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EFSAS Commentary

New York attack and the South Asian connection


A 27-year-old Bangladeshi born lone wolf terrorist detonated an improvised low-tech explosive device inside a busy New York City subway transit hub on the 11th of December 2017, injuring himself and four other people and setting off panic during the morning rush hour. The incident in the heart of Manhattan caused chaos, which led to major evacuations of commuters from the biggest and busiest bus terminal in the world that accommodates more than 65 million passengers a year.

Officials report that the suspect, later identified as Akayed Ullah, was an ISIS adherent and attempted the attack in the name of the terrorist organization, telling investigators that he was acting in response to Israeli actions in Gaza, as he was overwhelmed with rage over the killings of Muslims around the world.

The device, which he attempted to set off, was a 30-cm long pipe that contained black powder, a battery, wiring, nails and screws and was attached to him with velcro and zip ties. The law enforcement officials claimed that Akayed Ullah had at least one more low-tech explosive device, which he failed to detonate. It was further confirmed that he was indeed inspired by ISIS and Al Qaeda extremist propaganda online and acquired knowledge on how to fabricate his explosive device through manuals he found on the Internet.

The New York Bomber admitted that he purposefully targeted the festively decorated area of the underground, because few weeks ago ISIS released a series of Christmas propaganda imageries featuring Santa Claus at Times square, next to explosives and the phrase “We meet at Christmas in New York ... soon”. Similar Jihadi posters had been shared through encrypted communication channels with having London, Paris and Rome as targets.

Evidently, ISIS is increasingly turning to lone-wolf supporters to take up its violent cause around the Western world – Akayed Ullah himself told the police authorities that he planned the attack on his own.

The attacker was originally from Bangladesh and lived in Brooklyn, having immigrated to the US in 2011 on an F43 visa, issued to him through his family connection. He was working as a taxi driver between March 2012 and 2015.

The Bangladeshi Government claimed he did not hold any criminal record in their country, which he last visited in September 2017. In a statement released through its Embassy in Washington, the Bangladeshi Government said it was "Committed to its declared policy of 'Zero Tolerance' against terrorism, and condemns terrorism and violent extremism in all forms or manifestations anywhere in the world, including Monday morning's incident in New York City".

"A terrorist is a terrorist irrespective of his or her ethnicity or religion, and must be brought to justice", a Government official stated.

This malicious terrorist attack proves the need of tackling the causes of growing radical fundamentalism originating in South Asia and among South Asian Diaspora, especially Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. The region constantly suffers from the toxic propaganda of both State and non-State actors, which have raised levels of distrust amongst the countries and their peoples. Extremist interpretations of religion by terrorist outfits are used to strengthen their political agendas and have erected walls of religious intolerance and hate in South Asia, which more than often has a bearing on the South Asian Diaspora around the world. The terrorist attack in New York exhibits how these regional challenges spread to other places and impose unprecedented disastrous consequences. Contentions, which might be seemingly unrelated, can fuel confrontations and influence opinions in separate countries and exacerbate religious violence. Some terrorists in the US and Europe have shown to derive inspiration from successes of other terrorists elsewhere and as such establish ‘sleeper cells’ which threaten the basic fundaments of democracy in the world and pose serious challenges to security concerns that the West has. Some of these ‘sleeper cells’ are known to have enjoyed psychological and military training in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which has turned them into a formidable force to reckon with.

Bangladesh is currently facing an incremental rise of radicalization that could be tracked down to the country’s clashes between secular and right-wing ideologies, large pool of vulnerable youth and accretive levels of unemployment, which altogether provide space for violent narratives by extremist ideologies. Moreover, home-grown extremist outfits have received ideological and strategic support from transnational terrorist networks such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, which further exploit the public anxieties over perceived threats to their identity, ethos, codes of behaviour and sentiments of Muslims in general, said to be suffering in other countries across the globe. This has resulted in a scenario where extremist outfits perceive Bangladesh as a favourable ground for exerting their dominion over the local population.

Therefore, we cannot afford to underestimate the formidable infrastructure of terrorism in South Asia. From the expansion of ISIS and its worldwide recruitment policies, it has become clear that the threat of terrorism is not restricted to its region of origin anymore. The mass use of Internet and social media, which could also been seen in the recent violence in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir over the death of a designated Hizbul Mujahideen Chief Commander, has obscured the borders of extremism in South Asia further and pose an undeniable menace to global peace. The disturbing mushrooming of Madrassas, which only promote religious education based on the tenets of extremism, should also not be trivialized.

Review of the recent New York attack illustrates how the response to growing violent extremism should take place through uniform provisions of secular high-quality education, effective justice delivery system, strong law enforcement, far-reaching comprehensive policies and solid democratic institutions.

The importance of extending counter radicalization strategies into cyberspace, that has turned into a vital element of the radicalization of transnational and domestic terrorists who often embrace it as a platform for dissemination of ideas, recruitment and incitement to violence, cannot be ignored. From the unfolding of the events surrounding the New York bomb blast, it is very clear that groups like ISIS have a strong digital footprint through social media.  

In response, sound strategies against the ongoing online radicalization must be adopted. Approaches aimed at restricting freedom of speech and removing content from the Internet appear to be the least effective. Instead, Governments in South Asia should more vigorously try to reduce the demand for terrorist propaganda and indoctrination by counteracting extremist narratives, raising awareness and promoting mainstream secular education.

By good fortune, the recent New York terrorist attack resulted only in an attempt of a grand-scale massacre with no casualties, yet terrorists need to be lucky once, while targets need to be lucky each and every time.