Tuesday, September 20, 2016

America’s Lucky Brush with Terror


September 17, 2016, might have been looked on as the start of one of the most sophisticated domestic terrorism campaigns since the September 11th attacks. Instead, it seems destined to be remembered as a footnote in the larger story of America’s post-9/11 war against radical Islam. Americans should thank their law enforcement officials and vigilant citizens whose quick and savvy work saved the country from what could have been a terrible bombing campaign. But there was also quite a bit of luck involved in the series of events that saved America from a bloody weekend of terrorism.

Ahmad Khan Rahami’s alleged bombing campaign was set to begin on Saturday morning with a brazen attack on the United States Marine Corps. Authorities believe he targeted an annual charity run in New Jersey’s Seaside Park that was set to begin at 9:30 a.m. At precisely 9:35 a.m., a pipe bomb placed in a trash can along the runner’s route exploded but, due to some late arrivals, the race was delayed, and no one was injured in the blast. Moreover, the explosion was smaller than the bomb maker had intended. Only one pipe bomb in that trash can went off because a relay that was supposed to trigger a number of other devices failed. Were it not for good fortune, many of the 3,000 people gathered near the starting line of that Marine charity race might have been injured or even killed.

It became clear that the attack in New Jersey was not an isolated event when an explosive device detonated on Manhattan’s 23rd Street, wounding 29 pedestrians in the process. But the toll of that explosion might have been so much worse if that powerful blast hadn’t been contained inside a street-side dumpster, where the would-be bomber stashed his IED. When the bomb went off, the “dumpster was consumed in a red fireball and sent up a cloud of smoke two stories,” according to one eyewitness. But the injuries sustained were only light. Just over 16 hours after the explosion, all of the wounded had been released from hospital.

Three hours after the blast, a second device was discovered just four blocks north of the first attack. That device was improvised out of a pressure cooker, not unlike the bombs that killed three and wounded 264 more at the running of the Boston Marathon in 2013. The bomb squad safely removed that device from the scene before it could detonate.

In the early morning hours on Monday, two men rummaging through the trash cans at an Elizabeth, New Jersey, train station found a backpack that they believed carried something valuable within it. The men took the bag and carried it another 1,000 feet before investigating its contents. In the backpack, they found five improvised explosive devices. “They have to be walking on the sides of angels,” said Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage of the two would-be thieves. If those devices had not been uncovered early on Monday morning, they might have gone off just a few hours later as hundreds of commuters were gathering at Elizabeth’s central commuting hub. The bomb squad was able to defuse most of the devices, but one was unstable enough so that the robot accidentally triggered its detonation after severing a wire.

It was the bomb maker’s folly in building so many devices that did not go off that did him in. Fingerprints taken from the unexploded pressure cooker allowed authorities to identify Rahami. Thousands of surveillance cameras around Manhattan featuring Rahami placing what appear to be explosives confirmed his identity. But it was a tip from a Linden, New Jersey bar owner that resulted in Rahami’s arrest. The local patron discovered the suspect sleeping in the doorway of his establishment early Monday morning and, rather than rousting what he thought to be a drunk, called the police after recognizing his face from a CNN broadcast. Several officers who responded to the call were wounded in a shootout, but Rahami was arrested before he could seriously injure any of the police.

There is a lot of luck to this story. A multi-day bombing campaign targeting the most populous area of the country is no small-scale terrorism campaign. It is only because of the happy accidents of the bomb maker’s carelessness and his targets’ luck that America is not mourning the deaths of hundreds of civilians this week.

“Lone wolf” terrorists are almost never as “self-radicalized” as we wish them to be, and the suspect’s trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan indicate foreign involvement in this attack. A lot of speedy and thorough police work resulted in this suspect’s capture, and there will surely be a lot to learn from him. But the nation should not be congratulating itself this morning. This was an extremely close call. Had this bomber been even half as successful as he intended to be, America would today be thoroughly terrorized.