What foiled New York subway attack says about lone-wolf bombers

As many New Yorkers express relief at the relatively minor impact of the latest terror attack on their city, experts point out that, in the US, both suicide attacks and attempts to hide homemade bombs in public places are rarely successful. 

Seth Wenig/AP
Police officers patrol in the passageway connecting New York City's Port Authority bus terminal and the Times Square subway station Dec. 12, near the site of Monday's explosion. Commuters returning to New York City's subway system on Tuesday were met with heightened security a day after a would-be suicide bomber failed to cause the mayhem he intended.

When New York officials gathered outside the Port Authority in Manhattan on Monday to discuss the failed subway bombing a few hours earlier, they expressed a city’s collective sense of relief.

“It’s in many ways one of our worst nightmares,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But the “counter reality,” he said, turned out better than initial expectations and fears. “This is New York and we all pitch together and we are a savvy people and we keep our eyes open.”

On a packed subway system that serves more than 5.6 million riders, its cars and platforms teeming with shoulder-to-shoulder commuters every workday, many New Yorkers have long been aware of the havoc a single explosion could wreak.

“Let’s be clear, as New Yorkers, our lives revolve around the subways,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday. “When we hear of an attack on the subways, it’s incredibly unsettling... Thank God the perpetrator did not achieve his ultimate goals. Thank God our first responders were there so quickly to address the situation and make sure people were safe. Thank God the only injuries that we know at this point were minor.”

Yet even as many New Yorkers express such relief at the relatively minor impact of the latest terror attack on their city, experts point out that both suicide attacks and those that attempt to hide homemade bombs in public places are rarely successful.  

Only three people sustained minor injuries from the crude, homemade pipe bomb assembled by Akayed Ullah, the Bangladeshi immigrant who lived in Brooklyn for seven years and carried out Monday's failed attack. Stuffed with match heads and wired with Christmas tree lights, authorities said, his bomb, strapped to his body with velcro straps, blew up accidentally and caused serious burns and injuries to his abdomen.

Indeed, there has never been a successful suicide bombing on US soil. And since 9/11, there has only been a single suicide attack in the United States, according to a database compiled by the University of Chicago – a domestic act of terror that did not involve warped religious beliefs.

In 2010, a Texas man, Andrew Joseph Stack III, deliberately flew his single-engine plane into an Internal Revenue Office in Austin, citing the “greed” and “insanity” of the nation’s tax collectors. His suicide attack killed one IRS worker and injured 13.

The worst terrorist bombing in US history was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, the American domestic terrorist who detonated a fertilizer truck bomb in front of a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 10 pre-school children.

And even when it comes to the sort of homemade bombs used by Mr. Ullah, “these devices aren’t really sophisticated, and they often fail,” says Don Haider-Markel, professor and chair of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and an expert in terrorism and counterterrorism measures. “And most of the failures you don’t even hear about, because they’re usually when somebody makes one and puts it into someone’s mailbox, or puts it in front of someone’s door – maybe it happens in Iowa somewhere, and it never makes national news.”

In 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev built two homemade bombs and planted them near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds. But most others were unsuccessful, experts say.

String of failures

In 2016, a husband and father from Afghanistan, Ahmad Khan Rahimi, who lived most of his life in New Jersey, planted nine explosives in New York and New Jersey, but most failed to explode. After one of his home-made devices blew up a dumpster in Manhattan, one New Yorker walking half a block away with his wife and two young daughters thought, “Oh, that’s all you got?” (That bravado was echoed by many New Yorkers Monday, including talk show host Stephen Colbert, who said, “You tried to terrorize New York and you failed. We’re stronger than that. The worst you did is make the subways run late — and the M.T.A. does that just fine without your help.”)

In 2010, the naturalized US citizen Faisal Shahzad, who trained with bombmakers in Pakistan, botched his attempt to explode a vehicle in Times Square.

These were just the latest in a string of failures since the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was foiled in his attempt to light the fuse and bring down a flight from Paris to Miami. In 2009, the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  

Even so, the attempted attack in New York comes as suicide attacks around the globe have reached record levels. Earlier this year, researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for suicide terror attacks worldwide: there were nearly 500 attacks in 28 countries that killed about 5,650 people.

But in the United States, the majority of Al Qaeda and ISIS-inspired terror attempts have been perpetrated by “lone wolf” actors, without the support of wider networks.

“We really don’t have terror cells here in the United States,” says Charles Strozier, director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “And that is because there are some very important structural and cultural factors at work.”

“Our Muslim-American community here is much more assimilated, peaceful, and middle class than the communities in Europe,” which have more first generation, working class immigrants who tend to follow more fundamentalist ideologies, he explains.

The majority of suicide bombings around the world are carried out by groups fighting foreign occupation, according to the research of Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of the 2010 book, “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.”

And fewer than 10 percent of such terrorists cross national borders to carry out their attacks, found Dr. Pape, the founding director of the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, which maintains the exhaustive database on global suicide attacks.  

Even in Europe, a number of attempted suicide bombings failed. In July 2016, the device of a Syrian terrorist exploded too early outside a German music festival, killing only the bomber. In Jakarta, Indonesia, a would-be terrorist’s backpack burned but failed to explode in a packed church. He then attacked and injured a priest with an axe. In August, a bomb blew up in the safe house of a terror cell in Spain, killing one member, before the group used a truck to kill 13 people on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.

But law enforcement has also become more savvy in thwarting such plots in New York, experts say.

In 2011, the NYPD arrested the Al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Pimentel just hours before he was about to finish a powerful pipe bomb in Harlem. In 2012, police arrested a Bangladeshi man here on a student visa after he tried to detonate a bomb in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in lower Manhattan.

And just this past October, the FBI and NYPD foiled a plot by three ISIS-inspired would-be terrorists who were also planning a bombing campaign in the subway system and other public places.

“Some kind of threat to the subways will always exist, and that’s just something we have to live with,” says Mr. Strozier. “Some ordinary citizens might not want to hear that, but I think that’s what we’ve accepted.”

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