May 15, 2013
Boston is the cradle of the American Revolution — a city whose history is special. The shots heard around the world, which Patriots’ Day commemorates, were fired in Lexington and Concord 238 years ago. Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, is a unique holiday celebrated only in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Every year, a beloved event within this holiday celebration is the Boston Marathon, which has attracted runners from around the world for the past 117 years. Sadly, on April 15, 2013, this festive and jubilant occasion was marred by terrorism. The crude shrapnel bombs that exploded 12 minutes apart starting at 2:49 p.m. EDT on the sidewalk at the finish line were designed to kill and maim, and this they did with terrible efficiency. Three were instantly killed and 264 were wounded. To terrorism experts it all looked so familiar: CCTV images from Boston brought back memories of the July 2005 London Underground bombings that killed 52. The images were of young men with explosives in their backpacks on a mission to kill and maim fellow citizens, motivated by causes in far-away lands that they had embraced as their own. And, unfortunately, this will not be the last time an American city will be faced with terrorists targeting innocent victims who have congregated to celebrate a uniquely American holiday.
The West was not at war with any Arab or Muslim country on September 11, 2001, or back in 1993 when the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Abdul Rahman issued fatwas supporting attacks on the World Trade Center. Some argued that it was the war in Iraq that caused the London bombings, but this is not altogether convincing. The United States is not at war with Russia, Chechnya or Dagestan, yet the Tsarnaev brothers decided to target marathon participants and spectators.
This issue of The Lipman Report® will examine the mindset of the alleged bombers — Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — and what appears to have brought them to this decision. The backgrounds of the bombers will be traced, and the problems confronting law enforcement with the phenomenon of lone wolf attacks on soft targets will be discussed.
Chechnya and Dagestan
The Tsarnaevs are Chechens, a Muslim people of the northern Caucasus, a mountainous region that has been fought over through the centuries by the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires. The people of this region have been resisting inclusion in the Russian Empire for over 200 years. In the midst of World War II, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, seized by one of his fits of paranoia and cruelty, declared the Chechen people disloyal to the Soviet Union and banished them from their homeland in the northern Caucasus to Central Asia and the Siberian wastes. More than 70,000 Chechens, along with members of other small ethnic groups from the Caucasus and Crimean Peninsula, died in the mass deportation or soon after — some from the cold, some from starvation. The Tsarnaev family eventually settled farther east in Kyrgyzstan, not far from the capital of Bishkek. Most who survived the next 13 years in exile were permitted to return home in the late 1950s under Nikita Khrushchev.
The Caucasus region is multicultural in the extreme, but the predominant religion in the north is Muslim. Religious practices were severely restricted during 75 years of communism, but the Soviet Union was unable to completely diminish adherence to the Muslim religion. What survived was a moderate form of the Sufi brand of Islam, not the more rigid Salafist version, an orthodox form of Sunni Islam predominant in the Middle East. As mentioned earlier, the Chechens have been struggling for their independence from one empire or another for hundreds of years. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nationalist rebels fought two horrific wars with the Russian Army for Chechen independence. In the end, the Russians put down the rebellion and instituted draconian measures in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia to extinguish the rebellion — which eventually morphed into terrorism.
When the Soviets finally gave up in Afghanistan in 1989, the victorious Mujahideen, which included elements of al Qaeda, became emboldened by their success and decided to support their brother Muslims in the Caucasus against the Russians. Money from the wealthy Arab states began to pour into the Caucasus, and more and more Arabs were surfacing on the battlefield. Historically the battles were always fought in the Caucasus, but with the al Qaeda influence in the 1990s the Chechens launched a reign of terror on neighboring areas of Russia and eventually into Moscow. Hospitals, schools, metro stations, railroads, airports, planes, theaters and even apartment complexes were attacked and bombed. The violence in Dagestan and Ingushetia, which has attracted more attention from Russian security forces in recent years, is mostly internally contained and has not spread much beyond the Republic’s borders. Chechen insurgents, however, have demonstrated many times over the past two decades that they can successfully launch massive attacks outside Chechnya: the 1999 apartment buildings in Moscow, the 2004 Breslan school siege, the 2010 Moscow Metro bombing and the 2011 Moscow airport bombing are recent examples. The rebellion persists in Chechnya, and it is now fundamentalist in character with the slogan “global jihad.” The tactics are kidnappings, assassinations and bombings, and a target less than 300 miles away like Sochi, Russia — the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics — would be within the range of Chechen terrorist capabilities.
The Lone Wolf
As the Boston events confirm, there are people residing in the United States with the intent to kill in the name of jihad. The homemade nature of the device used to bomb the Boston Marathon has given rise to a much needed discussion about the threat of “homegrown” and “lone wolf” violence in the United States. Homegrown terrorists are citizens or longtime residents who belong to groups that espouse a particular agenda or radical ideology like Islamic militancy. Lone wolf terrorists usually operate by themselves and are not formally associated with a movement. Homegrown and lone wolf terrorists are people who live and move among us every day, secretly working in their basements, garages or apartments devising and building bombs — or even more dangerous weapons.
Given that they are grassroots actors with foreign roots, authorities are investigating whether there is a link between the Tsarnaevs and a state sponsor or professional terrorist group like al Qaeda or one of its franchise groups. This case highlights the fact that the jihadist threat in the United States stems from grassroots operatives who live in the West — rather than teams of highly trained operatives sent here.
It is very difficult to identify and interdict the activities of a lone wolf. Naturally, the more people involved in a conspiracy, the easier it is for the authorities to penetrate the group and learn of its plans. Two of the better known domestic lone wolves, who were eventually identified and arrested after they caused significant damage over a lengthy period, were Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Eric Rudolph, who bombed several abortion clinics and the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
There were 15 arrests of homegrown lone wolves in 2012. Among jihadist-inspired militants who have plotted against Americans in the United States, more than two-thirds have been foiled in the early planning stages, often by informants or by mistakes made by the bombers themselves. Those who have pursued full blown plots, identifying targets and developing plans, have done so often in the context of an FBI sting operation, in which special agents and informants acted as sympathizers or co-conspirators and provided financial support and fake weapons.
The Jihad Joe Syndrome: Homegrown Terrorists
More than 1,400 Americans have taken part in some form of jihad over the past several years. American jihadists are an incredibly diverse group. They include all levels of success and failure and every sort of background, religion and ethnicity. They come from big cities and small towns and every part of America. For a myriad of reasons, hundreds of men and women from every imaginable background have walked away from the traditional American dream to do battle in the name of their cause. Some have taken part in foreign wars, while others have carried out violence against Westerners abroad and even plotted terrorist attacks on American soil. The recruitment of Americans by English speaking Internet imams is a continuing threat to America’s security. And the role that web sites apparently played in the “self radicalization” of the brothers Tsarnaev is yet another reminder that the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current.
According to several experts, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a classic portrait of a man vulnerable to extremist recruitment. He had failed at his dream to become an Olympic boxer and dropped out of college, disappointing his family and himself. People who fail sometimes latch onto a cause that makes their anger legitimate. In recent years, al Qaeda propagandists have made a particular effort to recruit lonely people who are looking for a cause. About two years ago, Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidatbecame deeply religious. Meanwhile, younger brother Dzhokhar, after his parents returned to Dagestan, had a difficult time with an overbearing brother, disintegrating family life, poor marks in school and a developing addiction to marijuana. Dzhokhar described terrifying nightmares about murder and destruction and began to allude to disaffection with his American life and the American mindset. Clearly, he was not a happy, well-adjusted young man. In contrast to the widely held assumption that terrorists are crazed fanatics, research has determined that terrorists are psychologically normal, but lonely and looking for a cause. The Internet fosters that hatred.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s purported religious extremism, loneliness and hatred of the United States may have been accompanied by paranoid delusions that made it morally justifiable for him to kill innocent bystanders. If Dzhokhar had hero worship, he may have taken on this paranoia, as well. Consequently, their sense of allegiance and loyalty to each other may have superseded a sense of right and wrong. Tamerlan reportedly became an Islamist because of anger over United States policies in the Muslim world, with religious fundamentalism serving merely as an enabler of a political cause. He also spent six months in Dagestan visiting his family in 2012, and investigators are determining if he was indoctrinated during his six months in the Caucasus, where he purportedly met with some prominent Islamists.
The American factor in jihad allows al Qaeda to deploy American citizens and permanent residents who operate under the radar and represent the greatest challenge to the counterterrorism regime put in place by American authorities to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. Aware that intensified American counterterrorism efforts have made an ambitious 9/11-style plot difficult, al Qaeda propagandists for several years have called on their devotees in the United States to carry out smaller-scale solo attacks and provided the online information to show them how. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), advocates this new focus — the continued and random use of small scale attacks against diverse and vulnerable targets — in order to keep the movement pertinent.
The Boston Marathon bombings highlight the thinking that the jihadist threat now predominantly stems from grassroots operatives who live in the West, rather than teams of highly trained operatives sent to the United States from overseas, like the team that executed the 9/11 attacks. The Boston Marathon bombing also offers an unsettling example of just how devastating such an attack can be. Furthermore, it shows how plotters can construct powerful bombs without attracting official attention.
The Influence of the Internet
Obviously the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of technical data available to aspiring practitioners of terrorism. There are now thousands of web sites that contain how-to information on topics that range from preparing improvised explosive mixtures and timing devices to formulating biological toxins such as ricin.
Investigators now believe that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have acted alone and were radicalized and instructed in explosives not at a training camp but at home on the Internet. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators that he and Tamerlan learned to build the pressure cooker bombs from reading Inspire, the online magazine published by AQAP. The magazine’s first issue, which included an article titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” gave instructions on how to carry out crude, inexpensive terrorist attacks. The views of the two brothers grew more radical over time, and were influenced at least partly by the Internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric killed in 2011 in Yemen by an American drone strike. The man officials have identified as the creative force behind Inspire, an American citizen named Samir Khan, was killed in the same missile strike in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki. Prior to the Boston attack, the al Qaeda branch in Yemen posted on the Internet the “Lone Mujahid Pocketbook,” a compilation of all the do-it-yourself articles with jaunty English text and high-quality graphics. The Boston attack seems to have followed Inspire’s tips: gunpowder emptied from fireworks, shrapnel glued inside the pressure cooker and a commercial remote control as a detonator.
The brothers were able to avoid suspicion by emptying gunpowder from fireworks. In 2011 another terrorist, Naser Jason Abdo, also set out to build the pressure cooker bombs described in Inspire magazine, but was caught by the police when his purchase of gunpowder raised suspicions.
Terror in its simplest sense means fear, but it also has political overtones and an inflammatory effect. Since the days of the French Revolution, the word “terror” has referred to organized acts of violence designed to intimidate and demoralize a civilian population. Terrorism clearly can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, so much so that even the threat of a potential attack can cause fear and apprehension.
Terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about escaping. There are a large number of vulnerable targets in the open societies of the West, especially those that cater to the public such as hotels, stadiums, airports, railroads, department stores, malls and skyscrapers. Consequently, some terrorist attacks will succeed, but prudence demands that society must prepare as best as possible for such contingencies. Soft targets are soft by their very nature, and enhanced security can be inordinately expensive — an expense not commensurate or economically feasible for certain targets. Individuals seeking to launch a terrorist attack seek to strike the highest-profile, most symbolic target possible — and the Boston Marathon definitely fits these criteria. The target can magnify the terror, especially when the operation grabs the attention of the international media.
There will always be plenty of soft targets in a free society, and it is incredibly easy to kill people, even for untrained operatives. In this case, the brothers conducted an attack that was within their capabilities, rather than attempting something more complicated and larger that would require outside assistance and could have put them in jeopardy of running into a government informant as they sought help for their scheme.
Targeting Special Events
The events in Boston may be the precursor of a diabolical plan to attack American cities during events celebrated by specific localities. Every American state and city has a signature event — connected with a historic or religious holiday — that attracts large and vulnerable crowds on an annual basis. It is conceivable that al Qaeda has a plan to send American recruits back to their cities of origin to carry out terrorist attacks on these holidays. The Tsarnaevs initially planned to carry out the attack on July 4, but changed the plan because the bombs were completed earlier than expected. Thought and preparation should be committed to preventing similar atrocities in the future, considering the very real possibility of coordinated attacks on local holidays by radicalized homegrown terrorists trained abroad to carry out a larger campaign orchestrated by al Qaeda.
In a complex world of rapid geopolitical change, anger, disenfranchised groups and largely open borders, a terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon should not in and of itself be surprising. Rather, the length of time in which Americans did not face a major foreign-inspired or domestic terrorist event on their shores is perhaps more remarkable. Self-radicalization through social media, global communication and international travel enormously complicates American counterintelligence efforts. The Boston bombing is above all a reminder of the continuing need for heightened defenses against terror threats. As the number of years since 9/11 without a successful homeland attack increased, the temptation was to forget how vulnerable the U.S. is, and to conclude that the worst is over. If only that were true.
The FBI and CIA can intensify their investigations and intelligence gathering, while the police and the private sector can harden particular buildings and structures — making it more difficult for a terrorist to be able to plant a bomb or park a car containing a bomb nearby — but reality dictates that every attack will not be stopped. The Boston Marathon bombings represented a worst-case scenario: a major urban event — like New York’s New Year’s Eve ball drop or Thanksgiving Day Parade — where large crowds converge in the streets. In these scenarios, even the most stringent security measures can never provide a 100% safety guarantee. The authorities always have to be successful, but the terrorists only need to be successful once to cause a great deal of damage. The time for urgency is now.®