After two bombings, a chase, a shoot-out, a murdered MIT police officer, the Boston police force, with the help of federal and state authorities, cracked down on suspects and shut the city down with a drag net and massive door-to-door search. The subway rail was shut down. People had been asked to lock their doors. Suspect Temerlan Tsarnaev was killed resisting arrest in an exchange of deadly fire with law enforcement. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was critically wounded and brought to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for treatment under armed guard.
The suspects ran, hid, fired back, and threw explosives, displaying elements of tactical training above the norm, it is reported. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the older brother, age 26, who was killed in the shoot-out in Watertown suburb of Boston. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his brother, age 19, was apprehended and treated. He has since been interrogated and transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Fort Devens.
Dzhokhar described himself as a radicalized jihadist that was influence by al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine to kill Americans. He is being charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.
The investigation is still ongoing. It is unknown whether there was any more family involvement or wider conspiracy beyond the two brothers, although such consideration is highly possible. Their mother Zubeidat Tsarnaev was added to the terrorism watch list last week.
Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidat were both asked to be placed on terrorist watch list by the CIA. Recorded conversations of the mother and Temerlan concerned jihadism were provided by Russian intelligence. The recruitment of the younger brother Dzhokhar may have simply been a turned family relation to Islamic extremism.
The father, Anzor, demonstrates signs of extreme distrust for any state security service. As a Chechen living in Russia, this is understandable. He had plans to visit the US and bury his son Tamerlan, but he has since changed his mind under the auspices of “health reasons.” Aside from suspected jihadism and being placed on the terrorism watch list, the mother, Anzor, is wanted for shoplifting and destruction of property charges in the US. Anzor remains a “person of interest” to the FBI.
The radicalization process was likely a family affair but did not involve the entire family. Beliefs and actions are also two different things. Dzhokhar claimed that the al Qaeda magazine called Inspire (online and published by al Qaeda in Yemen since 2010). Dzhokhar admitted that he learned to make weapons from that magazine.
Russian Tsarni, the uncle, has denied involvement and condemned the attack. He mentioned Misha as the radical agent that warped the brother’s minds. The influence named Mikhail Allakhverdov (“Misha”) living in Rhode Island is a potential false lead. Both have been cooperating with the FBI investigation. Aslan, the father, lives with their mother Anzor in Makhachkala, Russia. The two have been questioned by US investigators who flew from Moscow and have been flooded by reporters. The extent of other members or participants is still being investigated.
The attack is evidence of a bigger threat than terrorism
We now know that the brothers were planning an attack in NY, but ran low on fuel. The person of the hijacked SUV called the police. It was that one call, not the cameras that saved the day. The street surveillance cams and other security equipment ensured the tracking only after a prior location could be pinpointed. The lockdown of the city was a brave and wise security precaution.
Where was the terrorist message? Where was the rest of the gang? No threats were made. It was not a fit of rage or simply case of psychotic behavior but one likely spurred on by a rush of success and jihadist mission to kill more.
After al Qaeda terrorism of the bin Laden era, which made demands, attacks, and took responsibility, we now see the appearance of an international jihadist import and export as well as radicalization of US citizens, individuals and family networks. These people are without any formal linkage, affiliation or association to the group.
While al Qaeda exists in pockets around the world, unstable countries, Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, etc., in Boston there is the later breed. The bombing of the Boston Marathon was labeled as a terrorist attack by politicians, the media and some security officials.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis Stated that, “We believe this man to be a terrorist. We believe this to be a man who’s come here to kill people.” He was speaking to the public and referring to Dzhokhar, who was still at large at the time. But Davis also said earlier that, “there were no known threats.” In other words, no Islamist “propaganda by deed” as the usual signature of any genuine terrorist attack.
Mass murder is no more terrorism than a bank heist is extortion. The danger of calling something that is not specifically terrorism “terrorism” can have grave or unintended consequences later on.
The evidence so far continues to indicate that the Boston bombing and killings are acts of extremist Islamic jihad (holy war). It may turn out that at least one of the suspects is a “terrorists” with prior commitments of foreign terrorist acts and or connections in Chechnya. But even if this is the case, we must ascribe the act itself according to the motivation and intention of the actor.
Boston marathon bombing not legally or otherwise an act of terrorism
No universal definition of terrorism exists. Scholars can trace the origins of the word back to “reign of terror” in France. The best modern definition captures the method and intention of the action and attack.
Under Section 2565f Title 22 of the United States Code: “(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
Terrorism, then, is first, premeditated and second, politically, not simply ideologically motivated violence. It is a method of instilling fear, demands, threats, and getting a particular government to bend to a person or group’s will. This legal definition is also similar to the operational definition of other departments and agencies.
On the other hand, Jihadism that targets the West is about defeating Western civilization in a holy war. As unimaginable as that may now appear to us in 2013, this is done through acts of mass violence of all kinds, including terrorism, but is not limited to it.
In the Boston bombing we see a clear case of ideologically inspired mass murder, not terrorism. The targets are objects of hatred and revenge against all of American society and American way of life. Violence is directed at the people directly and not at the government. This unique incident is that of a jihadist family working together in the USA toward continual, planned, mass violence. This is seen from the unplanned but anticipated attacks intended for Time Square, in New York, which was not described as being extensively planned but simply another attack without demands.
Politicians of all stripes rallied the label of “terrorism” inappropriately and they are missing the bigger reality of international Islamic militancy and domestic jihad against the US that is nothing short of mass murder without demands.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein told NBC News, that she believed the Marathon bombing was a “terrorist attack.” The President called it an “act of terror.” Many others have stepped out using this type of heated language since Monday. They may have done so without realizing the consequences of inaccuracy or because the American people demand a harsh response and unthinkingly associate bombings with terrorism in general.
The difference between Islamic terrorism and jihadism goes far beyond simple semantics. It deals with method, motive and objective.
Jihadists seek to win a war that they perceive exists between the US (and the West) using all methods to defeat and destabilize Western civilization which they hate. By framing the attack as a terrorist incident, even if committed by known terrorists, when it is not, will have profound negative consequences for the future. One major consequence will be the political right to call acts terrorism any incident that kills at least several people with an explosive. Another is that it will lead professionals off track to uproot the actual threats and nature of the challenges ahead.
Republicans have called for labeling the younger brother Dzhokhar an “enemy combatant.” Pushed for strident language and also played high political cards of blame for an Administration intelligence failure. It has also cut into the immigration policy debates.
The neglected threat
While international jihadists can come from or have ties to any part of the world—in this case Chechnya—there exists a growing Islamist fever within the US already. This is not to be exaggerated, but it is present. Mostly, it is made worse by extremist sources from overseas. Most Muslim communities are in good relation with authorizes.
The Tsarnaev brothers lived in the US for over ten years. Tameralan was in the process of applying for Us citizenship while his younger brother became a citizen in 2012. The darker irony is that Dzhokhar became a citizen on September 11 of that last year.
The unnerving possibility of self-radicalization to extremist Islamism has been paraded in the media, but the real concern is that of family radicalization in this case. Unfortunately, this particular variant of jihad will likely see an unfortunate increase in the US in the years to come and yet we must avoid an unnecessary panic as well as prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of Islamophobia. This does not mean holding back what is accurate or stating what is not.
Politicians must learn to better describe future crises and direct American resources appropriately and still are faced with the difficulty of knowing that at any moment in the future, it may be likely that an extremist turns violent. Yet to target anyone prematurely is staunchly against American principles.
The Obama Administration favored the adoption of a general terrorist label and a blanket approach in dedicated security resources for this reason. This was in part because of the over-reaction of force in Muslim communities and wrongful detentions under the previous administration.
The difficulty is that domestic Islamic militants are done within the background of a larger non-violent Muslim demographic. But the FBI, in the case of Boston, was faced with the request of a foreign government and questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev for suspicion of Chechnya terrorism in 2011. They were not “targeting” Muslims at random, they had a potential threat on good information they dismissed. Had he been assessed correctly and placed under even mild surveillance, this should not have happened.
Better procedures are needed
The problem with any blanket political allocation of security resources or mislabeling of these types of incidents as “terrorism” is that it not only misdirects the American people but also the security services as well. If the FBI and the DHS are affected by poor bilateral US-Russian relations and the focus of “rightwing” terrorism or hate-related violence of a particular group and not Islamist terrorism, this also affects public security. It also underemphasizes the active threat of American Muslim militant families and kin.
Moreover, the FBI nabbed Tamerlan for interrogation and review. No security agency seems to have strongly weighed a network centric family potential. The FBI may have dismissed the Russian intelligence courtesy out of hand because they claim that the Russians did not respond with more information. But in the intelligence business, that may be bulk of it. It was enough to get the CIA to act and recommend Tamerlan be placed on the terrorist watch list. If anything, the CIA should be commended in this case and the FBI and DHS condemned.
In fact, official statements revealed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was entered into three classified counterterrorism databases at one time: the FBI’s Guardian files, the Department of Homeland Security’s TECS database, and the National Counterterrorism Center’s TIDE list.
Also at fault is DHS. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is charged with safeguarding US borders from terrorists, stated that: “The system pinged when he [Tamerlan] was leaving the United States,” and that “by the time he returned, all investigations had been closed.”
In short, DHS worried about Tamerlan leaving the country but not entering it. But Even if Tamerlan could not be confirmed as a terrorist by the FBI, other agencies did feel he warranted the label. Moreover, regardless of being an active terrorist or a potential terrorist should not be the issue if we are to pursue active jihadists that are intent on violence against the US or the American people. The NCTC’s list has over a half a million names.
The FBI and DHS failures present the cracks and vulnerabilities in the US security services which plays into the hands of future jihadists. Instead of a strategy that monitors every American citizen and pushing to read the peoples emails and their social media, as the FBI and others have recommended, they should be tracking real potential terrorists instead of letting them go. Terrorists or jihadist operatives will simply go low tech and avoid these broad measures. What they cannot avoid is active intelligence and the tattle tale system (in which a foreign government or the local community informs the authorities of suspicious activity).
With such a large TIDE list, weeding those potentials out should be top priority. If someone is on that list, and living in the USA, why is that person not apprehended or at the very least monitored closely under suspicion?
It’s all hindsight now but it should factor into lessons learned which unfortunately does not seem to be happening. Instead, departments are defending their mistakes and politicians are using the attack to advance partisan agendas or security position platforms that do not directly relate to this act of mass violence.
The dedicated efforts of security and the unity and cooperation of federal and local security, the efforts of the President and Congress, apart from the language, have been nothing short of exceptional in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. This is, however, a likely grim future that the American people may have to endure and prepare, without expecting the authorities to be able to solve every attack, which is all the more reason to get the language right. Likewise, greater accountability and leadership should be not only required but demanded.
One possible idea the US might reconsider, is structural shift: a dedicated national counterterrorist agency (grafted from the FBI, NCTC, and DHS) which would be devoted exclusively to such end in both analysis and operations domestically tracking and monitoring jihadists. They already have the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) working on tracking, documenting and analysis. The NCTC would become the sole law enforcement counterterrorist agency. There is too much redundancy and duplication across several agencies.
The nation might also benefit from greater participation and coordination with American citizens and communities, as DHS did from the beginning. This concept has been circulated before but that was at a time when international terrorism and al Qaeda were the biggest threats. Now America must consider the internal enemies. Boston was a coordination failure. CIA showed initiative and FBI dropped the ball. But it was made more complicated than it should have been.
DHS was originally the result of dealing with international terrorism and the securing of borders from international terrorism. It has since turned its gaze inward at the chagrin of many right-wingers. This is not in character of its original design or the agencies under its umbrella that deal with border, customs, immigration or emergency response.
DHS is needed to secure the American homeland from the external terrorists and enemies overseas and secure borders. It is primarily designed to apprehend and interdict people, not to prevent attacks operationally. It is not equipped, nor should it be given a strong internal counterterrorism law enforcement function in this regard. A dedicated national counter-terrorism agency could better target terrorists in the US while all other law enforcement agencies would conduct traditional criminal investigations with their respective charters.
Of course this will only work if the leadership refrained from calling everything terrorism or infringing on public civil liberties without justification. The blurry lines between mass violence and terrorism will inevitably jeopardize civil liberties unless pinpoint security methods and closely adhered to legal definitions are followed and dully advocated.
Additionally, Muslim Americans should not have to apologize every time jihadists commit an attack against the people. They are not the al Qaeda propaganda ring. In fact, they remain our best defense against Islamic terrorists if a healthy interaction and engagement can continue between the government and public.
Narrowing the field on the particular guilty parties or criminals and engaging the communities is recommended over taking the birds-eye view of passive national surveillance. Nevertheless, future mass killings are likely to stem from Muslim American family militants that are or extremist residents filled with vile contempt for the Americans as long as the US remains involved with the affairs of foreign Muslim nations and Israel. The Bostonian brother-style violence may even replace the theorized and predicted lone-wolf model of terrorism.
(Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst, writer, and commentator. His areas of interest include: strategy, political theory, foreign affairs, intelligence and security)