The more we learn about the Boston Marathon bombings, the greater our sense that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected perpetrators, could somehow have been stopped. It’s a seductive notion: The families of an 8-year-old boy, two young women, and a campus police officer might still have their loved ones today, and that dozens of others might still possess limbs and their former lives, if only the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies had pieced together clues—especially signs of the older brother’s open radicalization—that in hindsight appear obvious. There is also a growing understanding, after an era when homeland terrorism was nearly forgotten, that Americans had better get ready for the next threat, and fast. It is not unreasonable to think that even now a copycat terrorist is pondering some plot inspired by the Boston bombers’ success carrying out the first homeland attack since Sept. 11, 2001.
Clearly, clues were missed. As we know, starting sometime after 2010, Tamerlan began descending into radical rage in full view of his local Muslim community. Twice he disrupted his mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, with angry outbursts. Those incidents occurred more than a year after the FBI closed its casebook on him, having found no evidence of radical views or ties in response to queries from the Russian intelligence service. The FBI, apparently, wasn’t in sufficient communication with Tamerlan’s imam or the congregants who had been offended by his comments.
And that, in fact, points to the far-bigger problem. The greatest fault is not an intelligence failure to uncover the particular clue that would have revealed Tamerlan’s plans; the fault lies with the failure of the U.S. government as a whole to implement a program that has been discussed and debated for years—a program established on paper nearly two years ago, in August 2011, but which still has not been implemented nationally. The Obama administration officially calls its national strategy “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” Translated, that means using a wide range of government agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to Education and Health and Human Services, to teach U.S. communities about radicalization and enlist them to become early-detection systems when it occurs. According to George Selim, the White House’s director of community partnerships, the program “is really a nod to the fact that preventing violent extremism in the United States is not only a government function. It is largely civil.” The proposal, modeled partly on Britain’s Prevent program, acknowledges that the FBI and law enforcement don’t have the resources or knowledge to stop terrorism on their own—not with some 750,000 names to track on the official terrorist watch list.
Tamerlan was a case in point: Most of the criticism now focuses on why the FBI appeared to drop the inquiry after the Russian government contacted the bureau several times raising questions about whether he was dabbling in radicalism. Even his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, was recorded by Russian wiretaps in 2011 speaking with him vaguely of pursuing jihad in Palestine, although the FBI did not learn of that until after the bombings. But this is not entirely the FBI’s fault. Nearly 12 years after 9/11, at a time of budget austerity, it is too much to ask our law-enforcement agencies to sweep up and address every vague threat. In truth, they already do a pretty good job: Muslim-generated terrorism is only a tiny sliver of violence in the United States, far less than in some European countries. Since Sept. 11, Muslim-American terrorism has claimed a total of 33 lives, out of more than 180,000 murders committed over the same period; in contrast, more than 200 Americans were killed in political violence by white supremacists and other groups on the far right, according to figures from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C.
Even so, the number of radicalized people in the United States who have not yet done anything violent or worth prosecuting is “a fairly large club,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden told CNN last weekend. Few of these potential terrorists can be detected and prosecuted before they act. And after a decadelong series of fumbles and mishaps dating from Richard Reid (the failed “shoe bomber”) to Faisal Shahzad (the would-be Times Square car bomber), the odds suggest that some plotter was bound to succeed sooner or later. “This is like penalty kicks in soccer,” Hayden said. “No matter how good the goalie is, sooner or later this ball’s going into the back of the net.”
Some community activists, fearing yet another wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric—exemplified by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has frankly called for ethnic profiling—are taking the lead from the government. At a gathering in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 25, an extraordinary collection of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Sikh religious leaders assembled, along with representatives of the federal, county, and local governments, to talk about promoting greater unity and showing government the way forward.
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