Reconsidering Terror Watch Lists

by Martín Saps

On Monday September 19th, authorities arrested 28-year-old Ahmed Khan Rahami, an Afghan-born U.S citizen, over alleged connections to last week’s bombings in Chelsea, a neighborhood on the lower west side of Manhattan.

According to the mayor of Linden, New Jersey, the city where the suspect was arrested , police were called to Merdie’s Tavern after the owner found a man sleeping in the doorway of the establishment. Upon arriving at the bar, the police officer noticed that Rahami resembled the man wanted in connection with the New York City attacks three days prior.

The suspect opened fire on the officer, leading to a shootout between the two in which Rahami suffered two gunshot wounds. Rahami, a resident of nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey, is currently in treatment for the injuries and is expected to survive.

Rahami is not new to law enforcement officers, given that his father called the FBI in 2014 to report Rahami’s suspicious behavior. “Two years ago I go to the FBI because my son was doing really bad, OK?” he said. “But they check almost two months, they say, ‘He’s OK, he’s clean, he’s not a terrorist.’ I say OK.”

In addition to the officer shooting, Rahami is believed to be responsible for a number of explosives found throughout New York and New Jersey since Saturday. Early that day, a pipe bomb exploded in Seaside Park, New Jersey where a charity race was expected to be held; no one was injured or killed.

Hours later, an incendiary device resembling the one in New Jersey exploded, injuring 29 people but killing no one. Shortly after, investigators found a pipe bomb near 27th street, which they proceeded to diffuse. Surveillance footage shows Rahami carrying a duffel bag near the sites of both explosions and DNA found on the explosives matched Rahami’s.

Around 9:30 PM on Sunday September 18th, an unexploded pipe bomb was discovered at a railway station in Elizabeth, New Jersey which is Rahami’s home town. Police brought in a diffusion robot which accidentally detonated the explosive device; no people were injured.

When interviewed about the attacks, New York Gov. Anthony Cuomo claimed that “A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism” and would be prosecuted as such. Likewise, a journal found in Rahami’s pocket during his arrest contained numerous entries explaining his disdain for the U.S government, often praising terrorists such as the Boston Bombers, the Fort Hood Shooter, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Osama Bin Laden. Regardless of whether Rahami was in contact with a larger organization, his attack was likely inspired by jihadist rhetoric. Numerous terrorist organizations, notably the Islamic State, have called on Muslims to commit attacks against the west. While the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not heed these calls, they nonetheless inspire a number of radicalized followers in western countries to commit seemingly independent attacks in the name of their faith. Examples of these “lone-wolf” attacks include the Orlando Shootings in June and the Bastille Day attacks in July. The lack of communication between many perpetrators and the larger networks that they are inspired by poses a challenge to law enforcement officials, given that there is little direct communication to intercept. It also highlights the importance of closely surveilling people on terror watch lists and identifying people that have showed signs of radicalization, such as the Orlando Shooter, who was on such a list. While that is not technically considered a crime, and hence not prosecutable in itself, it does not legally impede law enforcements’ right to watch such potential criminals.



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Critics of terror watch lists often denounce the laws that surround them, which often border infringements on the fourth amendment. But given that the supreme court has ruled that such laws do not violate the constitution, they are legally permissible. To be clear, terror watch lists are highly flawed: there are hundreds of thousands of people on such lists, many of whom have no known terror affiliation. While the list does have some problems, the benefits of surveilling potential terrorists far outweighs the harms posed by it, especially considering that being on the list itself is not a crime. According to Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, despite having some misidentifications, the list is “quite legitimate” and has been “effective in preventing attacks”, especially since it allows the FBI to inform agents of gun purchases by people on the list.

Many organizations such as the ACLU have criticized the lack of clear standards by which law enforcement agencies determine who is placed on the list. Furthermore, the list’s secrecy (for National Security purposes) makes it impossible for Americans to protest their inclusion on the list if they have mistakenly been placed on it. Overall, however the security that the list brings outweighs the harms that it may bring a few people.

While it may be nice to believe that surveillance is not necessary in our society, the reality is far more grim; the public only sees the few attacks that occur, not the dozens of attacks that are thwarted by law enforcement agencies. These agencies seem to be subject to the ebb and flow of public opinion: if they succeed in avoiding major attacks for an extended period of time, the public becomes ignorant of security threats and begins to think that surveillance is not warranted; the public is often forgetful of the past, thinking that since the threat of terror seems distant, it is altogether gone.

The United States’ role as the symbol of the western way of thought that jihadist groups seek to rebel against makes it a target for these organizations. While it may be true that the U.S’ intervention in middle east affairs gave way to many of the terrorist organizations that we see today, Islamic extremists’ loathing of the U.S is largely due to the clash between worldviews; it is the product of a radical ideology whose values directly clash with the U.S’ secular approach. This clash of values goes both ways, with Islamist groups like Islamic State or Boko Haram, an Islamic State affiliate, being enemies of the US even before they directly attack the west. So long as the United States remains the emblem of western liberalism, it will be the target of antagonism.

While staying within the bounds of the Constitution, the U.S must ensure that national security is a top priority; people must not become complacent or forget the past, lest the U.S become vulnerable to larger attacks.

Martín Saps is a Uruguayan-American studying Politics (with minors in History and Philosophy) at Bates College. He is a member of the Rugby and Debate Teams and hopes to pursue a career in in print media. He has published in both English and Spanish on topics ranging from the Islamic State’s presence in Bangladesh to Affirmative Action. He loves writing because it gives him the opportunity to share his perspective on politics, history, and current events with readers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The picture is by EFF-Graphic, under a CC BY 3.0 and can be found here.

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