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Terrorist Attacks at the Boston Marathon

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

On April 15, two terrorists planted bombs that killed three people and injured 170 during the Boston Marathon. A subsequent rapid investigation led to two suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev. Tamerlan Tsarnayev (26) was killed in a shootout with police on April 18, and his brother Dzhokhar (19), after an intensive region-wide manhunt, was finally arrested on April 20. The brothers, both of Chechen origin, are also suspected of shooting and killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus police officer on April 18.

The Possible Al-Qaeda Link

The nature of the explosives used by the terrorists, two 6 liter pressure cookers packed with ball bearings, nails and other forms of shrapnel, and the fact that the explosions were fairly small and the bombs were made from common ingredients, such as black gunpowder, suggests that this was a fairly amateurish attack. Al-Qaeda has, for years, been recommending using this bomb design as cheap and effective. In fact, Inspire Magazine, an al-Qaeda linked publication, provided instructions on how to build such a bomb in a 2010 edition of the magazine. Consequently, it is likely that the Tsarnayev brothers, who are of Chechen origin, were inspired by al-Qaeda or by an al-Qaeda minded group in Russia’s Muslim republics in the Caucuses. Tamerlan Tsarnayev visited Dagestan, a Muslim area of Russia near Chechnya in 2012 and it is possible that during his six month stay, he was radicalized (and possibly trained) there. The other possibility is that the brothers were radicalized via the Internet and used instructions available online to build the bombs. The FBI will likely be studying Tamerlan’s 2012 trip and any additional international travel by the two brothers in order to ascertain the source of the radicalization. Given that the bombs were small and fairly simple, it is possible that the suspects were able to build the bombs on their own using instructions provided to them. Generally, bombs built by people trained in terrorist training camps, are far larger and more effective, as in the case of the suicide bombers that attacked the London transportation system on July 7, 2005, but this, in and of itself, does not rule out the possibility that Tamerlan was trained to build these types of bombs during his 2012 trip.

The Growing Threat of Homegrown Terrorism

Regardless of whether one or more of the Tsarnayev brothers received actual training or whether they were able to plan and execute the attack on their own, this incident underscores the threat of domestic terrorism from radicalized Americans. Whereas the 9/11 attacks were carried out by foreigners, primarily Saudis, more recent plots and the successful attack in Boston, were carried out by Americans. This means that the threat is twofold: from hostile foreign nationals entering the United States to carry out terrorist attacks and from Americans executing home-grown attacks.

The Investigation

It took less than four days for investigators to discover the identity and whereabouts of the Tsarnayev brothers. By all accounts, this should be deemed impressive and doubtless represents effective coordination between the FBI, the Boston Police Department, and a range of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. In the United States, the FBI has the statutory authority to be the lead investigative agency with respect to terrorism cases. However, unlike Hollywood or TV portrayals that show FBI agents taking over cases and pushing the local cops aside, the reality is that the FBI has less than 12,000 field agents for the entire country (and these investigators are responsible not only for terrorism cases, but for investigating a range of other federal offences including kidnappings, drug conspiracies, bank robberies, transnational crime, cybercrime, and many other types of criminal activity. This means that the FBI rely on the cooperation of state and local law enforcement agencies as well as other federal law enforcement agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service, and a range of other federal agencies. The FBI also operates a number of local and regional Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) that bring together local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to conduct joint investigations of suspected terrorists. Consequently, the FBI does not have the luxury of trying to monopolize investigations and is highly dependent on state, local, and other federal law enforcement agencies in order to conduct successful investigations that lead to successful prosecutions.

While details are still sketchy, the investigation of the two suspects in the Boston attack is likely to have involved three dozen or more local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies including the police forces of Boston and neighboring cities, campus police forces, the Massachusetts State Police, the ATF, and, of course, the FBI. While it may mean less drama on the movie or TV screen, counterterrorism investigations and operations require significant collaboration and cooperation between law enforcement agencies.

The rapidity of the identification of the Boston Marathon terrorism suspects suggest that, at least in this case, law enforcement collaboration and cooperation is alive and well.

Image credit: AP/ Matt Rourke