As investigators look for clues as to why Ahmad Khan Rahami may have planted several bombs throughout New York and New Jersey over this past weekend, what becomes clear is that people now feel empowered to attack. No matter what group a potential attacker might feel sympathetic to, the filter that prevents him from attacking has become thinner.
It has often been said that lone wolves are never really lonely, and in a world where social media connects everyone across the globe, that statement is more true than ever.
But even taking away the social media aspect of self-starters, there is so much anger embedded in jihadist propaganda (as well as the propaganda of other ideologies) that it would take decades to eradicate its injurious effects.
From the evolution of grainy Osama bin Laden messages to the sleek operation run by Anwar al-Awlaki (a radical preacher who was namechecked by Rahami) and the blockbuster “hollywood” style of the Islamic State videos, all of this propaganda snowballs, combines, and entrenches itself into the world society for decades to come.
Jihadist “how-to hanbooks” traffics are passed between sympathizers, group members and those on the periphery. Ultimately the manuals reach disenfranchised members of society and convince them that they can make a difference by engaging in subversive incidents. They don’t even need specific instructions, because the endless amount of propaganda all points to the same target.
As seen across Europe in the summer of 2016, peppering attacks is a winning strategy. Moreover, false positives are as effective as actual attacks, large or small scale. Getting as many attacks in the pipeline as possible increases the odds of success, or at least the perception of success. That is why the propaganda works, from perceived discrimination in the host society to those who feel the call of a greater cause.
By carrying out an attack, jihadists gain acceptance into the wider community. The more over-reationary security forces become, the more "clash civilization" narratives ring true.
Rahami’s four attempted attacks may have failed to kill anyone, but whether or not he was associated with or inspired by a single group, his mission, including his standoff with police, succeeded in establishing the impression that the enemy is within and may be impossible to defeat.
Veryan Khan is the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher for TRAC: Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), one of the world's largest electronic compendiums for data and analysis of terrorist groups, activities, trends and up to date developments. For complete information see www.trackingterrorism.org and follow the group on Twitter @TRACterrorism