When observing Ahmad Khan Rahami’s history, the 28 year old’s bombings in New Jersey and New York seem like a fitting manifestation. There’s his long stay in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, his history of violence, his reportedly intensified piety, and his father’s claim that he “told the F.B.I. to keep an eye on him.”
However, little is known of the 28 year-old’s online activity as of yet, leaving behind a fragmented story of what led him to attack.
“Terrorists’ social media activity is a crucial dimension in understanding their radicalization, networks, and allegiances,” says SITE Director Rita Katz. “As for Ahmad, investigators largely seem to be in the dark about where he was and who he was talking to online, despite the fact that he was active on social media for years.”
Indeed, Ahmad was active on multiple social media websites since at least 2010, spanning such platforms as YouTube, Twitter, AOL Lifestream, and Tagged. His standing accounts contain casual commentary about work, college classes, and weather. The accounts also contain photos of him:
Still, what stands of Ahmad’s public social media presence appears notably minimal, with long periods of scant—if any—activity. Observed posts do not point toward any hardline Islamist leanings.
“It’s very likely that Ahmad deleted most of his social media posts and even entire accounts prior to his attack,” says SITE Director Rita Katz. “Jihadi manuals detail this as an important step prior to performing an attack.
“Other jihadi attackers like Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez in Chattanooga have done the same thing for the same purpose: to deter investigators.”
A contrast becomes visible when comparing Ahmad’s online footprint to family members’ highly active and public social media presences. At least three of his family members (two sisters and a brother) were highly active online, making regulr posts about their children, marriage, and other matters.
Two of these family members in particular—Ahmad’s brother, Mohammad Rahami, and his sister, Aziza Rahami—have also posted or promoted jihadist or jihadist-associated content on their Facebook pages. On April 28, 2013—a point at which Ahmad is believed to have been in Pakistan—Mohammad posted a picture showing Ahmad in front of a grill:
Less than a month later, on May 9, Mohammad posted a picture by al-Farooq Media, a division of Sunni Baloch militant group Ansar al-Furqan:
Mohammad’s account was taken down on or around September 21.
Aziza also posted jihadi-associated material on her Facebook account. Previously under the name “Masood Maymunah,” the account was set under the name “Aziza Rahami” on September 20, 2016, and then deleted hours later. Multiple posts on Aziza’s page, forwarded from a page pertaining to Islamic preacher Khalid Yasin, show quotes from killed American jihadi recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki:
Another post forwarded from the page contained a tweet from prominent Islamic State (IS) fighter Farah Mohamed Shirdon (“Abu Usamah as-Somali”) quoting al-Qaeda co-founder Abdullah Azzam:
On December 27, 2013, Aziza shared another user’s post made in support of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani doctor currently imprisoned for attempted murder and assault on U.S. officers, among other charges. Siddiqui was accused of supporting al-Qaeda prior to her arrest, and is regularly invoked by jihadists as a posterchild for the U.S. government’s unjust arrests of Muslims.
On September 21, media outlets began releasing several pages of a notebook found on Ahmad when he was captured on September 19. In the notebook's rantings were references to jihadi figures like Usama bin Laden and Fort Hood attacker Nidal Hassan. Notable, however, was his reference to killed IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani:
I looked for guidance and Alhumdulilah. Guidance came.
Sheikh Anwar...brother Adnani of Dawla [IS].
said it clearly Attack the kufar in their backyard.
“Ahmad’s reference to ‘Adnani suggests that he was up to date with IS speeches, which are regularly distributed on social media alongside other IS propaganda,” says Katz. “Thus, whatever radicalization he may have undergone in Afghanistan or Pakistan likely only continued online.”