Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon Bombing and the Threat of Self-Starters

Posted by Lecturer Nicholas Grossman

Shortly after the explosions at the Boston Marathon, the question arose whether the bombings constituted terrorism.  This is not semantic.  To prevent something, it is essential to understand it, and accurately distinguishing terrorism from other types of violence aides the development of counter-strategies.  Additionally, defining a violent action as terrorism carries legal implications—the charges and associated penalties are harsher, the rules on interrogation looser—and leads to greater involvement from national agencies, such as the FBI and NSA.

 Terrorism is political violence against non-combatants by relatively weak actors.  Government oppression and military action can be terrifying, and often kill far more people than any terrorist attack, but require more resources than any terrorist could hope to control.  Violence against active soldiers, such as an improvised explosive device targeting an American patrol in Afghanistan, is an act of war, and has a different effect on the public consciousness.  It's more expected, more “normal,” so it's less frightening to outside observers.  Criminal violence, such as a robbery or murder, is undertaken for personal reasons, including enrichment or revenge.  Gangsters consider themselves businessmen, but terrorists see themselves as “freedom fighters,” struggling against the odds on behalf of a noble cause, and they design their attacks to have an impact beyond the suffering of the immediate victims.

Even before the suspects were identified, the Boston bombing appeared political because of the choice to attack such a public target.  Police perform security sweeps before the start of public races, and maintain a large presence throughout, which means it would be easier to attack “softer” targets, such as train stations, shopping malls, or schools.  But that would garner less attention, provide fewer lasting images.  The Boston Marathon is one of the biggest in the world, and few places have more cameras trained on them than the finish line of a major global race.  The bombers surely knew that the world would be watching.

That also proved their undoing.  The area around the finish line was covered in cameras.  Media photographers, official race cameras, spectators' cell phones, and store security cameras provided hundreds of hours of videos to FBI and police investigators, who spotted two men that entered the area with large backpacks and left without them.  After accumulating more video evidence, the FBI released photographs of the two suspects, later identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, around 6:00PM on April 18th, three days after the attack.  This seems to have sent them into a panic.  In the next eight hours, the two suspects killed an MIT campus officer, carjacked an SUV, and engaged police in a firefight that killed 26-year old Tamerlan.  Around 8:45PM the next day, acting on a tip from a homeowner who noticed blood on his boat, police arrested 19-year old Dzhokar.  (See a timeline of events here).

This apparent lack of preparation for the possibility that law enforcement would identify them is not the only indication that the Tsarnaev brothers were amateurs.  No group claimed responsibility for the marathon bombing, and the Pakistani Taliban even issued a statement denying involvement.  Since terrorist groups believe their actions are justified, they often publicly admit responsibility for an attack, and use the ensuing attention to explain their grievances.  Osama bin Laden gave multiple speeches defending al Qaeda's attacks against the United States as self-defense responses to America's “injustices” in the Middle East and central Asia, asking in 2004 for the world to consider “why we didn't attack Sweden.” 

 The lack of any public claim of responsibility suggested that the Boston bombers were self-starters.  Rather than belonging to a terrorist group, which usually have media arms and public relations strategies, the Tsarnaevs sympathized with a cause, but took the initiative themselves.  In 2011, Russian intelligence warned the FBI that Tamerlan “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010.”  The FBI, however, investigated the elder Tsarnaev, interviewed him and his family, and determined that he was not a member of a terrorist group and had not engaged in any terrorist activity.  More information may come to light revealing that Tamerlan was in contact with an extremist group, perhaps in Chechnya or Dagestan, but the currently available evidence strongly indicates that he and his brother did not act at the direction of others.

 This puts the Tsarnaevs in a category with Faisal Shahzad, who unsuccessfully attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, and Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 in the Fort Hood shooting in 2009.  These individuals belong to the small minority of the world's billion-plus Muslims who believe Islam is under attack by the West, and that violence against the United States and its allies is the proper response.  They often communicate online, discussing politics and religion, and sharing tactics.  For example, the pressure cooker bombs used by the Tsarnaevs followed a simple, commonly used design, which was featured in al Qaeda's Inspire magazine. 

Terrorist groups recruit, fund-raise, and spread propaganda semi-publicly, which helps intelligence agencies track their activity.  However, non-members who sympathize with their political positions are harder to monitor.  Most never commit violence, and the few who do are difficult to anticipate.

Unfortunately, it is likely that some self-starters will surprise us with attacks of similar scale in the future.

(We'll discuss self-starters and other issues pertaining to 21st century terrorism in The Politics of Terrorism class that I'll be teaching this fall).
** Nicholas Grossman will also be teaching a class on US National Security Policy in the Fall.

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