A day after the bombing in Chelsea, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo assured the public that while it was undoubtedly an act of terrorism, it wasn’t that kind of terrorism:
No one has taken credit, there have been no international groups that have put out any statements connecting them with this action. Now it depends on your definition of terrorism. But a bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism, but it’s not linked to international terrorism—in other words we find no ISIS connection, etc.
It seems unlikely that Cuomo could have known this for sure, long before the suspect had even been identified much less captured. International terrorist groups often take a few days to issue claims of responsibility, and even if a group does finally step forward to take credit, that doesn’t necessarily mean it had anything to do with the actual planning. And while it’s undoubtedly an interesting question going forward, New Yorkers could also be forgiven for wondering, at this stage, why they should care whether the bomber was emailing people in Syria or Yemen or just doing research on his own.
I suspect that when we see officials rushing to downplay international links to an attack, there’s some pre-emptive ass-covering involved. A complex plot involving multiple conspirators in multiple countries communicating with each other is something that the public has come to expect their government will detect and prevent in this era of surveillance and aggressive counterterrorism measures. On the other hand, there’s only so much authorities can do to prevent a determined individual or a small group from carrying out what President Obama, after the Orlando, Florida, shooting, called “less complicated acts of violence.”
Statements like Cuomo’s (which he later walked back) may also be a pre-emptive counter to those, like the current Republican nominee for president, who suggest that attacks like these could be prevented if only we got “very, very tough.” Tougher and more intrusive counterterrorism measures, at home or abroad, aren’t going to stop these attacks from happening. Just ask France.
The silver lining is that “lone wolf” attacks tend not to cause as much damage as coordinated plots, though the Orlando shooting was a glaring and tragic exception. In fact, the best indications so far that this weekend’s events fit the lone wolf pattern is that several of the planted bombs never went off and the ones that did explode didn’t kill anyone. That doesn’t mean the events of this weekend are nothing to worry about—just that this kind of attack isn’t going away.