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How Ahmad Khan Rahami passed through a net meant to thwart terrorists

A Customs and Border Protection area at Kennedy International Airport in New York, May 28, 2014.
Photographer: Richard Perry/The New York Times
A Customs and Border Protection area at Kennedy International Airport in New York, May 28, 2014.
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— To an amateur eye, Ahmad Khan Rahami’s travel history might appear to be a red flag: He had traveled to Pakistan, the home of al-Qaida, four times between 2005 and 2014. The last time he stayed for a year.

So Rahami’s arrest in the bombings last weekend in New York and New Jersey — and the revelation that he cited jihadi leaders in his journal — has raised an obvious question: Did the government miss something?

Possibly. But Khan’s extended family, originally from Afghanistan, lives in Pakistan, and he told customs officials on his return from his trips that he had been visiting family, officials said. He had married a Pakistani woman during a 2011 visit. In 2014, he had to arrange a U.S. passport for their baby, born that year in Pakistan. Both are plausible explanations for an extended stay.

An initial review of the government’s handling of Rahami’s travel, based on records described by law enforcement officials, suggests no obvious lapses. That could change if more details of his exchanges with border officials become public.

In 2006 and 2011, Rahami was subjected to extra airport screening, but no further consequences, when he returned to the United States, officials said.

Rahami’s arrival at Kennedy International Airport in March 2014 appears to have received the most scrutiny. Because he had arrived on a one-way ticket from Pakistan — a trigger for extra attention — he was questioned again in a secondary interview. But for an American returning home from a lengthy stay abroad, the one-way ticket he used made sense, and he was not held or further delayed.

Officials now believe that Rahami may have taken a side trip to Ankara, Turkey, in January 2014. It is not clear whether he informed customs officials about that trip.

Still, customs officers who spoke with him thought information from the interview should be shared more broadly, so they forwarded a report to the National Targeting Center, an analysis hub run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Officers at the center, in turn, thought the report on Rahami was significant enough to distribute to other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, in a summary that is sent out every few days.

Officials familiar with the report said it contained no hard information that might have caused alarm or prompted immediate action. Certainly, there was nothing approaching the significance of a statement that Rahami’s father gave to the FBI five months later, in which he said he thought that his son might be involved in terrorism.

The National Targeting Center, near Washington, was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and became part of the customs and border agency in 2002. In 2007, it was divided into two parts, one focusing on cargo, the other on passengers. Its operations were stepped up further after the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up an airliner as it prepared to land in Detroit. In recent weeks, the passenger and cargo operations were combined into one office again, officials said.

Dozens of officers comb through passenger lists for all flights arriving in the United States, which include about 300,000 people each day, as well as cargo manifests — looking, in essence, for the needle in the haystack.

The center is in charge of identifying people who should be stopped or questioned at the borders. It also writes guidelines for when front-line customs officers should send passengers from certain countries or with unusual travel itineraries for additional questioning, as happened with Rahami.

For years after the 2001 attacks, one of the FBI’s primary concerns was trying to catch Americans traveling to Pakistan to join al-Qaida, in an effort to disrupt recruiting networks. Today, by contrast, the bureau is most intently focused on homegrown violent extremists who may be plotting attacks in the United States. Travel to so-called hot spots no longer stands out as an automatic sign of danger, especially when there is a reasonable explanation.

“It is an indicator, but you don’t even need to travel anymore to conduct an attack,” said Brenda Heck, a former senior FBI counterterrorism agent who retired in 2012. “It is less now of an indicator now than when I was working there.”

Still, as an FBI agent, Heck said she would want to know what Rahami was doing in Pakistan.

“On one side of it, he’s likely got family, but we can’t know exactly what he did over there,” she said. “That’s troubling.”

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