The New York bombing: Repercussions on political and social discourse
September’s New York bombing increases the risk of Islamophobia and has potential impacts on the presidential race.
On September 17th, 2016, at 9:30am, a homemade pipe bomb went off in Seaside Heights, NJ, along the route of a planned 5K race benefiting members of the US Marine Corps. No injuries resulted from the blast; however, an area-wide lock down and investigation caused localized disruptions. This was the first of several interconnected security-related events over two days that shocked the public.
Later in the evening on the 17th, a pressure cooker bomb exploded at 8:30pm in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan: 31 people were injured, and there were large-scale disruptions. Another (defective) bomb was later found in Manhattan, in addition to several unexploded improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near a train station in Elizabeth, NJ.
Beyond obvious short-term repercussions of the attacks in and around the NY region, the proximity of this event to the US elections in November could cause further ripples on both political and social spheres.
As specialists compared the devices from NY and NJ, similarities became hard to ignore, pointing the finger at a sole perpetrator. Relatively quickly, law enforcement established and apprehended a main suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami of Elizabeth, NJ. Thanks to a tip from a local witness, Rahami was arrested after a shootout in the streets of Linden, NJ, just two days after the first incident. Authorities have not established interaction between Rahami and any extremist groups; however, the devices were relatively sophisticated.
As the investigation continues and the suspect eventually appears in court, information about any training or influences from travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan will be a topic of interest. It is currently unknown whether the perpetrator learned to make the devices through training abroad or was self-taught. As the materials to make these devices are commonly available to the public, there are no methods for law enforcement to deny potential attackers the same materials.
Attacks inspired by extremist groups
There are reports that Rahami carried a notebook that referred to inspiration from well-known figures including Osama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the famed cleric who posthumously continues to inspire recruits to the cause of violent extremist ideology via the likes of YouTube.
Also referring to the Boston Marathon bombers as inspiration, Rahami is believed to be the latest in a series of acts of terror perpetrated with extremist ideology as inspiration, but lacking formal ties, training, or direction from a group itself. The so-called Islamic State claimed a knife attack on Saturday, the 19th of September in Minnesota; however, it seemed to be connected by inspiration alone.
Impact on social discourse
Unfortunately, there are additional repercussions when someone perpetrates an act of violence and ties it to Islam: an increase in Islamophobic acts and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
This rhetoric has been fueled by the discourse of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and recent reports support the causal relationship. The Chelsea attack therefore has a role to play in driving anti-Islam sentiment in the public arena, which could have greater lasting power on the public psyche than the security incident itself.
At the time of writing, Donald Trump has slipped in the polls. However, the fear of terrorist attacks in the United States (US) could drive more proponents of hard power to vote for the conservative party, especially if another similar attack occurs before the elections. Targeting these populations as voters, Donald Trump has made calls for the ‘return of waterboarding’ as a tactic. This has perplexed foreign policy gurus and intelligence community leaders such as former CIA chief Hayden, as use of the method is illegal under laws created since its use after 9/11.
Through knee-jerk policy reactions, the Chelsea bombing could eventually serve to bolster hardline views against immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries. If the suspect is found guilty and learned bomb making or other tactics while traveling abroad, there remains the possibility that immigration policy could be revisited. It is not likely that any long-term economic damage will occur within the New York region, as the developed economy is resilient to attacks of this nature.
Whether or not ties to any group are proven in the Rahami case, this event bolsters the idea that isolated attacks by individuals against soft targets will continue in an ad-hoc and unpredictable manner across the United States and beyond into the foreseeable future. As such, security around key transit hubs may be increased temporarily, but attacks by individuals remain difficult to detect in the preparation stages and thereby prevent.
While this is the current stark reality across the US and beyond, the risk of personal injury or death from a terrorist attack remains low in the US in relation to the fear that these incidents generate. To conclude, attacks perpetrated by individuals can shock local American populations temporarily and fuel anti-Muslim sentiment, but do not pose a strategic long-term risk.