September 23, 2016 | The Weekly Standard

We Got Lucky … This Time

At approximately 9:35 a.m. on Saturday, September 17, a garbage can exploded along the route of the Seaside Semper Five Marine Corps Charity 5K Race in Seaside Park, New Jersey. Fortunately, no one was injured. The event’s organizers later cited a delay, caused by registration problems and a suspicious backpack that had to be investigated, as a blessing in disguise. Had the race started on time, participants could have been killed or wounded. No one knew it yet, but America was about to get lucky several more times in the hours that followed.

The pipe bomb explosion at Seaside Park was the first of five attacks planned for that day. On 23rd Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City that night, a much larger bomb made out of a pressure cooker rocked storefronts and sent shrapnel hundreds of feet in every direction. No one was killed, but 31 people were wounded. A separate bomb, built in a similar manner, was intercepted before it could explode just several blocks away on 27th Street. Still more improvised explosive devices were later found inside a backpack at a train station in Elizabeth, N.J. Those IEDs were also neutralized.

Adding to the chaos that Saturday evening, a young Somali man began stabbing men and women at the Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Again, the mallgoers were fortunate. Ten people were wounded, but none perished.

Two days after the bombings and stabbings, President Obama sought to reassure Americans. The president noted, correctly, that “counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals at every level,” federal, state, and local, have “thwarted many plots and saved many lives” through the years. “At this point,” Obama claimed, “we see no connection between that incident [in Minnesota] and what happened here in New York and New Jersey.”

The president may be right, in the sense that there was no direct relationship between the two men who attacked in the Midwest and the Northeast. However, there is at least one connection between the terrorists, even if it is only ideological: They were both jihadists. And the more we've learned about them, the more reasons we have to suspect that they were at least inspired by the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Twenty-two-year-old Dahir Adan, a Somali immigrant, was dressed as a security guard when he entered the Crossroads Center mall and began stabbing people. During a press conference in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 18, St. Cloud police chief William Blair Anderson said that Adan “made some references to Allah” and asked at least one of the victims if he or she was a Muslim.

That second detail may be especially significant. Al Qaeda's jihadists have carried out several massacres in which Muslims were sorted from non-Muslims. The most brutal of these took place at the Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, Kenya, during a multiday siege that began on September 21, 2013. Terrorists dispatched by al Shabaab, al Qaeda's East African branch, tested potential victims on their knowledge of basic Islamic phrases and history. Those deemed Muslim were freed. Non-Muslims were massacred by the dozens, with many more wounded. Three years later nearly to the day, Adan, who was born in Kenya, performed some version of this same test.

The Islamic State has adopted this sorting method on occasion as well. In early July, several terrorists reportedly separated Muslims from non-Muslims during an attack at a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the Islamic State, was quick to claim credit for Adan's terror. “The executor of the stabbing attacks in Minnesota yesterday was a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls to target the citizens of countries belonging to the crusader coalition,” Amaq's statement read. That language is nearly identical to the statements issued after several small-scale operations in Europe this past summer. At least some of the terrorists responsible for those attacks had ties, even if only via the Internet, to Islamic State operatives. Indeed, the so-called caliphate has become increasingly efficient at providing digital direction to aspiring terrorists.

It is too early to tell if Adan had significant ties to the Islamic State, online or otherwise. But the stabbings he carried out are precisely the sort of violence the Islamic State has sought to instigate.

On September 19, Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured after a shootout with police in Linden, N.J. Rahami, a 28-year-old naturalized citizen whose family is from Afghanistan, was found sleeping in the doorway of a local bar. He is charged with the bombings in New York and New Jersey.

When authorities took Rahami into custody, they discovered a blood-soaked notebook with his scribblings inside it. The complaint filed by the Department of Justice the day after Rahami's arrest noted that he had referenced “the instructions of terrorist leaders that, if travel is infeasible, to attack nonbelievers where they live.” The complaint accurately stated that Rahami had praised Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda ideologue who plotted and inspired attacks in the West before he was killed in a 2011 drone strike. But the complaint oddly left out another key name: Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

Adnani, who was killed in an American airstrike in August, served as the Islamic State's spokesman and oversaw the group's anti-Western plotting. In May, Adnani told followers that if Western nations have “shut the door of hijrah [migration] in your faces,” then they should “open the door of jihad in theirs,” meaning in Europe or the United States. “Make your deed a source of their regret,” Adnani said. “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.”

Adnani's name is clearly legible under Awlaki's name on the page of Rahami's notebook that references what the complaint describes as “the instructions of terrorist leaders.” That same page contains the word Dawla, which means “state” and is frequently used as a shorthand for the Islamic State. IS has not yet claimed credit for Rahami's attack.

There is still much we don't know about Dahir Adan and Ahmad Khan Rahami. Authorities are investigating Adan's digital footprints and reinvestigating Rahami's trips in recent years to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. But we do know this: Lady Luck played the biggest role in stopping the jihadists from killing men, women, and children on September 17.

The bomb Rahami is believed to have placed in Chelsea wounded 31 people, but could have easily killed many of them. According to the complaint filed in Rahami's case, the bomb was “comprised of a high-explosive main charge” and “packed with ball bearings and steel nuts, hundreds of which were recovered from the blast site.” It blew out windows 400 feet away and up to three stories high. Fortunately, the bomb was somewhat incompetently placed inside a dumpster, which absorbed much of its blast and lessened its destruction. And in St. Cloud, an off-duty policeman and firearms instructor, Jason Falconer, shot and killed Dahir Adan mid-rampage.

If more capable terrorists decide to strike in the coming months, we might not be as lucky. Rahami's notebook included a reference to attacking the Kuffar (nonbelievers) “in their backyard.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.