In case you missed it, the New York-New Jersey area had a bit of a scare over the weekend when a series of bombs either were discovered or exploded, fortunately to relatively minimal effect. On Saturday morning, a pipe bomb exploded in a trash can near the site of a 5K race in Seaside Park, NJ, canceling the race but harming no one. Saturday evening, a pressure cooker device exploded in a dumpster on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, injuring 29 people who have all since been released from the hospital. Shortly after that explosion, a second pressure cooker device was found a short distance away from the first one–in this case, the device had been left in a suitcase and was disabled when, in a uniquely American story, a pair of thieves opened it, chucked the bomb in the trash, and then walked off with the suitcase. Then yesterday, more pipe bombs were found in a backpack in the Elizabeth, NJ train station, after–and this is seriously hard to believe–a couple of other thieves picked up the unattended bag thinking there might have been something valuable inside. One of those pipe bombs apparently exploded while police were disarming it, but nobody was injured.
By this morning, authorities were using cell phone alerts to tell people in the NY-NJ area to be on the lookout for an Elizabeth resident (and naturalized US citizen born in Afghanistan) named “Ahmad Khan Rahami,” and I have to wonder if sending out an alert for people to be on the lookout for [man with vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding name] without sending a photograph along with it is an invitation to vigilantism. In this case, though, the alert seemed to work as intended, because Rahami is indeed now in custody, after a shootout with police in Linden, NJ, in which two officers were reportedly injured, though neither seriously (one was shot twice while wearing a bulletproof vest, I’m not sure about the other). Rahami’s fingerprint was lifted from an unexploded device, and he can also apparently be connected to the cell phones used as bomb triggers.
So far there’s been nothing concrete to connect Rahami to international terrorism (NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has helpfully claimed that there both is not and may be a foreign connection to Rahami’s case) and no claim of responsibility from either Al-Qaeda or ISIS. It’s possible that there’s been no claim because Rahami basically failed in each of his attacks, but considering ISIS claimed responsibility for a knife attack in a Minnesota mall on Saturday whose only fatality was the attacker himself, I don’t think they’re setting the bar particularly high. ISIS does sometimes take a few days to claim responsibility for an attack, but generally they move pretty quickly to claim attacks inside Western nations, and at any rate ISIS claiming responsibility for an attack after the fact isn’t really strong evidence that they were actually responsible for the attack. Nobody at this point seems to have found any indication that Rahami was working with anybody else, either. All of this is subject to new evidence, obviously. Rahami is alive, so he may shed some light on these issues himself.
It’s becoming a bit cliched to say that it’s almost impossible to stop these sorts of loner attacks, assuming that’s what this was, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s almost impossible to stop loner attacks like this. Even if Rahami researched bomb-making from Al-Qaeda or ISIS or had some contact with some terrorist figure overseas, this was not an intricate terror plot that would have required a lot of resources or interaction between Rahami and whomever his hypothetical contact might have been. There just aren’t a lot of points in an attack like this where law enforcement could have been clued in to what was happening. Even Rahami’s motives aren’t really clear; it’s likely some kind of religious/ideological radicalization will be involved, but Rahami’s family also had some very secular run-ins with local authorities that may very well have helped turn him violent.
The important thing, obviously, is that nobody was killed and all of the injuries from Rahami’s little bomb spree seem to have been relatively minor. Everything is viewed through the prism of the presidential election these days, but I have no idea if Donald Trump’s deeply unhinged reaction to this weekend’s events will help him, hurt him, or have no effect. I doubt it will hurt him, though, since very little else this cycle has.