Terrorism and the Big Apple

New York and New Yorkers have a reputation of being tough.  Whether it stems from dealing with horrendous traffic jams or the constant crush of people everywhere I am not sure, but they do seem a rather resilient lot.

This came out clearly today in the wake of yet another terrorist attack.  I was staying in a hotel not three blocks from where a 27-year old man of Bangladeshi origin detonated a pipe bomb in the subway very close to Times Square, injuring himself severely in the act.  Fortunately, only four people were slightly wounded in the blast, none of them gravely, although I can only imagine the panic in the minutes following the blast with all the noise and smoke.

What, then, was the reaction of New Yorkers to this latest attack?  A collective shrug from what I witnessed.  To be fair, a few things need to be said to help put today’s events in perspective.  The terrorist attack was very small in scope and no one has died.  It occurred during morning rush hour but was probably not detected by most residents.  When you have lived through 9/11 the setting off of a puny pipe bomb probably doesn’t really rate.

And yet the lack of general panic does deserve some comment.  When we talk of ‘resilience ‘ to terrorism and a need to get back to normality as soon as possible these are often just words and seldom translated into action.  Terrorism frightens many and has a direct impact on what people do and where they go.  I have heard many say that they are reluctant to travel out of fear of terrorism.  This kind of reaction, while understandable, supports the goals of terrorists: causing fear and dictating how we live our lives.  New Yorkers have decided they won’t give in to this attempt at forcing change into their routine and I for one congratulate them for their stance.  True, this is neither Mogadishu nor Baghdad where terrorism is a daily scourge but the ‘New York state of mind’ is nonetheless inspiring.

There are also some interesting aspects to what happened in Manhattan this morning, although careful analysts will be hesitant to say much of substance until we learn more of the perpetrator and his motive.  Regardless of his actual reasons, a few things are of note:

– he appears to have arrived in the US legally seven years ago and most probably radicalised in the US, just like the Uzbek terrorist a few months back.

– there is a good chance that the terrorist was at a minimum inspired by Islamic State, reminding us that the group’s losses on the battlefield do not necessarily mean it is not still dangerous as it continues to encourage and lead others to act.

– most terrorists are incompetent and incapable of building bombs (we saw that with Aaron Driver in Strathroy in August 2016).  For that we should be thankful and express relief that a more qualified individual did not carry out a more lethal attack.

– there may or may not be a link to the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Whether or not the tie is present the move is still a bad one as I discussed at length in a previous blog.  We will see incidents planned and perpetrated by those using the change in policy to justify acts of terrorism.

In the end I have found this experience fascinating.  As someone who worked in counter terrorism for a long time this is the very first time I have been ‘present ‘ during an attack (I was not in Ottawa during the October 2014 incident at the National Cenotaph and on Parliament Hill and had left Paris hours before the November 2015 Bataclan massacre).  What I will take away from today is the ability of the locals to say a collective ‘screw you!’ to terrorism.  If only we could all react in a similar fashion.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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