Eighteen years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, many Americans believe that the threat of Islamist terror is played out—but that's only because our counterterrorism efforts have been so successful. Attempted terror attacks no longer make front-page headlines, but the list of foiled plots to kill American citizens is long and chilling. This past summer saw arrests of potential terrorists who would have killed dozens or hundreds of people if successful. On September 3, for example, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn charged Ruslan Maratovich Asainov, also known as Suleiman Al-Amriki, with providing material support to ISIS. Asainov is accused of having been an ISIS sniper and weapons instructor. A naturalized U.S. citizen (he was born in Kazakhstan) who lived in Brooklyn for nearly 15 years, Asainov traveled in late 2013 to Istanbul, a common entry point to Syria. There, he joined ISIS and rose through the ranks to become an "emir" in charge of weapons training. He tried to recruit other Americans to fight for ISIS in Syria. Asainov messaged a government informant, exclaiming in reference to ISIS, "We are the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed!" He still yearned to die on the battlefield for jihad, Asainov told the informant.
Last month, Awais Chudhary was charged with plotting to stab New Yorkers in Queens. A 19-year-old American citizen born in Pakistan and raised in a middle-class neighborhood, Chudhary planned to attack pedestrians on a bridge over the Grand Central Parkway to the Flushing Bay Promenade or at the World's Fair Marina, both of which he had visited repeatedly to scout where he could kill the most people. He planned to record his attack to inspire others. He intended to use a knife, he told an agent, unless the agent could show him how to bomb a "mini-bridge over a busy road with many cars." He was arrested en route to retrieve items he had ordered online for the assault—a tactical knife, a mask, gloves, and a cellphone with a chest and head strap to enable him to record his slaughter hands-free.
Also last month, prosecutors charged two women from Queens with planning to build bombs similar to those used in earlier terrorist attacks. Asia Siddiqui and Noelle Velentzas, both U.S. citizens and Queens residents, pleaded guilty to distributing information about how to make and use explosive devices and weapons of mass destruction. Between 2013 and 2015, the complaint states, they planned to build a bomb themselves, teaching each other chemistry and the electrical skills needed to create and detonate a deadly device. They also explored how to make plastic explosives and assemble a car bomb, bought and stored in their homes materials required for an explosive device—including propane gas tanks, soldering tools, car-bomb instructions, machetes, and several knives—and discussed similar devices used in past terrorist incidents, including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the 1993 World Trade Center attack. They researched potential targets, focusing on law enforcement and military installations. Velentzas favored attacks on government targets. In terrorist attacks, she said, "You go for the head."
August also saw Azizjon Rakhmatov, a citizen of Uzbekistan and a New Haven resident, plead guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIS codefendants Abdurasul Juraboev and Akhror Saidakhmetov, who planned to travel to Syria to fight for the caliphate. Rakhmatov and another codefendant discussed providing their own money and raising more to cover Saidakhmetov's travel expenses and to buy a weapon for him once he arrived in Syria. The day before Saidakhmetov's scheduled departure, Rakhmatov transferred $400 into codefendant Akmal Zakirov's bank account. Saidakhmetov and three accomplices have previously pled guilty to charges of material support for terrorism; all have been sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment.
In July, officials arrested Delowar Mohammed Hossain at JFK Airport in Queens as he tried to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. The complaint states that Hossain wanted to kill Americans, particularly members of the military stationed overseas.
In June, Mohamed Rafik Naji, having pled guilty in federal court in Brooklyn in February, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for trying to provide material support to ISIS by distributing its propaganda and messages on social media. By late 2014, Naji was a committed ISIS supporter, and in 2015 he traveled from New York to Yemen to join ISIS. After returning to the U.S., he continued praising ISIS and violent jihad. In July 2016, after the ISIS-inspired truck attack in Nice, France that killed scores of civilians, Naji told an informant that it would be easy to carry out a similar attack in Times Square: "[ISIS] want an operation in Times Square," he said, "If there is a truck, I mean a garbage truck and one drives it there to Times Square and crushes them . . . Times Square day."
Also in June, Ashiqul Alam, an assistant teacher in Queens and part-time IT expert at the Queens public library, was charged with "knowingly receiving two firearms with obliterated serial numbers in Brooklyn" as part of a plan to kill cops and civilians in Times Square. According to NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, Alam discussed guns, suicide vests, and hand grenades, and surveilled potential targets in New York. Between August 2018 and June of this year, he talked about buying firearms and explosives for an attack and conducted "recon" trips to Times Square, recording the area on his phone. He considered killing cops by using a suicide vest and obtaining AR-15 assault rifles. In April 2019, he had Lasik eye surgery so that he no longer needed glasses. "Let's say we are in an attack, right, say that my glasses fall off," he told an undercover cop. "What if I accidentally shoot you? You know what I mean. Imagine what the news channel would call me the 'Looney Tunes Terrorist' or the 'Blind Terrorist.'" He later discussed buying grenades, because a grenade could "take out at least eight people."
Most of these Islamist plots have received scant public attention, mainly because they were detected and prevented. John Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, says that public concern about terrorism is now focused on the surge in domestic right-wing extremists. "Domestic terror blunts the impact of the [jihadi] plots that didn't happen," he told me. Miller is complacent about neither threat. Though New York has not suffered a right-wing-inspired mass shooting, hate crimes are up in the city. So is anti-Semitism. And Miller warns that the pace of jihadi plots is accelerating.
According to an NYPD intelligence estimate published last October, nine terrorist plots or attacks targeted New York City between 2001 and 2009. Since 2009, a total of 19 attacks were formulated—11 since ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014. The report notes that 13 of the 14 lone-actor terrorist attacks or plots in New York City have involved "Salafi-jihadist violent extremists." The study predicts "with high confidence" that both trends—an acceleration in the rate of plots and attacks and the increasing dominance of lone actors inspired, but not directed by, foreign and domestic extremist organizations—"will continue over the next four years."
"The reason there hasn't been another 9/11 is not because of luck," Miller says. Intensive national and international counterterrorism campaigns across three presidential administrations have degraded these groups' ability to plan and carry out major attacks. At home, Miller added, the absence of successful attacks owed to what he called the "seamless partnership between the NYPD and the FBI."
While President Trump has taken credit for having "destroyed" ISIS and its caliphate, once the size of Great Britain, and has often expressed a desire to bring most American troops home, terrorism experts warn that a complete military exit from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria would be unwise. Just as President Obama's premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 permitted ISIS to take hold and expand into the vacuum left there, the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from the region would permit the Taliban, al-Qaida, and ISIS to reconstitute and regain their deadly reach. "The Taliban are far from defeated," David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. Central Command and a former CIA director, asserted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. A premature withdrawal would risk the "re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary" in which the Taliban and some 20 other foreign terrorist organizations could reconstitute, train recruits, and carry out terrorism abroad.
"Al Qaeda has seeded a global network that is competing with and complementing ISIS," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert based in Singapore. "Though its core has suffered, many of its leaders are alive," he argues. "It has not disappeared but entered a new phase of expansion" through affiliates in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and South Asia. ISIS, too, the "son of Al Qaeda," he argues, may have lost territory and endured "command and control infrastructure losses," but its murderous intent "remains known to its wilayats, networks, groups, and cells." If either of their current leaders is killed, he warns, the two groups would likely unite and pose what he called "an unprecedented threat." While the Trump administration has embraced containing China as its highest priority, "the real, ongoing threat to American and its allies remains ideological extremist terrorism," Gunaratna maintains, calling the war against militant Islamic extremism a "generational" struggle.
Mitch Silber, a former NYPD director of intelligence and analysis, fears that Washington's war fatigue, Trump's desire to claim victory, and the lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with America's Middle East wars endangers the U.S. "Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders and supporters have been killed, captured, and tens of thousands put in camps in Iraq," he said. "But there is no post-hostilities plan to deal with this Islamist netherworld, those people in the camps. AQ and ISIS could easily regenerate in some form there."
Failure to appreciate the nature of the militant Islamist threat puts New York, especially, at growing risk. "There is a temporary drop in their capability," Silber said of the jihadi movement. "But there is no drop in intention among those who want to strike the U.S. And for them, New York will always remain a key target."