The Boston Bombers: Unpacking the Terrorist Threat

The recent bombings in Boston have unleashed a torrent of commentaries. While investigations are ongoing concerning the backgrounds of the suspects with no definitive answers yet about motivations and affiliations, the fact that the brothers were from Chechnya and Muslim has opened a Pandora’s Box of speculation. One simple point can be made at this point beyond the specifics of this case: There has been a fundamental shift in the nature of deadly attacks, often attributed to “terror.”

Following September 11, the United States declared a “war” on terror. Without a clear definition of terror, the focus of the war narrowed down to one organization, Al Qaeda. The organization and its leaders, we were told, were based in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. There was an enemy; there was a location for its headquarters (Bin Laden’s cave). As in all traditional wars, the opponents were identified, their location fixed. The battle lines were drawn, and the soldiers sent to eliminate the foe.


The next stage of the war was more diffuse. Unlike traditional enemies, Al Qaeda turned out to be a very modern organization. It was not hierarchical. Rather, it turned out to be an informal network of affiliates with similar aims. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for example, was responsible for attacks in Libya and Mali. The original Al Qaeda, like many successful businesses, had morphed into a horizontal structure in different places and time.

The enemy in the war on terror was more complicated than had been envisaged, and more complex than traditional armies usually confront. From fighting an organization with what the U.S. could imagine had organizational charts of leadership and responsibilities, the West was now confronted with loose networks that were more fluid. Not only was it challenged by the asymmetrical nature of the terrorist attacks themselves (no more meeting at a given battlefield at a given time), the West was now challenged by the very nature of the enemy. Armies traditionally fight armies; armies haven’t fought networks in the shadows.

The Boston Marathon bombings may have opened an even more diffuse element in the war on terror. If we assume that the Tsarnaev brothers were not members of Al Qaeda or part of its far-flung networks, we may speculate that the enemy has morphed from an organization to a network and now to an ideology. According to an April 23 article in the Washington Post, U.S. officials said that the two brothers “do not appear to have been directed by a foreign terrorist organization. Rather, the officials said, the evidence so far suggests they were ‘self-radicalized’ through Internet sites and U.S. actions in the Muslim world...These are persons operating inside the United States without a nexus.” In other words, the brothers were “lone wolves” or “stray dogs” or eventually a “coalition of the angry” in the technical parlance.

The use of military terminology – “the war on terror” – following September 11 was a grave mistake. It led to various military activities such as the war in Afghanistan. In all military activities there is collateral damage. The recent bombing and the potential “self-radicalization” might turn out to be the most damaging consequences of the war on terror. And for that, the military will have no solution. The United States has the largest military in history, the largest defense budget in history, but the military cannot fight ideology or guarantee the safety of its citizens within the country against persons who have become radicalized because of foreign policy decisions.

The collateral damage from the war on terror continues to unfold around the world as well as within the United States.


April 26, 2013


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