Fri, Apr 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The changing nature of terrorism

Was the Boston bombing “home-grown” or driven by an international network? Or does the distinction no longer apply when terrorism is at once global and local?

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Two brothers: sportsmen, students, sons, one a former part-time lifeguard at Harvard University, the other a husband and father. Immigrants, certainly, but then that is hardly exceptional in the US. Muslim, but that is not rare either.

“A normal dude,” said Essah Chisholm, who wrestled with Dzhokhar, the younger of the pair accused of planting two explosives near the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday last week, killing three people and injuring more than 180.

“As American as anybody. He’s like a regular ... kid,” said Austin Hightower, a friend.

And terrorists too, apparently, though not for once “al-Qaeda.” No evidence of links to the group founded by Osama bin Laden or any of its affiliates has emerged, and few have suggested that last week’s atrocity was an “al-Qaeda” operation.

However, even if al-Qaeda are refreshingly absent from the headlines, the core issue which US counterterrorism agency analysts, like their counterparts around the world, have struggled with, remains the same: Is this attack “domestic terrorism” or is it “international terrorism?” Is this a local or a global phenomenon? Where does the threat come from?

The problems faced by intelligence agencies in answering these questions date back to the first high-profile attacks that heralded the arrival of al-Qaeda on the international scene.

The questions are important, given that the answers will determine the response to the Boston bombings. And they may also explain why the FBI appeared to have “dropped the ball,” in the words of one congressman, by failing to pick up the threat posed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev after they interviewed him in 2011 at the request of the Russian government. Al-Qaeda first made an impact with the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks themselves.

Both involved highly organized plots conceived in, and run from, Afghanistan, but involving dozens of participants in several different countries. In each case a team of bombers was recruited, trained and dispatched from one location to hit targets several thousand kilometers away. The results were devastating and spectacular.

British intelligence had warned former British prime minister Tony Blair in July 2001 that al-Qaeda — operating from bases in Afghanistan — was in the “final stages” of preparing a terrorist attack on the West, probably targeting Israelis or Americans, though the details, timings and methods of attack were not known. The nature of the threat was not “understood” at the time, the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee later noted, “due to a failure of imagination.”

Similar warnings had been circulated in the US. A report from the US’ National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States showed how the 19 hijackers had gone undetected after dropping through the gaps between the CIA, which was focused on the “international” and the FBI, which focused on the “domestic.” Post-Sept. 11 no one wanted to repeat the mistake. All eyes turned outwards. The threat was “out there.”

Two years later, this analysis had begun to be nuanced, at least in Europe. Eliza Manningham-Buller, then director-general of MI5, spoke in 2003 of “networks of [Britons] ... that blend into society ... who live normal, routine lives.” This was an acknowledgment of a “domestic threat,” though Manningham-Buller also said these individuals would lie dormant “until called upon for specific tasks by another part of the network” which was overseas.

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