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

Fri, Apr 26, 2013 - Page 9

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.

Then came the attacks in Madrid in March 2004, by a group of young immigrants who appeared to have no connection to any international networks at all, and the London bombings of 2005.

By now, there was a genuine recognition that there were serious problems within Europe and that, as it did elsewhere, the globalized free-floating ideology of “al-Qaeda-ism,” could appeal to individuals in the UK and elsewhere who had not been “recruited” or “brainwashed” and were not “sleeper cells.”

Some of the young men responsible for the attacks in the UK on July 7 and July 21, 2005, as well as the Operation Crevice and Operation Overt plots that came before and after them, had certainly traveled to Pakistan to receive training and “ideological focus” but they had sought out al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had not sought out them.

Throughout most of this time, as violence exploded across the Middle East and Europe, there was relative calm in the US. This was attributed to many factors. Some saw it as a consequence of repressive legislation. Others argued that US Muslims were better integrated or came from better-educated, more successful communities than European Muslims. There was no European dream to match the American one, it was said. European-style multiculturalism did not work. The more excitable rightwing commentators, particularly during the French riots of 2005, predicted pockets of Islamic resistance within Europe that would require a division of marines to overcome.

Any US complacency soon appeared misplaced however. Rapidly, the same problems as seen in Europe emerged. Young men, first or second-generation immigrants, with a significant number of converts, became involved in violent Islamic extremism. Some were victim of FBI stings, almost certainly innocent. Others, such as Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, two men of Pakistani origin who attempted to bomb New York’s subway system and Times Square respectively, were not. Some did indeed come from overseas — such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian student who flew from the Yemen to the Netherlands to the US to attempt to down a plane over Detroit with a bomb in his underpants. However, as elsewhere, most were locals, so-called “home growns.”

Indeed, that may always have been the case. According to a recent report by the Henry Jackson Society, the British think tank, between 1997 and 2011 more than half of “al-Qaeda-related offences” were committed by US citizens. The second most common nationality of perpetrators was Saudi Arabian (at 9 percent), with Pakistanis the third most common (at 6 percent). More than a third of the total number of individuals who committed such an offense had been born in the US, researchers found, and as a proportion of their overall involvement, US citizens committed more such offenses than foreign nationals in eight of the 15 years studied.

Only one of the Tsarnaev brothers was a US citizen: Dzhokhar, the younger. Tamerlan’s application for citizenship had been turned down, possibly because of a conviction following the violent assault of a girlfriend in 2009, possibly following his interview with the FBI.

However, the pair, whose parents are of Chechen origin, had, after time spent in Russia and Dagestan, both been in the US for at least seven years, possibly nine.

Caught between a culture they knew, but had left behind, and a society that welcomed them, but they could not possess, it is not difficult to imagine the gradual hardening of hate as money troubles loomed, the parents squabbled and divorced, the friendships proved hard to build and sustain. Tamerlan, the eldest, appears to have had the greater trouble, despite his marriage and child.

“I don’t have a single American friend,” he is reported to have said.

There is little evidence of religious devotion until a trip to Dagestan last year.

Terrorists are rarely loners such as Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Mohammad Sidique Khan, who led the July 7 bombers, left behind a young daughter. Cells consist of various personality types, just like gangs. Terrorism is a social activity like any other.

One of the best predictors of militant activity, the security services have found, is the involvement of a close relative or peer. Neither of the Tsarnaev brothers are likely to have ever envisaged murder or their own deaths when they began to be interested in the militant videos they saw on the Internet. Radicalization is a gradual process, if sometimes a rapid one, and never an instant decision.

So were the bombs international or domestic terrorism?

The answer, of course, is neither. The division is an arbitrary one. Only a tiny fraction of terrorist attacks across the world in the past decade have been authentically “international.” Whether in Iraq or Pakistan, Europe or the US, most have involved individuals or loose networks attacking local targets only a short distance from where they live, with local materials assembled locally. The “spectacular,” such as Sept. 11 or the globe-trotting operative, like the “underpants bomber,” are the exceptions. The odd video viewed by a bomber on the Internet may be global, but the reality of terrorism is deeply local.

The Boston bombings were not suicide attacks, the trademark of al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups in the past decade. We do not know if the Tsarnaev brothers had a coherent further plan, or hoped eventually to achieve “martyrdom.” No videoed last testament has yet surfaced nor any other indication that the bombings were supposed to “send a message.”

The suicide bomb was a tactic custom-made for a television age, where the bomber’s own “sacrifice” supposedly bore witness to the righteousness of his cause and the mass casualties would shock and awe a vast audience. The aim was to radicalize and mobilize all those in the Islamic world who were yet to “take up arms.” It was propaganda by deed. In Boston, there was no “martyrdom” and no propaganda.

Indeed, the attack itself, with its unsophisticated, but effective smaller bombs, the homemade grenades, the automatic weapons, the hold-up and the shootout, recalls not just the many low-grade, low-profile, Islamic militant attacks familiar throughout much of the Islamic world in recent years. It also mirrors violence of another kind, one that is equally familiar in the US: that of the all-American teenagers who take guns into schools to kill classmates, or the adults who gun down their colleagues in the office.

In this it is the ultimate fusion of global and local, the international and the domestic. The divisions, apparently so clear in the aftermath of Sept. 11, no longer exist.

And why did the FBI “drop the ball?” Perhaps there was a simple administrative foul-up, more common than anyone likes to think, or admit, even in the best-run, best-resourced bureaucracies.

Or perhaps simply because, as ever, the counterterrorist community are condemned to be always fighting the last war.