Q&A: How NYC bomb case shows difficulties for investigators

ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) 09/24 — The man accused in the Manhattan bombing was flagged for an interview with Customs officials in the course of an overseas trip, was accused two years ago of stabbing his brother and had once been angrily described by his father as a terrorist.

But none of that was enough to keep Ahmad Khan Rahami on the FBI’s radar for long — and it’s not clear it should have been.

The case illustrates the difficulties investigators face in identifying and stopping individuals who might be violent extremists.

Constitutional protections permit people to hold abhorrent views — and even view jihadist videos — without automatically coming under investigation. Finite resources mean more intrusive investigative tactics, such as round-the-clock surveillance, are generally reserved for those thought to be more imminent threats or those conceiving an attack. And preliminary FBI inquiries like the one conducted in Rahami’s case are, by design, not meant to be open-ended.

Some questions and answers about the investigation into Rahami and how the FBI conducts terrorism investigations.


A: The FBI says it opened an assessment on Rahami in 2014 following a domestic disturbance in which he was accused of stabbing a brother, when the agency was alerted to his father’s concerns that he might be a terrorist.

The elder Rahami told The Associated Press that he told agents about his son’s apparent radicalization, but the FBI says he never shared those concerns at the time, and law enforcement officials say he backed off his earlier characterization of his son.

The FBI says it checked its databases and reviewed Rahami’s travel records and found nothing tying him to terrorism. The review was closed with no further action.

Rahami, an Afghan-born naturalized U.S. citizen, traveled in recent years to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The length of one trip to the region automatically triggered a secondary interview with Customs and Border Protection following his return in 2014. Details of his trip and his interview were forwarded to the agency intelligence center charged with identifying potentially high-risk travelers, according to a U.S. government official who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the ongoing investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity. The advisory was not sent as an urgent alert but a more routine notification that was then distributed to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

While an extended stay or repeated trips to a region such as Pakistan or Afghanistan may raise questions among law enforcement, including CBP, such travel is not illegal and doesn’t automatically arouse suspicion.

It’s not yet clear that any obvious red flags were missed, through the FBI is certainly looking at its past interactions.



A: That depends entirely on how much information investigators have to indicate terrorist activities.

An assessment, the type of inquiry used in Rahami’s case two years ago, is the most basic and least-intrusive of FBI reviews and is meant to last only a matter of weeks.

Agents checking out a tip may peruse publicly available records, check government documents and request information from the public. Though agents may seek extensions, assessments are meant to resolve in a matter of weeks with agents either closing out the inquiry or finding sufficient grounds to continue the review.

“Assessments are supposed to be quick-hit investigations to determine if there was anything that would lead you to probable cause to investigate a person,” said David Gomez, a retired FBI official who oversaw counterterrorism investigations in the Seattle field office.

The system, laid out in the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, is meant as a triage to help discern between dead-end tips and more compelling ones.

If the FBI opened a full investigation each time it conducted an assessment, Gomez said, there’d be long-term inquiries on many individuals for whom there’s minimal basis for suspicion — a prospect Gomez said would be “repugnant to people.”

More formal investigative steps — such as surveillance and recording of phone calls — require a higher level of approval and a firmer basis for suspecting wrongdoing.



A: This is certainly not the first instance in which someone who was at one point on the FBI’s radar went on to be accused of an attack.

The FBI investigated Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, for 10 months in 2013 after boasting of mutual acquaintances with the Boston Marathon bombers and making statements to co-workers that suggested he had radical, violent intentions.

Agents conducted surveillance, contacted confidential informants and even undertook multiple interviews but ultimately found nothing to justify continued scrutiny. The FBI looked into him again the next year as part of a separate investigation into a suicide bomber who attended the same Florida mosque.

The FBI was also aware of Elton Simpson, one of the two gunmen who attempted an attack on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas last year. Simpson had previously been prosecuted in Arizona in a terrorism-related case and was placed on probation for lying to a federal agent. He came back onto the government’s radar soon before the May 2015 violence because of postings on social media.

Law enforcement officials say it’s unrealistic to expect indefinite investigations of everyone who was once on the FBI’s radar. FBI Director James Comey said in May that the FBI had “north of 1,000” cases in which agents were trying to evaluate a person’s level of radicalization and potential for violence.

“We are looking for needles in a nationwide hay stack, but we are also called upon to figure out which pieces of hay might some day become needles,” Comey said in June when discussing the FBI’s past interactions with Mateen.

“That,” he said, “is hard work.”


Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan and Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.


Posted in: Immigration/Asylum, Investigations, Islamic Terrorism/Extremism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three × four =

Terms of Use for Posting Comments

Terms of Use

This site (the “Site”) is operated and maintained by Law Enforcement Education Foundation, Corporation (“Company”). Throughout the Site, the terms “we”, “us” and “our” refer to Company.  The words “user,” “you” and “your” as used herein refer to you.

Please read these terms and conditions of use (“Terms of Use”) carefully before contributing content. If you do not agree to these Terms of Use, please do not contribute content. Your use of the Site is subject to the Terms and Conditions found here .

By contributing content to the Site, you represent and warrant that you are at least eighteen (18) years old and that you have read and understand these Terms of Use and any amendments thereto and agree to be bound by them. If you are not at least eighteen (18) years old or you do not agree and accept these Terms of Use, you are prohibited from contributing content.

From time to time, we may permit users to submit content to the Site.  You hereby acknowledge and agree that by submitting remarks, comments, suggestions, ideas, graphics, feedback, edits, concepts, comments, photographs, illustrations and other materials (other than personal information and/or registration information) through the Site (individually and collectively, “Submissions”), you (i) grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such Submissions throughout the world in any media, now known or hereafter created, without attribution to you; (ii) grant us the right to pursue at law any person or entity that violates your and/or our rights in your Submissions; and (iii) forever waive any and all of your rights, including but not limited to moral rights, if any, in and to your Submissions, including, without limitation, any all rights or requirements of attribution or identification of you as the author of the Submission or any derivative thereof.  We reserve the right to remove any of your Submissions from the Site, in whole or in part, without notice to you, for any reason or no reason.

Submissions are made voluntarily. Any submissions which include personally identifiable information are subject to our Privacy Policy found here .  You may not upload or otherwise publish content on the Site that (i) is confidential to you or any third party; (ii) is untrue, inaccurate, false or other than an original work of your authorship; (iii) that relates to or impersonates any other person; (iv) violates the copyright, trademark, patent or other intellectual property rights of any person or entity; (v) contains any content, personally identifiable information or other information, or materials of any kind that relate or refer to any other person or entity other than the provider of the products, goods or services to which the Submission relates; or (vi) violates any law, or in any manner infringes or interferes with the rights of others, including but not limited to the use of names, information, or materials that (A) libel, defame, or invade the privacy of any third party, (B) are obscene or pornographic, (C) are harmful, threatening, offensive, abusive, harassing, vulgar, false or inaccurate, racially, sexually, ethnically or are otherwise objectionable or otherwise contrary to the laws of any place where such Submissions may be accessed; (D) constitute personal attacks on other individuals; (E) promote criminal, immoral or illegal activity; (F) promote or advertise any person, product or service or solicit funds; or (G) are deemed confidential by any contract or policy.

You are solely responsible for any Submissions you make and their accuracy. We take no responsibility and assume no liability for any Submissions posted by you or any third party.

Unless approved by us in writing in advance, you agree not to: (i) provide or create a link to the Site; or (ii) create any frames at any other sites pertaining to any of the content located on the Site.

We reserve the right, in our discretion, to update, change or replace any part of these Terms of Use for Posting Comments by posting updates and/or changes to our Site.  It is your responsibility to check this page periodically for changes.  Your continued use of, and/or access to the Site, following the posting of any changes to these Terms of Use for Posting Comments, constitutes your acceptance of those changes.