By Alex N. Gecan, Asbury Park Press
At 9:35 a.m. on Sept. 17 a bomb exploded at Ocean Avenue and D Street.
Investigators say it was built in America by an American man born in Afghanistan who bought bomb parts over an American online marketplace. He shot at American cops with a gun purchased legally in Virginia.
But the sentiment that inspired him, authorities say, is still foreign.
Rather than agents from abroad, or Americans who travel to hotbeds of jihadism to train for an attack back home, the real menace – to New Jersey, at least – is people who are already here but who grow isolated to the point of indulging violent extremism, according to terrorism experts and security officials.
(Pipe Bomb Explodes in Seaside Park, N.J. from Sep 17, 2016 Courtesy of ABC News and YouTube)
The Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness says that the greatest threat to New Jerseyans is what the agency calls homegrown violent extremists like Ahmad Khan Rahimi, the suspect in the Seaside Park bomb blast.
The explosion in Seaside hurt nobody. The 9 a.m. start time for a Marine Corps fundraiser 5k race, which authorities believe was the intended target, was held up by “other law enforcement activity,” according to a criminal complaint against Rahimi.
But another explosion in Chelsea, also linked to Rahimi, wounded 31 men and women. Authorities recovered or detonated other devices in Elizabeth and Manhattan.
Police arrested Rahimi after a shootout in Linden two days after the Seaside Park explosion.
They recovered a notebook referencing Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Yemeni cleric who promoted al-Qaida online and was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
Among the sometimes-rambling entries there was also a reference to Nidal Hassan, the former U.S. Army major who went on a rampage at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas in 2009.
Rahimi had made trips to Afghanistan and become more fervently religious, friends recalled. In 2014 Rahimi’s father Mohammed Rahimi told authorities he feared his son had become radicalized.
“I found a change in his personality. His mind was not the same. He had become bad and I don’t know what caused it but I informed the FBI about it,” Mohammed Rahimi told the Associated Press in a September 2016 interview.
Authorities said the elder Rahimi recanted his statement – which made it difficult for federal authorities to continue to investigate Rahimi.
Rutgers University Professor John D. Cohen, the senior adviser to the university’s Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security and former counterterrorism coordinator, acting undersecretary and principal deputy undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, says people like Rahimi and Omar Mateen, may belong to a “vulnerable subset of our population” who may also be coping with mental or behavioral health issues.
“They tend to be people who view themselves as being on the fringe of community or the fringe of society,” Cohen said. “They’re looking for some cause that gives their life meaning and these are people who are searching for things primarily on the internet.”
A similar pattern had played out in Orlando, Florida, three months before, when 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire in a nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding dozens more before police bullets cut him down.
Unlike Rahimi, who lived in Elizabeth and had become a naturalized citizen, Mateen was born in the States.
But both men confessed radical viewpoints to friends or family, officials said. Mateen alternately claimed affiliation with al-Qaida and Hezbollah – which in reality are rival entities – before announcing his loyalty to the Islamic State group.
Rahimi’s family related to investigators that he had begun acting more erratic after visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Like Rahimi, Mateen and Ohio State University attacker Abdul Artan watched videos of al-Awlaki or made reference to him. All three men acted alone using weapons they bought legally – or, in Rahimi’s case, building bombs out of readily available materials purchased online, authorities said.
The security community has said that U.S. residents returning from countries in conflict with radical notions and hostile intent is no longer the threat it once was.
“These people aren’t like that,” Cohen said. “These people are becoming inspired by what they see on social media. They are independent of these organizations, carrying out mass-casualty attacks or mass murders.”
That leaves law enforcement playing catch-up.
Federal investigative guidelines, which focus on ties to existant terror organizations or crimes already committed, are not equipped to intervene when someone living in the States starts indulging radical propaganda, Cohen says.
That was how Rahimi and Mateen slipped through their fingers.
The answer, Cohen says, is already available. It’s similar to the way the U.S. Secret Service identifies possible assassins and local police agencies weed out budding gang members.
The key, Cohen says, is to identify behavioral characteristics that indicate someone is growing radicalized. That may give community groups, faith organizations and law enforcement officers an opportunity to bring a would-be attacker back into the fold.
New Jersey officials say they have already begun working with community leaders.
(Al Della Fave, Director of Public Affairs Ocean County Prosecutor’s office, gives briefing on explosive device that went off in Seaside Park, from Sep 17, 2016. Courtesy of NJ .com and YouTube)
“We do that through our Interfaith Advisory Council, which consists of about 100 faith-based leaders from across the state. We meet with them quarterly in a large group and talk about issues of mutual concern,” Rodriguez said.
The director said the outreach had helped halt violence, but that “I can’t get into more detail than that.”
Some large cities have already taken on a more holistic approach to security.
In Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, the Department of Homeland Security reported that local law enforcement officers have reached up to federal agencies and out to school, faith and community leaders to mentor young people and try to turn them away from extremist violence.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative provides grants to cities to implement “whole-community” security initiatives, according to the department’s website.
The Islamic State group, facing declining recruitment numbers and suffering casualties in the upper ranks, has retooled its propaganda effort, intelligence analyst Angie Gad said in a podcast from the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
“They’re telling their fighters not to quit in the face of defeat,” Gad said. “They’re promising their fighters and their supporters an ultimate victory.”
With new rhetoric has come new instructions, too. Where they previously encouraged their supporters to “basically pick up any weapon” and hit a target, they have begun to specify types of knives and vehicles they believe attackers should use, Gad said.
Whether that propaganda is getting through to New Jerseyans is “law-enforcement sensitive,” Rodriguez said. “I wouldn’t be able to speak to that.”
He did say, however, that fewer and fewer Americans are traveling to Iraq and Syria.
“What could be happening is … people are fulfilling their radical jihadist ambitions in the U.S. or in Europe,” Rodriguez said. “They’re preferring to stay at home to conduct that type of terrorism.”
In Ocean County, the Board of Chosen Freeholders moved quickly to expand the purview of local law enforcement. Sheriff Michael Mastronardy said his office is bringing on two new K-9s and handlers.
Most of the security work has involved examining events that draw large crowds – what security officials call soft targets.
“We do some proactive analysis of the event, the type of event, what type of people will be there, et cetera,” Mastronardy said. “What we have is, post-Seaside Park, we get a lot of requests to do K-9 sweeps” before events.
And in any case, while Americans buying into extremist propaganda are ranked as the No. 1 threat to New Jersey, state security officials say that, nationwide, a more familiar culture clash is responsible for most terror attacks.
“Attacks attributed to race-based extremists increased from five in 2015 to 13 in 2016, with the majority attributed to white supremacists,” according to the 2017 terror outlook.
That accounts for 59 percent of all domestic terror attacks, “with the primary targets being law enforcement and minority groups.”
Year over year, terror attacks on cops and other authorities jumped from eight in 2015 to 12 in 2016, with fatalities going from zero to nine. Motives ranged from racism to anti-government sentiment, officials believe.
In July, for example, Micah Xavier Johnson killed five police officers in a Dallas sniper attack that ended when police killed Johnson. Authorities said he had specifically targeted white cops.
A rancorous presidential election and recent, highly publicized violent encounters between cops and civilians have inflamed tempers.
“Our country is hyper-polarized, and we’re polarized on political, racial grounds and we’ve seen several attacks in this country targeting police … where the people were motivated to commit an act of violence based on the rhetoric they were seeing out in the media, social media, by public officials,” Cohen said.
Still, he said, interdiction is possible, and is even already going on.
“It doesn’t take a lot of new resources,” Cohen said.
What it takes, he says, is “changing the way we think.”