Once Again, Lack of Surveillance Wasn't Issue in New York Terror Attack

Another case where calls for 'mass snooping' ignore other avenues for information.


Matthew McDermott/Polaris/Newscom

Today's reporting about Ahmad Khan Rahami, the man charged with setting up explosive devices in New York and New Jersey and injuring dozens, should reinforce a position against mass surveillance, not encourage it. Our "failure" to engage in mass surveillance against groups of people on the basis of their ethnicity or religion or immigration status isn't what's leaving us vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Mohammad Rahami, Ahmad's father, told the press today that he contacted the FBI in 2014 to warn them that he was worried something was wrong with his son. Ahmad had been accused of stabbing his brother during a domestic dispute. According to The New York Times, the FBI took the complaint and interviewed the father. The father then, according to the FBI, recanted his allegations.

Mind you, violent family disputes shouldn't on their own be treated as indicators of radicalization. The Times is terribly short on details of what this fight was about. But just as the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen had a background that suggested some problems, so is the case with Rahami.

And that, then, raises the question of what exactly the FBI should have or could have done about these accusations. If an examination of the cases of Rahami and Mateen didn't give the FBI enough information to actually intervene and react to what was happening (and it's possible it didn't), what exactly is the benefit of mass surveillance?

The emphasis on mass surveillance from the likes of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani approach a very cinematic idea of backroom whispers and conspiracies. Perhaps that attitude is exactly why New York's secret mass surveillance program of Muslim communities failed to actually stop any terror plots. When you're given very specific, troubled young men to keep an eye on, and ultimately that leads nowhere, what is the evidence that some sort of mass surveillance would have helped here or anywhere else?

Let's also add that that the father himself taking the initiative to contact the FBI is significant, even if he backed down. There's no perfect solution to determining when somebody living in America becomes radicalized, but certainly the willingness of family members to step forward will play a major role. If all Muslims are treated with suspicion, they're going to be less likely to be willing to communicate with authorities.

Read more about the latest in the investigation here.