At around two pm on Sunday, September 19, my wife and I landed at Dulles International Airport aboard a Lufthansa jumbo-jet. We were returning from a ten-day trip to Germany, where I gave talks in five towns—Hamburg, Leipzig, Nürnberg (commonly called Nuremberg in English), Heidelburg, and Tübigen—on the 2016 U.S. election phenomenon. Part of what I told the audiences, all assembled by German-American Centers (successors to the old USIA Amerika Haus institutions), is that three “wild cards” remained before November 8: health issues (Hillary Clinton had only recently suffered her “overheating” episode); the Russian dumping of more anti-Hillary scuttlebutt (the Colin Powell hack, which occurred when I was there, was clearly a preliminary Russian “dump” meant to harm her); and a likelihood of new terrorist attacks by Islamist groups (ISIS and perhaps others) also designed to vault Donald Trump into office on the basis of well-timed politically mobilized fear. These attacks, I told the audiences, could either be large and telegenic, or could be staged as a series small events designed to annex successive news headlines, culminating in a rolling panic.
Little did I know that after my final talk of the tour had been delivered, as my wife and I strolled the lovely hills and gardens of the University of Tübigen, where in the latter part of the 15th century the redoubtable Johannes Reuchlin himself had studied, one Ahmed Khan Rahami was busy trying to blow stuff (and innocent people) up in Manhattan and Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Now, I could boast that I too “called that one,” but it would be a stretch. Rahami, as is by now well known, is an American citizen of Afghan (more accurately, Pashtun) ethnic descent. In that he is like Omar Mateen of the Orlando horror, and in that he is also like the attackers in San Bernardino who were not Arabs and who had no operational connection of any kind to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or any other Middle Eastern-based group. Rahami apparently was inspired by Osama bin Laden and, more directly, by another naturalized American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki—killed by a Predator drone attack in Yemen in September 2011. But unlike Mateen or the Pakistani couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, Rahami had spent a considerable amount of time in Southwest Asia, including in Quetta, the Baluchistani headquarters of the exiled Taliban leadership. It remains unclear—at least to me—how much contact or training he had while in Quetta. If he was trained, he was either trained poorly, judging by his placement of otherwise fairly sophisticated bombs, or else he’s just sort of stupid. Hey, it happens.
Also like the Mateen and Farook/Malik cases, the FBI had Rahami in their sights, in this case more than once—even Rahami’s father had warned them of coming trouble—and it managed to let him explode the bombs anyway. As I wrote back on June 16, you can blame the FBI for being a bunch of Keystone Cops if you like, and I would not go out of my way to contradict you. But the truth is that the actual blame for their manifest incapacity extends well beyond the FBI to include DHS, its appurtenances, and, behind them both, as usual, Congress.
My guess is that more attacks are coming, possibly from actual ISIS operatives as well as ISIS-inspired fanatics, during October and into the first week of November. And the FBI—as well as TSA and related organizations—will probably not be able to stop them except by dumb luck, even though they have to know at least as much about what’s going to happen as I do.
But back to Dulles Airport for a moment.
As anyone who has ever experienced landing on an international flight at Dulles knows, getting out of that airport is no cakewalk—especially if you have to wait at a baggage carousel for your luggage. If more than two international flights land within a half hour or so, as happens often enough, between getting your luggage and passing U.S. Customs (which since 2002 is an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security), you can be dragging your heels for up to two hours standing in a excruciatingly slow-moving line, in a space that lacks, well, aesthetic charm, let’s call it.
We were lucky: Only one other international flight landed around the same time as ours: a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight from Jeddah.
It was immediately clear to me that this flight from Jeddah carried returning pilgrims from Mecca. I could tell by the way people were dressed, and also by the fact that just about everyone from that flight lined up for Customs inspection with rectangular blue and while boxes holding zamzam water in their pushcarts. I could read the Arabic inscriptions on the boxes. Gifts for relatives and friends, no doubt.
Each one of the boxes was a perfect size for a modest IED, and there were dozens of them in plain view. Was I scared? No. I’m not paranoid, I know better than to imagine that Muslims are likely to be terrorists (though most terrorists these days are likely to be Muslims, obviously something very different). And, having lived for a while in Israel, my wife and I are trained to be considerably more stoic than the typical American.
Ah, but then I saw an older woman, travelling with her husband, carrying a black canvas bag inscribed in large white letters—in Roman and Arabic script—“Al-Shabaab.” She looked Somali to me, and the otherwise plain bag’s writing looked nothing like the stylized sports teams’ logos of the same name—shabaab just means, roughly, “the youth” in Arabic—in the UAE, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. Was I scared now? No, this woman was nowhere near the age cohort of a standard-issue terrorist. But my attention was, shall we say, arrested.
This woman and her husband were eight to ten yards ahead of us as the three lines snaked forward toward the Customs agents at their posts and the very few security personnel behind them, between the Customs post and the exit. I watched this (presumably) Somali woman’s progress. She and her husband passed through Customs and past the TSA/DHS personnel without interruption. Maybe security cameras picked her up and some kind of follow-up ensued, out of my line of sight? Perhaps, but I saw her and her husband outside the building a few minutes later, waiting to enter a taxi.
It’s probably too much to ask that TSA/DHS personnel be trained to read the Arabic script. But is it also too much to ask them to be curious about a woman with an Al-Shabaab bag, written out in a script they can read, and in the standard black-and-white color scheme of salafi militants?
How to explain this? I don’t know. Do the security personnel at Dulles Airport not realize that Al-Shabaab is a group on the U.S. designated terror-organization list since February 2008? That seems hard to credit. But other possible explanations elude me, except to note that the routinization of security scrutiny in a case like this is very nearly an oxymoron. It’s an exceedingly tedious job looking for one bad needle in a huge innocuous haystack, and it’s psychologically normal for those tasked with such a job to get a bit numb to the environment over time. Similarly, the average person tends to miss cues that something might be wrong because something actually being wrong is rare in the extreme.
I hope to be proved wrong about any upswell of terrorism over the next five to six weeks. But if I’m not, I’m less likely than ever to be surprised by how the perpetrators accomplished their deeds.