kicking off events that led to the lockdown of parts of the Boston area while police hunted for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Rahami had four devices, in four locations. The police have questioned why Rahami picked the targets he did. Aside from perhaps the road race, none had symbolic significance, nor were the bombs particularly well positioned to cause mass casualties.

“We don’t understand the target or the significance of it,” a police officer told The New York Times.
“It’s by a pile of Dumpsters on a random sidewalk.”

During the shootout after which he was detained, he shot two police officers, neither of whom was seriously injured. So far the investigation appears to indicate that Rahami operated alone.

In other words, things could have been much worse.

For all practical purposes, Rahami’s failures appear to be his own, not the result of law enforcement foiling his plots. He successfully placed the bombs without getting caught, but they were largely ineffective. The police apprehended him because he was sleeping in a doorway, in the open. He engaged in a shootout with police, but he was not in a fortified position when doing so, nor was he equipped with anything more powerful than a Glock 9mm handgun.

The scary reality is that Rahami may not have been a very effective terrorist. He may not have been connected with a wider terrorist network. He may not have been fully committed to his cause. We still don’t know all the details, but we do know that Rahami is a test case for what law enforcement and counterterrorism officials fear the most.

How do you stop someone like Rahami?

Perhaps the most important answer is learning how someone like this starts down the road that leads them to terrorism in the first place.

According to a New York Times investigation into Rahami’s life, here is what we know about him so far: He was born in Afghanistan in 1988 and he moved to the United States with his family at the age of 12 or 13. In 2005, he traveled to Karachi, Pakistan. Friends back home in New Jersey considered him to be a normal, Westernized young man, though there were clearly some problems -- namely struggles with his immigrant father and the fathering of a daughter with his high school girlfriend. According to those who knew him, his attitudes and behavior changed significantly after spending three months in Pakistan in 2011 and nearly a year in Quetta, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in 2014.

Upon his return, Rahami’s friends said that he was noticeably different -- more stern, more distant.

“He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim garb. He began to pray in the back of the store,” the Times reported.

Unbeknown to them, their friend had gotten married in Pakistan. Representative Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, said Mr. Rahami had contacted his office in 2014 for help bringing his pregnant wife over from Pakistan. The matter was complicated by the fact that the United States Embassy in Islamabad told her that she needed to wait until her baby was born for both of them to come, said Mr. Sires, who added that he did not know whether they eventually did.

The Guardian reports that Rahami spent those three weeks in Pakistan in 2011 at the Kaan Kuwa Naqshbandi madrasah, a religious school with ties to the Afghan Taliban. Rahami’s father offers a slightly different story, saying that his son traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013 and came back a changed person, which is why he informed the FBI that he was concerned that his son might have become a terrorist.

Mohammed Rahami (third from left), the father of Ahmad Khan Rahami, talks with FBI investigators in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Mohammed Rahami (third from left), the father of Ahmad Khan Rahami, talks with FBI investigators in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The FBI conducted an “assessment” of Rahami, his father recanted his statements, and the investigation never led to any formal charges, nor was Rahami ever placed on the terrorist watch list. This matches a separate investigation by The New York Times that found 2013 to be the year of Rahami’s radical transformation from class clown to, ultimately, an accused terrorist.

The investigation into Rahimi’s activity and overseas connections are ongoing, but clues from his writing give us insight into some of his thinking.

When Rahami was taken into custody after being shot, police found a journal, penetrated by their bullets and soaked with his blood. Through the crimson filter, Rahami praises “Sheikh Amwar,” presumably a reference to Amwar al-Awlaki, the famous American cleric who started his ministry by preaching peace but who became one of militant Islamism’s most effective preachers. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter who was an apostle of Awlaki’s, also gets a mention. Rahami’s journal speaks about how “Brother Osama bin Laden, offered you truce,” likely referring to an address made by the Al-Qaeda founder about how his terrorist organization would keep killing Westerners until all foreign powers pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rahami writes: “You continue your slaughter against mujahedin be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sham, Palestine..." but the rest of the sentence cannot be read through the damage to the journal.

The journal refers to “Brother Adnani,” Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the spokesman for the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and one of its most important leaders. Rahami mentioned the “Dawla” -- the State -- and his desire to travel to Sham, or greater Syria. Short of that, Rahami wrote the words “attack the kuffar (non-believers) in their backyard," which appears to be exactly what Rahami tried to do.

Certainly, many people in the intelligence community are asking how Rahami slipped through the net. Surely, traveling to areas of Pakistan known for fostering militants, attending a pro-Taliban madrasah, and having a complaint filed to the FBI by one’s father should have put Rahami on the radar screen. Still, traveling to the Middle East is common, and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, TIDE, more commonly known as the terrorist watch list, had 1.1 million names on it in 2013.

Terrorists will slip through the cracks.

Ultimately, the most effective method for stopping terrorists is perhaps to ensure that they never become terrorists in the first place by eliminating the conditions that breed violence and by destroying terrorist leaders who inspire or train others. The problem with this should be obvious for anyone looking at Rahami’s journal, however.

Bin Laden, Awlaki, Adnani -- these men have already been killed by U.S. antiterrorism efforts. Nidal Hasan is in prison awaiting execution. The “Dawla” in “Sham” is slowly but steadily collapsing militarily, under heavy attack by the U.S. military, a coalition from across the region and the world, Kurdish ground troops, the Iraqi military, and now a Turkish ground offensive.

Rahami is a reminder that while the military defeat of terrorism organizations is important, jihad cannot be defeated by bombs alone.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.