Over the weekend, America once again became the target of terrorism. This time it was several pipe bombs and homemade pressure cookers left in multiple locations in New York City and New Jersey. The prime suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, an Afghanistan-born American, was apprehended Monday morning after a shootout with police.
While Rahami’s motivations are still allegedly unknown, it appears he traveled to Afghanistan, after which friends say he appeared to have been radicalized. Just like after so many other recent Islamist terrorist attacks, there was a rush from the media and politicians to claim these attacks weren’t organized by the Islamic State (ISIS), and therefore were random events. This is not only disingenuous—it’s reckless.
On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was quick to assure people that although the blast did appear to be intentional, it was certainly not a case of “international terrorism” (Monday morning Cuomo changed his mind after Rahami was identified as the suspect). How the governor made his initial assessment so quickly isn’t clear. Why he did so is perhaps easier to grasp.
Liberal politicians and members of the media want to deny an “international” aspect because it gives them an excuse for inaction. If it’s not international, and instead just a domestic problem that’s (fingers crossed) “just random,” the government won’t have to address or change its foreign policy. It would mean ISIS isn’t actually powerful enough to reach out beyond Europe and the Middle East and strike America, and that the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria is sufficient for combatting the threat.
It would also vindicate President Obama’s foreign policy of “leading from behind,” and suggest it hasn’t caused massive upheaval in the Middle East that may take decades to fix.
When Lone Wolves Become a Pack
People often employ the “lone wolf” claim to avoid acknowledging international terrorism. By Monday morning, when it became clear that several bombs had been intended to detonate and cause mass chaos, a terrorism analyst told CNN’s Carol Costello that it’s possible that “two or three lone wolves may have gotten together.” This linguistic maneuvering attempts to distract from the fact that coordination between individuals is what defines a network. As Dana Loesch noted on Twitter: “How many ‘lone wolves’ make a pack?” Multiple attacks imply an organized effort. (Later in the morning, Rahani became the primary suspect in all of the bombing attempts, and it’s not yet clear whether he had any accomplices.)
This line of argumentation has been used repeatedly after past terrorist attacks, even when there’s ample evidence that the attacker(s) pledged allegiance to ISIS (see the Orlando nightclub shooting, San Bernardino, etc.). It’s also the reason being given for a stabbing in a Minnesota mall over the weekend by a Somali-American man, Dahir Adan, who allegedly cried “allahu akbar” before attacking nine people and being shot dead by an off-duty police officer. Although ISIS claimed Adan as one of their “soldiers,” the St. Cloud, Minnesota police chief, Blair Anderson, said nothing suggests this was “anything but a lone attacker.”
The appeal of this approach is that if the attacker is just a lone wolf, not an ISIS operative, then it could simply be someone disaffected by poverty or social alienation. Rahami’s family had previously complained about discrimination in their New Jersey town, for example. Or perhaps it’s a mentally ill individual—a diagnosis that now covers all manner of sins, including religious zealotry—who just snapped.
These motivations can be attributed to political and social ills like lack of health care, gun control, or welfare, the blame for which falls conveniently on Republicans. This also makes it easier to avoid facing the threat of radical Islam, both as an international military matter and as a religious and political movement.
ISIS Explicitly Supports Attacks Like This
But whether or not an attacker has some personal issues or mental illness is ultimately immaterial to the question of whether the attack is carried out on behalf of an international terrorist organization. Even if it’s true that the person is unstable, or the victim of discrimination, the reality is that ISIS uses these people as their long arm to reach out and strike the West, which, as for all Islamists, is one of their primary strategic goals. It’s not just a reactionary move in the face of territorial defeat in the Middle East.
It’s also either naïve or deeply dishonest to say that because ISIS didn’t directly coordinate an attack, it wasn’t an ISIS attack. Inspiring adherents around the world to launch terrorist attacks on their own initiative is a vital part of ISIS’s strategy. It’s a more efficient use of time and resources if they don’t have to plan every single attack. Instead, they can rely on people devoted to ISIS and its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. It also makes it more difficult for law enforcement to detect plots and potential terrorists.
ISIS has been explicit about this. The group has been calling on Muslims in Western countries to kill civilians by any means at least since September 2014. The group regularly publishes manuals on how to perpetrate these “homegrown” terrorist attacks, including information on building bombs, using knives, or simply running people over in a truck, like the attack in Nice, France that killed 86 people. All these methods have been successfully utilized in so-called “lone wolf” attacks in Europe and America. (It’s interesting to note that while ISIS itself uses the phrase “lone wolf,” they do so differently than Westerners, who use it to indicate an isolated event.)
To add some historical context, recall that at the end of the nineteenth century, Europe was suffering a rash of anarchist terrorist attacks. At the time, they were considered isolated and unrelated events. But in retrospect, historians like Barbara Tuckman have noted that these men and women were acting as part of a broader movement, one that worked almost like a virus spreading its radicalism to otherwise unconnected individuals. Their connection, of course, was their beliefs.
ISIS is much more overtly organized and blatant about its mission and strategy than nineteenth-century European anarchists, even if that strategy involves the illusion of disparate actors. Yet so many politicians and members of the media continue to act like the whole thing is a mystery, dots with no lines connecting them. They don’t take ISIS, or the attackers, at their word. That’s a dangerous game to play.