The terror suspect in bomb attacks in New York and New Jersey shares several traits with other attackers who’ve acted alone or with relatives to kill many more people in the United States in recent years.
Ahmad Rahami, a native of Afghanistan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, traveled to a Muslim country rife with terrorist recruiters, developed a connection to a conservative form of his Muslim faith and exhibited a change in behavior before acting out, according to friends and acquaintances.
“His travel itinerary and his Afghan origins raise the possibility that he was radicalized by Afghan Taliban recruiters from their base in Pakistan,” said Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Here are some similar cases of seemingly unremarkable Muslim Americans who turned to radicalism and murder:
• Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a Chechen immigrant who bombed the Boston Marathon with his brother in 2013, was believed by Russian security officials to have been radicalized during a visit to his homeland.
• Syed Farouk, a U.S.-born American of Pakistani decent who together with his Pakistani-born wife killed 14 of his co-workers in San Bernardino, Calif., traveled to Saudi Arabia before launching his attack.
• Faisal Shahzad, who tried in 2010 to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square, told investigators he learned to make bombs in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Like several other U.S. terror suspects, investigators said Rahami also followed the preachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-Yemeni cleric killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Al-Awlaki was a top official in al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula who launched and inspired several "lone wolf" and other attacks from territory the group continues to control in war-torn Yemen.
Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, was also inspired by al-Awlaki, with whom he'd exchanged emails before his attack.
Evidence suggests that 15 years after the United States launched wars in Afghanistan to eliminate a terrorist safe haven for al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, such lawless territory where plotters can work abroad remains “a significant contributor to the terrorist threat that we face at home,” Boot said in Commentary magazine.
Also as it did with some other lone attackers, the FBI investigated Rahami. It happened after his father reported him as a terrorist following an altercation between Rahami and his brother in 2014, federal law enforcement officials told USA TODAY. The FBI looked into Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at a gay night club in Orlando this year. And the FBI investigated Hasan six months before his Fort Hood rampage in November 2009.
Investigators are looking at too many tips, with too few resources, Boot said. “And (it’s) hard to prove terrorist intent absent an actual plot,” he said in a tweet.
FBI also looked into Orlando shooter. But too many tips, too few resources. And hard to prove terrorist intent absent actual plot. https://t.co/vBPr0XVt0t— Max Boot (@MaxBoot) September 20, 2016
Rahami’s nationality and mode of becoming radicalized may be less important than who he knew, and whether he was in contact with violent religious extremists during his travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Matthew Levitt, a former counter-terrorism official at the Treasury Department who’s now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We’re probably going to find out this individual had more contact than most, because we’re now learning that these bombs were significantly more sophisticated than those used by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston,” Levitt said.
Finding such people in advance is exceedingly difficult, because “we don’t yet have much in the way of patterns to go by in this and other examples,” he said. “For all the FBI and intelligence and police are doing — and they’re doing so much — it’s impossible to be aware of everybody who at some point along the path of their life might be radicalized. It’s just not possible.”