Monday morning an individual attempted to detonate an improvised pipe bomb in a walkway at New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal near Times Square. Police have named 27-year-old Akayed Ullah as the suspect, who is reportedly of Bangladeshi descent and resides in Brooklyn.
Although full details have yet to be released, the nature of today’s attack represents the new “normal” of contemporary terrorism. Indeed, the attack appears consistent with recent warnings counterterrorism experts have been issuing over the past few months. In particular, experts have cautioned about the vulnerability of public transportation hubs to a terrorist attack and have frequently warned that global terror groups are transitioning to an increasing reliance on lone-wolves to conduct independent attacks — especially during the holiday season.
Indeed, the suspect appears to have heeded ISIS’s call to attack during the holiday season. He was reportedly inspired by ISIS-linked attacks on Christmas markets, according to the New York Times.
This new “normal” of modern terrorism is primarily marked by a transition away from large-scale terrorist organizations and instead towards an increasing reliance on independent operatives. To be fair, this transformation has been a pragmatic response to the international community’s efforts to dismantle large terror organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
As a result, terror groups are increasingly relying on lone-wolf operatives to carry out an attack on behalf of the organization. The State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism seems to agree, suggesting that the Islamic State’s urgent appeal for lone-wolf adherents to rise up and strike their home countries is an “acknowledgment of the more difficult environment.”
While on the surface the dismantling of large-scale, bureaucratic terror organizations represents a positive development in counterterrorism, it does pose a number of new and arguably more daunting challenges.
Small-scale groups are easier to proliferate and more difficult to counter. Surveillance is often ineffective since individuals are less likely to communicate with a central command, financial support is not necessary to orchestrate a small-scale attack, and terrorists no longer require extensive training since a great deal of technical information such as bomb-making is widely available on the internet.
Indeed, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, acknowledged the accessibility of terror-related materials: “Anyone can go on the internet and download garbage and vileness on how to put together an amateur-level explosive device, and that is the reality that we live with.”
However, this attack in NYC, as well as the attack this past October when a suspect drove a rental truck through lower Manhattan, also underscores the inefficacy of the Trump administration’s current approach to counterterrorism. In particular, the suspects in both attacks originated from countries not included in the president’s travel ban.
Counterterrorism policy needs to instead bolster the capabilities of domestic law enforcement to detect and respond to a potential terror attack. Indeed, local police officers are most likely to be the first responders to an incident — not military officials — and need to possess the appropriate training and resources in order to be effective. So far this does not appear to be the case.
Amtrak’s David Pearlson, president of the Police Labor Committee, recently disclosed that Amtrak police are unprepared for a terrorist attack and officers are long overdue for upgrades in equipment and staffing. Recognizing the importance of interagency cooperation in preventing terrorism, Pearlson confided that it had been about 10 years since the last time they had conducted interagency training.
Successful counterterrorism also requires effective information sharing. The State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales, suggested that the recent terror attacks in Barcelona and Nice could have been prevented with a more robust information sharing protocol. But information sharing also requires an effective legal system. Indeed, one of the most tragic lessons learned from last year’s attack on the Berlin Christmas market was that the incident could have been prevented, if legal roadblocks to deportation had not been in place.
Finally, many experts now acknowledge that military solutions may only exacerbate terrorism and are now turning to de-radicalization programs to thwart potential or former terrorists from adopting political violence. Many of the programs are based on existing initiatives to rehabilitate former criminals or gang members. Meanwhile, Germany’s effort to de-radicalize foreign fighters who travel to Syria is based on its past success of reintegrating neo-Nazis. Research regarding the efficacy of such programs is still emerging but the tentative evidence looks positive.
That said, many experts recognize that this new normality of modern terrorism will still be difficult to counter and stop.
Renowned counterterrorism expert Daniel Byman has acknowledged that many of these small-scale terror attacks would be difficult to prevent — even with the benefit of hindsight. This only underscores the importance of a bolstering the capacity of first responders and removing legal obstacles in order to bring potential perpetrators to justice. Effective counterterrorism means, in part, moving away from a reliance on military instruments of national security and exploring alternative policies as terrorist organizations transition to an increasing reliance on lone-wolf attacks as occurred Monday in New York City.
Jeffrey Treistman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisory in Baghdad, Iraq and was a consultant for the Department of Defense’s African Command.