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The Military Alone Will Never Defeat Terrorism

New York bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami is loaded into an ambulance after a shoot-out with police in Linden, New Jersey, on September 19.

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.
A Russian SU-25 strike fighters takes off from the Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia in Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group in the region has allowed Moscow to intervene in the Syrian conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities.

Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before."

The former senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. President George W. Bush has no interest in being diplomatic as we sit on a pristine white sofa inside the Mystetskyi Arsenal in central Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city.

The arsenal is a grand building with high and rounded brick ceilings and large, arched, almost church-like, windows. Completed in 1801, it once housed the garrison charged with guarding Kyiv; now it stands as a monument to Ukrainian culture and art. Today, however, it houses the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, sponsored by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk, which has brought politicians and diplomats from all corners of the world to discuss the situation in Ukraine -- and that is simply impossible to do without discussing Russia.

Rove continues: "[Putin is doing] anything that can and will expand Russian influence to U.S.S.R.-era levels of power. Russia is back in the Middle East for the first time since 1972. As well as Ukraine, he is menacing the Baltics and the Nordic countries, and critically, he is willing to tolerate the cost to his country, which is considerable."

He's right. Putin first began to reassert Russian power in the Georgian war of 2008. He followed this, in 2014, by illegally annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Late last year, Russian forces entered Syria. It's been a heady few years for the Kremlin.

But Russia has suffered considerably as a result of all this adventurism. International sanctions and declining oil prices have combined to pummel its economy. When he began to consolidate his power in the early 2000s, Putin's deal with the Russian people was simple: They would receive economic stability -- and, critically, much higher standards of living -- in exchange for a loss of freedoms. Today, that deal no longer looks sustainable, so a new, unspoken one now lies on the table: In exchange for a (further) loss of freedoms and (now) economic hardship, the Russian people will swell with national pride at a Russia -- once mocked and belittled by the West -- now retaking its rightful place at the center of global power politics. Economic growth is out; chauvinism is in.

Mass Support For Putin

At the moment, it is a deal that seems to be holding. During my visit to Moscow and Siberia in April, it was clear that beyond educated and globally engaged millennials, mass support for the president still existed. "Russia is strong once more" was a comment I heard, in various formulations, again and again during my time there. Criticism of Putin was largely confined to journalists or tattooed youths in the capital's hipster bars.

Putin has arguably played his cards well, especially when it comes to his latest global show of strength: Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group (IS) in the region allowed Moscow to intervene in the conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities. In essence, it has assumed a leadership role in Washington's largest foreign-policy initiative of the 21st century: the "Global War on Terror." Putin is using American policy to further Russian ends. He has used the doctrine as cover to further expand Russia's sphere of influence; for Putin, Islamic State is a geopolitical gift he can use to secure his country's strategic influence in the Middle East.

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove
Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

And some argue that he has been allowed to do so by exploiting Western indecision. Rove adds: "President [Barack] Obama has mishandled Syria from the beginning. You don't say the use of chemical weapons is a red line and when they are deployed not take any effective action. Now we are seeing close coordination between Russia and the U.S. in combating Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which may not be the best of moves -- we will have to see how it works in practice. [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is a Russian client and Russia is merely concerned that he remain in power, despite the destruction of Syria and the threat to Sunni Muslims he poses. Moscow is merely concerned with strengthening Assad's hold over part of the country, which also includes its [Russia's] naval facility [at Tartus]."

Depressingly Prophetic

Rove's words proved depressingly prophetic. The cease-fire that had been brokered between the U.S. and Russia between forces loyal to Assad and the assorted rebel groups opposing it -- designed to allow Moscow and Washington to join forces and smash IS and the other jihadist groups -- agreed upon on September 12, is over. Even worse, U.S. air strikes that were first believed to have mistakenly killed 60 Syrian troops instead of IS now appear to have killed regime prisoners forced to put on Syrian army uniforms.

Putin claimed that while the Syrian regime was "fully abiding" by the cease-fire, rebel groups (some of which the U.S. backs) were using it merely as an opportunity to regroup, and he accused Washington of being more concerned with retaining its military capacity in the area than with trying to weed out the extremist rebel groups from the more "moderate" ones.

On the ground, things appear to be in more disarray than ever. Perhaps most shockingly, footage emerged of Free Syrian Army rebels (FSA), the group with arguably the closest ties to Washington, ordering U.S. Special Forces out of the town of Al-Rai in northern Syria, screaming in the process that "Christians and Americans have no place among us." Hours later, U.S. soldiers reportedly returned to the town accompanied by FSA fighters, and the rebels who led the protest were reportedly "discharged," likely under orders from Ankara.

A 'Net Loss'

All of this suits Russia just fine -- for the moment. The question remains: How long can it sustain its imperial adventures? Rove concluded: "Putin has temporarily succeeded through the popular support of the Russian people, but that will decline after another year of economic stagnation. At the same time, his actions have forced Europe to rethink its energy policy" -- whereby Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas -- "so at the same time he is also losing customers. Overall, this is going to be a net loss for him."

In the meantime, however, Putin marches onward, with troops still massed on Ukraine's border while he swaggers across the global stage, trying -- ostensibly -- to bring "peace" to Syria while at the same time trying -- ostensibly -- to eradicate the threat from IS. The reality that Russian forces have in fact spent their time in Syria mostly attacking non-IS targets who are hostile to Assad in order to prop up their client is merely the final layer of hypocrisy within which the brutal cynicism of Russia's Syria policy -- especially regarding IS -- is coated.

At a panel discussion at the YES conference on September 17, the former director of policy planning for President George W. Bush, Richard Haass, struck a glum note. "[Former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev still had to deal with the Politburo during the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis," he told an audience of Ukrainian MPs, foreign diplomats, and journalists.

"But I see no equivalent checks and balances for Putin. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a Russian expression for 'checks and balances.'"

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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