December 12, 2017

CNAS Commentary: “The New York Bombing: What We Know and How Not to Curb the Threat”

Washington, December 12 – In the wake of a terrorist attack near the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Adjunct Senior Fellow Stephen Tankel has written a new commentary laying out what we know so far about the attack.  He argues that the Trump administration’s counterterrorism approach may actually increase the threat of radicalization. The full commentary, “The New York Bombing: What We Know and How Not to Curb the Threat,” is below:

On Monday morning, in one of New York City’s busiest subway corridors, Akayed Ullah, a native of Bangladesh, detonated a pipe bomb strapped to his body. The homemade device malfunctioned, leaving Ullah as the only person seriously injured. He has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, or ISIS, and told investigators that he began viewing pro-ISIS propaganda on the Internet in 2014. Some reports have indicated he carried out the attack in retaliation for U.S. government policies in the Middle East, perhaps including U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets overseas. Other reports suggest that after being radicalized online by ISIS propaganda, he was mobilized to act in response to Israeli airstrikes against Hamas targets. These strikes came after several rockets were fired out of Gaza amid protests over President Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. More details are sure to emerge, but several things are already clear – particularly that Ullah’s attack highlights the threat from homegrown, often lone wolf terrorism and that the Trump administration’s policies for dealing with it are counter-productive.

First, Ullah appears to have been a lone wolf – authorities believe he acted alone, but they are still investigating whether there was a network behind him. Ullah admitted that he built the device based on instructions pulled off the Internet. This helps explain why the bomb malfunctioned. Like other lone wolf attackers, Ullah lacked the technical expertise that a terrorist network or training camp could provide. There are exceptions, such as the Tsarnaev brothers who built the pressure cooker bomb used at the Boston marathon based on instructions from a magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Overall, however, American counterterrorism efforts have forced the few U.S.-based jihadists who exist to work alone, or at most with a few trusted confidants. These individuals are more difficult to detect than terrorists trained or directed by organizations like the ISIS or al-Qaeda, but they are also less effective because they lack access to trained professionals.

Second, even if the device was crude, Ullah’s apparent attempt to execute a suicide bombing is an evolution in terms of the types of terrorist attacks we’ve seen in the United States. Jihadists since 9/11 – whether directed, trained, or only inspired by terrorist organizations – have typically opted either for placing bombs that would detonate after they left the scene or for active shooter attacks. In the case of the latter, terrorists sometimes fought to the death. But this is fundamentally different than blowing oneself up. Suicide bombings can be hard to pull off – in terms of the technical aspects, as we saw in New York, and the fortitude required – but when they work, they can be cheap, lethal, and especially terrifying.

Third, keeping in mind the fluidity of factors that can lead to terrorist radicalization and the possible mix of triggers that led Ullah to attempt his attack, the ability to incite amateurs like him has enabled ISIS to maintain some momentum since losing most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. However, this is ultimately a sign a weakness, rather than strength. Amateurs are more likely to fail, as Ullah did, than directed or “remote-controlled” attackers are. Moreover, without its caliphate, ISIS may find it harder and harder to motivate even would-be supporters like Ullah. None of this is to suggest ISIS or other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda do not still threaten the United States. Continuing to deprive these organizations of the ability to plan and stage attacks from abroad remains critical. But dealing with the threat to the homeland primarily requires confronting jihadist propaganda online, ensuring a domestic environment that is inhospitable to terrorists, and maintaining strong intelligence cooperation with partner nations.

This highlights the fourth notable point – the remedies that President Donald Trump has proposed and is attempting to enact to combat terrorism could actually heighten the terrorist threat. Ullah made a number of trips overseas, traveling back-and-forth from Bangladesh in recent months. US authorities and intelligence agencies should and likely will investigate what role his travel may have played in the radicalization process, as well as whether U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies could have been done more to connect the dots before yesterday. But let’s be clear, Trump’s immigration ban would not have stopped Akayed Ullah, who radicalized after immigrating to the United States. Bangladesh is also not one of the countries included in the ban; they are Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.  For the record, neither is Uzbekistan, the homeland of Sayfullo Saipov who came to the United States in 2010 and executed a vehicular attack that killed eight people in October.

Despite the late additions of North Korea and Venezuela, Trump’s immigration ban is still essentially a Muslim ban. This fact, combined with Trump’s rhetoric – intolerant of Islam, but tolerant toward white supremacy — creates an environment more conducive to radicalization for jihadists as well as for right-wing extremists. Jihadists have long claimed that the West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens; Trump’s rhetoric and actions threaten to validate this premise in the minds of individuals like Akayed Ullah. If the identification of Israeli actions in Gaza as the trigger for the attack prove to be correct, then it appears that warnings Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel could incite terrorism were also accurate.

In addition to creating a climate that is potentially more conducive to jihadist incitement, the administration’s policies and the president’s rhetoric could make it more difficult for local law enforcement to work with Muslim communities. These communities have been at the forefront of thwarting terrorist attacks by warning the authorities and conducting early interventions. There’s no solid evidence yet that anyone in Ullah’s community harbored suspicions about him and did not come forward, but the danger is that the president and some in his administration are creating a climate in which this scenario becomes increasingly plausible.

Trump’s policies may be exacerbating the domestic terrorist threat or at least making it more difficult to combat, but on the whole the United States has made considerable strides in counterterrorism since 9/11. Ullah’s attempted attack yesterday is yet another reminder that terrorist violence is unlikely to disappear, but getting to zero is an unrealistic aim. Given this fact, the most promising aspect of the failed attack yesterday is the resilience shown by New Yorkers, who were back making their way through the subway turnstiles this morning.

Tankel is available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at 202-457-9409 or [email protected].