September 19, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Investigating the Bombings in New York and New Jersey

• In the late evening of September 18, five pipe bombs were found near a train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey, compounding concerns of a wider bombing campaign.

• The incident comes on the heels of the September 17 bombings in New Jersey and New York, the latter of which injured 29 people.

• While there have been reports of several people detained related to the case, there is no public information as to possible motives or links to known terror groups.

• Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have called for such attacks; al-Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine has previously provided directions on how to build explosive devices using pressure-cookers.


There remain more questions than answers as the investigation into a series of incidents involving explosive devices in the New York and New Jersey areas are ongoing. Late on September 18, authorities responded to reports of a possible bomb near a train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Five pipe bombs were found in a backpack inside a trash can, one of which detonated as it was moved by a bomb disposal robot. The latest incident occurred in relative proximity to two incidents earlier in the weekend. On the morning of September 17, an explosive device detonated in a trash can in Seaside Park, New Jersey. The device reportedly consisted of three pipe bombs wired together, one of which exploded while the others did not. Later on the same day, an explosive device—reported to be a pressure-cooker bomb—detonated in a dumpster in the Chelsea district of New York City; another undetonated pressure-cooker device was located a few blocks from the original blast and was disposed of by authorities. 

New York officials have stated that several people have been detained for questioning about the bombings, but no charges have been filed. Security camera footage in New York showed the same man at both Chelsea bomb locations. Authorities have described the individual as a person of interest, though not a suspect at this point. Investigators will have no shortage of clues with which to work; in addition to security footage, the unexploded bombs will provide invaluable forensics. Amid reports that investigators believe the events in New Jersey and New York are related, law enforcement is faced with the challenge of a large and highly populated area of potential additional threats. 

The explosive devices involved in the incidents are of two very different types. The two locations in New Jersey contained pipe bombs—devices that are relatively simple to construct. The devices in Chelsea were pressure-cooker bombs—the type of device infamously used in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Inspire Magazine, a propaganda magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has for years detailed how to build and deploy a pressure-cooker bomb, which is far more powerful and dangerous than a pipe bomb. The pressure-cooker bomb that exploded in Chelsea was packed with shrapnel, meant to kill and injure as many people as possible. The thick metal walls of the dumpster in which the bomb was placed likely proved the difference between an attack that injured 29 but killed none, versus one that killed many.

The events in New York and New Jersey—as well as the September 17 knife attack in a Minneapolis shopping mall that left eight injured and the attacker dead—highlight the varied and dispersed nature of the threat. The so-called Islamic State has claimed that the Minneapolis attacker was one of its ‘soldiers’, while no claims have been made in the bombings. It is quite possible the bombings could have nothing to do with groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda; there is no shortage of domestic extremist groups and actors. There is also no shortage of people willing to answer the incessant calls to terror, regardless of which group is making the call. The counterterrorism mechanisms put into place in the U.S. in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—specifically the expansion of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) across the country—have been extraordinarily successful. Despite the effectiveness of the JTTF, it is impossible to prevent all plots and potential attacks. Therefore, societal resilience—such as that shown in these bombings—along with effective and rapid response and investigation, will help limit the impact of a sustained terror threat.


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