On the surface, the quick arrest of a suspect in the weekend bomb wave in New York and New Jersey might look like it’s brought some closure to the frightening series of events.
In fact, though, the arrest raises as many questions as it settles. The same is true of the tactics of law enforcement agencies used in tracking him down. Ahmad Khan Rahami is in custody. And while he has yet to stand trial, the evidence against him is strong. The urgent question now is: Who else is out there?
The question is an urgent one, because the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly begins today (Tuesday, September 20). Some 140 heads of state and government will be in Manhattan over the next two weeks for speeches, high-level meetings and nightmare traffic jams. From a terrorist’s point of view, it’s an irresistible target.
The unprecedented occurrence of four distinct bombing or attempted bombing incidents within a 24-hour period at four separate locations in the New York area, just three days before the assembly opens, could be coincidence. But it could also be a terrorist dry run or warning shot. Rahami might have been operating alone, perhaps even unaware of the U.N. meeting. It appears unlikely, though.
It’s true that the head of the FBI’s New York Division, Special Agent William Sweeney, told a press conference after Rahami’s arrest on Monday that he had “no indication there is a cell operating in the area or in the city.” That got widely reported as though he’d said there’s evidence that there’s no clandestine terrorist cell. He didn’t say that. What he said was simply that they don’t have information. Not yet, anyway.
On Saturday, after the explosion on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, law enforcement authorities said there was no evidence that this was connected to “international terrorism,” which is often a code word for transnational jihadist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Officials also said there was no evidence that the Manhattan bombing that evening was connected to the bombing that morning in Seaside Park, New Jersey. Both assertions were repeated as though there was no connection, rather than no evidence — yet — of a connection.
Sure enough, the next day the evidence was found of a Manhattan-Seaside Park connection. A day later, the question of an international connection was still understood to be an open question. The same is true of the existence of a cell.
The repeated, confusing statements regarding evidence tell us more about the press and the public than about the law enforcement officials who made the statements. A telling step by law enforcement was the decision to identify Rahami as the suspect and put out an all-points bulletin, complete with an old-fashioned wanted poster, the moment the police had identified him. Indeed, they took the highly unusual step of texting an alert to millions of civilians via a city emergency notification program that reaches directly to cellphones, usually to warn of hurricanes or flash floods.
Under normal circumstances, when police are trying to track down a clandestine criminal gang, they don’t typically advertise to the public that they know who they’re looking for. Going public eliminates the element of surprise and alerts the gang members that it’s time to go into hiding. Better to keep quiet and give the bad guys a false sense of confidence while you do the necessary, painstaking detective work.
The unusual steps that New York and federal officials took Monday morning in hunting the suspect suggested that they didn’t think they have the luxury of time just then. With thousands of international leaders, movers and shakers assembling in two days to wander about Manhattan and crowd into a single building on the East Side, the possibility of an active terror cell, however slim, put the cops on the highest possible alert. There was no time for the normal procedures.
It’s telling that once Rahami was identified, officials began pooh-poohing any possible links to a cell or an international organization. With a suspect in hand, information was available and the element of surprise reentered the discussion.
Rahami himself presents a puzzle. The FBI thinks he’s connected to four separate bomb placements: two in Manhattan, on West 23rd Street and West 27th Street, and two more in New Jersey, in Seaside Park and Elizabeth. Only two devices, on West 23rd Street and in Seaside Park, actually detonated. But could one person have planted all those bombs in a single day? The drive from Rahami’s home in Elizabeth to Seaside Park, down on the Jersey Shore, is about an hour and a quarter. From Seaside Park to the West 23rd Street location is about an hour and a half under optimal conditions. What’s more, the bombs planted in Manhattan were highly volatile pressure cooker bombs. Both were filled with an explosive chemical that’s liable to go off when jostled. Given the miserable condition of New York City roads right now, a driver would have had to drive extremely slowly and carefully to avoid blowing himself up.
Then there’s this: The four locations had four different types of bombs. The two in Manhattan were pressure cooker bombs, similar to the ones planted by the Boston Marathon bombers. The two in New Jersey were bundles of pipe bombs. What’s more, the four devices contained three different explosive compounds. The one on West 23rd Street contained a chemical popular among jihadi terrorists known as TATP. The one in Seaside Park contained ordinary black gunpowder. The ones in Elizabeth and on West 27 th Street both contained a chemical known as HMTD. Did one rookie terrorist with no chemical background assemble all those different types of devices?
HMTD and TATP are both in a category known as organic peroxide compounds. They’re popular among terrorists because they can be produced at home using legal, over-the-counter substances, and can’t be detected by ordinary security scanning machines. They’re both fairly difficult to produce, though, and normally require someone with some chemistry background and quite a bit of workspace and equipment. But there’s a critical difference. TATP is highly unstable in the laboratory and often tends to blow up and kill the chemist. Its nickname is Mother of Satan. HMTD is less unstable during production, but highly volatile and prone to explode from jolts or bumps once inside the device.
Those factors — production, transport — presuppose a fair amount of sophistication and training on the part of the perpetrator. Could Rahami have pulled it off? A community college dropout who worked in his family’s fried chicken joint, he was born in Afghanistan and came to this country at age 7. He spent a fair amount of time over the last decade in his native country and neighboring Pakistan. In particular, he spent almost a year from April 2013 to March 2014 in the Pakistani city of Quetta, close to the Afghan border. The area around Quetta is dominated by the Afghan Taliban. Rahami told Homeland Security officers during a reentry interview that he’d been in Quetta visiting family. It’s possible, though, that he underwent some training while he was there. Whether he could have acquired enough skills during that time to engineer those bombs without blowing himself up is unclear.
On the other hand, his bumbling execution of the alleged bomb plot, if he was indeed the perpetrator, suggests a glaring lack of sophistication. He left his own fingerprints on the West 27th Street device. He bought identical, easily traceable flip-style cellphones to use as timers on his bombs in an over-the-counter purchase at a local box store.
For what was presumably supposed to be his most dramatic explosion he picked Saturday night on West 23rd Street, a main drag in the bustling Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. It’s known as a center of nightlife, culture and, perhaps not coincidentally, gay life. But the bomb was placed on perhaps the least bustling block of 23rd Street. It was between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, a sort of dead zone midway between Chelsea proper and the Flatiron District to its east. The block is dominated by residences, daytime businesses and a home for the blind. Some say the only interesting thing on the block is the PATH station, for the underground train connecting Manhattan with Rahami’s stretch of New Jersey.
What’s more, the suspect put the West 23rd Street bomb in a dumpster, which had the effect of partially containing and muffling the explosion, forcing the concussion upward instead of sideways and out to the street level. The 29 light injuries from the massive blast are testimony to the incompetence of the planning and execution.
Whoever made those bombs was a competent lab technician who managed, working with notoriously volatile chemicals, to construct a total of 10 bombs — two pressure cookers in Manhattan, five pipe bombs in Elizabeth, three pipe bombs in Seaside Park — using four different combinations of design and chemical explosive.
Could Ahmad Khan Rahami have done all that? It’s conceivable. But it’s hardly likely. So the question remains: With the world’s leaders gathering on First Avenue, who is lurking out there?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).