On Oct. 17, the FBI arrested 21-year-old Bangladeshi national for attempting to detonate an explosive device near the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan. Quazi Nafis was arrested during a FBI sting operation in which undercover officers and informants provided Nafis with 1,000 pounds of inert explosive materials to construct a bomb that was intended for the bank building. Sting operations like this one are the dominant trend in domestic U.S. terrorism cases and put pressure on aspiring jihadists to conduct smaller, less dramatic attacks.
It is apparent that Nafis did not possess the capability himself to conduct the spectacular attack against the building. His stated goals were to collapse the U.S. economy and disrupt the presidential election process. He knew that he could not achieve such fanciful consequences through a small casualty attack, so he needed to reach out for help to carry out an attack beyond his capability. The FBI has exploited this dissonance between capability and intent in aspiring jihadists over recent years and has arrested them by providing them with explosive material and logistical assistance to attempt to carry out their intended attacks. Virtually all of the cases involved undercover officers or informants who recorded conversations with the individuals to be used in the later trials.
There have been more plots involving FBI sting operations than actual grassroots plots — going back to the Newburgh, New York, plot of 2009 in which informants provided four men with fake weapons. This increase in undercover and informant operations throughout the country is a direct result of the FBI placing such a paramount priority on terrorism in the post-9/11 environment.
Another interesting aspect of this case is that Nafis was follower of the jihadist magazine Inspire. However, Nafis failed to follow the magazine's advice that grassroots jihadists conduct simple attacks within their own capabilities. The high number of successful sting operations in the United States over recent years has made collaboration very risky to operational security for jihadist operations. However, Nafis, like many similar jihadists, wanted a dramatic attack, making him vulnerable to informants and undercover agents.
Despite Nafis' appearance as a harmless amateur, it's important to remember that previous amateur jihadist operatives have been able to link up with competent bombmakers and planners to pose serious threats in the past. Individuals such as Mohammed Salameh, who teamed up with Ramzi Yousef for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, or the infamous 2001 "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, or the 2009 "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, were all about as incompetent as Quazi Nafis. What made them more serious threats was that they were helped by much more competent operatives.
However, the success of the FBI's campaign provides additional incentive for would-be jihadists to follow Inspire's advice and conduct smaller, less complicated attacks against softer targets — or to better compartmentalize attacks to avoid FBI informants. We have not seen jihadists adapt to this environment yet, but that could be yet to come.