A series of bombings that injured around thirty people were carried out in New Jersey and New York on 17 September 2016, allegedly by a 28-year-old born in Afghanistan, Ahmad Khan Rahami, who was arrested after a shootout with police. Rahami’s motive was clearly Jihadi-Salafism, though the evidence shows influences from both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
On 17 September 2016, a series of attacks took place in the United States:
- 9:30 local time (14:30 British time): A pipe bomb explodes along the route of charity race in Seaside Park, New Jersey, which injured nobody because the road is empty at the time;
- 20:30 local time (01:30 18 SEPT British time): On 23rd Street in the Chelsea area of Manhattan—about 1,200 miles from St. Cloud—a pressure cooker bomb, built with the help of flip phones and Christmas lights, and filled with shrapnel explodes in a densely-packed nightlife area, injuring twenty-nine people
- 23:30 local time (04:30 18 SEPT British time): Four blocks from the Manhattan bombing, a second pressure cooker bomb is found but does not explode
On 18 September, at 20:30 local time (01:30 19 SEPT British time), a backpack containing five pipe bombs was found in a bin in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One of the devices exploded accidentally while being moved by a bomb-disposal robot.
The suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was arrested on 19 September after a firefight in which three policemen were injured.
(There was a simultaneous attack on 17 September, taking place at 20:15 local time (01:15 18 SEPT British time), in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Dahir Adan, 22, stabbed and wounded nine people, seven men and two women, aged 15 to 53, at a shopping mall, asking at least one victim if they were Muslim before attacking them when they said, “no”. Adan was shot dead by an off-duty police officer, Jason Falconer. While questions were naturally raised initially, the St. Cloud attack does not seem to have any connection to those taking place 1,200 miles away from Seaside Park.)
Ahmad Khan Rahami
Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, was seen on surveillance planting both the device that exploded and the one that did not in Chelsea, New York City, on 17 September 2016. Both pressure-cooker bombs strongly resemble that suggested by Anwar al-Awlaki in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine. Rahami’s finger-print was found on one of the pressure cooker bombs in Chelsea, Manhattan. Rahami has also been connected to the pipe bomb in Seaside Park, New Jersey, and is believed to be the owner of the backpack full of pipe bombs found in the Elizabeth area of New York on 18 September.
On 19 September, Rahami was arrested in Linden, New Jersey, after a manhunt commenced upon the publication of Rahami’s photograph. At 10:30 local time (15:30 British time), Rahami, sleeping in the doorway of a bar, was pointed out to a policeman, Captain James Sarnicki. When Sarnicki approached Rahami he asked him to raise his hands; instead Rahami shot Sarnicki in the chest. The bullets struck Sarnicki’s vest and Sarnicki returned fire, but Rahami fled, firing indiscriminately around him. Rahami was shot multiple times and two other officers were injured before, around 11:00 local time, Rahami was taken into custody, alive.
The FBI had no early indications of a cell being in operation, i.e. they believe [as of 19 September] that Rahami acted alone, though New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) told CBS News on 19 September that “there may be a foreign connection” involving the bombing in Manhattan.
Rahami was charged on 20 September by the Southern District of New York with one count of using and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction; one count of bombing and attempting to bomb a place of public use; one count of destroying and attempting to destroy property by means of fire or explosive; and use of a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence, namely, the use and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction. And by the District of New Jersey with two counts of using and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction; one count of bombing and attempting to bomb a place of public use and public transportation system; one count of attempting to destroy property by means of fire or explosive; and two counts of using a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence for the alleged efforts to detonate explosives in Seaside Park and Elizabeth.
Rahami was born in Afghanistan on 23 January 1988, and moved to the United States in 1995, where he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Rahami was called “Mad” by some of his friends, a shortening of his first name, not related to his behaviour, and he was known to like Honda Civics, which he raced.
Rahami at least had lived above a fried chicken restaurant in Elizabeth that had been started by his father, Mohammed, in 2002. In 2005 bankruptcy, Rahami’s father described himself as the father of eight children, who was separated from his wife. Mohammed listed himself as a cook at a fried chicken restaurant with an income of $1,447 a month.
On 6 April 2011, Ahmad, his father, and his brother (also named Mohammed) sued the City of Elizabeth the Elizabeth Police Department, six Elizabeth police officers, chief of police Ronald Simon, and police director James Cosgrove, on eleven counts of discrimination and abuse of process for inappropriately citing them, alleging that from April 2009 baseless complaints for staying open past 22:00 were being filed by their neighbours solely because of their Muslim faith.
Rahami’s father was in Pakistan in July 2011, shortly after the civil suit for discrimination was filed.
It was confirmed that Rahami travelled to Afghanistan at least three times, most recently in 2014, and at least three times to Pakistan. Rahami first went to Pakistan as a seventeen-year-old in 2005 and remained for a few months before returning to the U.S. in January 2006. Rahami spent three months in Pakistan in 2011 and his most recent trip there saw him spend nearly the period April 2013 to March 2014 at a family member’s home in Quetta, before returning to the United States.
Rahami’s father reported his son to the FBI in 2014 and they investigated him for two months before concluding he was not a terrorist.
Rahami and his family were said to be “fairly Westernized,” according to one neighbour, who nonetheless noticed that “three or four years ago … the family started wearing religious garb and stopped wearing Western clothes”. This was found by another close associate of the family: “[Rahami] used to wear Western-style clothing, and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage. Around four years ago, though, Mr. Rahami disappeared for a while. [Flee Jones, 27, who grew up with Rahami] said that one of the younger Rahami brothers told him that he had gone to Afghanistan. When he returned, some patrons noticed a certain transformation. He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim robes. He began to pray in the back of the store. His previous genial bearing turned more stern. ‘It’s like he was a completely different person,’ Mr. Jones said. ‘He got serious and completely closed off.’ Andre Almeida, 24, who lives nearby and eats at the chicken restaurant once or twice each week, said he found the change quite striking but was hesitant to reach any conclusions.”
Al-Awlaki is the American spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen on 30 September 2011. Al-Awlaki has continued, long after death, to act as a propagandist-recruiter for al-Qaeda, appearing as a motive for innumerable homegrown jihadists within the English-speaking countries in the West. (Seventy-seven Western jihadists have had al-Awlaki as some part of their radicalization toward a terrorist conviction, according to the Counter Extremism Project; forty-three in the U.S. and thirty-four in Europe.)
On 21 September, a blood-stained page from Rahami’s notebook was published:
Clearly visible are two names. One visible name is “Sheikh Awlaki”. The other visible name is “Brother Adnani,” which refers to Taha Falaha, known by his kunya Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesman of the Islamic State, the group’s deputy, and its overall director of external operations when he was struck down near al-Bab, Syria, on 30 August this year. Falaha made the most important call for “lone wolf” attacks within the West in September 2014, and, in May, Falaha reiterated this, while preparing the faithful for the collapse of the statelet, saying, “If the [infidel rulers] have shut the door of hijra [emigration to the caliphate] in your faces, then open the door of jihad in theirs. … Know that your targeting those who are called ‘civilians’ is more beloved to us and more effective, as it is more harmful, painful, and a greater deterrent to them.”
Why Falaha’s name was left out of initial reporting is unclear.
Rahami’s notebook expands on these references al-Awlaki and Falaha. “I looked for guidance and … Guidance came [from] Sheikh Anwar,” Rahami wrote. Al-Awlaki “[s]aid it clearly attack the kuffar [non-believers] in their backyard.” Rahami also specifically referred to Falaha’s instruction that “If travel is infeasible, to attack nonbelievers where they live.”
UPDATE: EgyptAir Security Officers
The New York Times revealed on 30 September that the two men, Hassan Ali and Abu Bakr Radwan, who found the bag containing the bomb on West 27th Street in Manhattan on the evening of 17 September, soon after a bomb exploded on West 23rd Street, were not just employees of EgyptAir but in-flight security officers.
As the Times explains
EgyptAir employs in-flight security officers like Mr. Ali and Mr. Radwan to maintain order during flights and to ensure that planes are secure during stopovers at foreign airports. Unlike the undercover air marshals who travel on American carriers, Egyptian security officials are unarmed and can be identified by an understated uniform. Generally, one security officer sits near the front of the cabin and another toward the rear. In some foreign airports they are responsible for searching workers who clean planes between flights. When a plane is in the air, they sometimes deal with unruly passengers. They receive modest training and are typically paid about $400 a month.
In the video, the two men are seen taking a white plastic bag out of a black travel bag. The white plastic bag contains the pressure cooker—which is connected to wires and a mobile telephone. The bag with the bomb in is left on the pavement, and the two walk away with the now-empty black travel bag. According to The New York Times, “investigators have said that the men may have inadvertently disabled the device,” which is one explanation.
The EgyptAir officials who identified the two men to the Times denied that they had any connection to Rahami or the bomb plot. “They didn’t know what was in [the bag],” one of the officials said of the travel bag. Ali “told me he saw it and thought it was nice,” the official said. “He opened the bag to check it out and found a pot.” By the official’s account, Ali simply did not want the trouble with airport security of moving the pot to Cairo, so left it and took only the travel bag. “You know, we see things left on the street in New York all the time,” the official said. “Stuff no one wants. It’s normal to take them.”
But the case is, beyond the obvious, strange. Ali and Radwan flew back to Cairo the day after the bombing, and allegedly did not realize they had been that close to the attack. Egyptian police are said to have been unable to find the two men at Cairo International Airport on 30 September because it was their day off. Dina el-Fouly, a spokeswoman for EgyptAir, initially denied that the two men in the video were EgyptAir employees, and has since then refused to comment.
Neither Ali nor Radwan are known to have any political affiliation, according to one of the EgyptAir officials. “They don’t understand that they are wanted as witnesses,” the official said. “They are shocked and scared now. Radwan is especially scared. The poor guy is always anxious.”
“Please, I cannot say anything,” Radwan said when reached by telephone on 30 September. “There is a spokesperson for the company. Speak to them.” Radwan then ended the call.