It remains to be seen why Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, decided to stuff explosives into pressure cookers on Monday and wreak mass carnage at the finish line.
But what has become increasingly apparent is that no matter what the brothers’ motives were, President Obama, Congress, and law-enforcement officials won’t find any easy answers to prevent attacks by terrorists who appear to be isolated and acting alone.
“Given the legal and privacy constraints that we’re under as a democratic and pretty open society, there’s a limit to what the FBI and law enforcement can do. Nobody wants a police state,” said Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former staffer with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Part of the equation here is trying to dissuade people from going down that path and empowering local communities, but once people become detached and disaffected, it’s hard to prevent people from going there.”
The early signs indicate that Tamerlan, 26, the elder brother who was gunned down in a police chase this morning, and Dzhokhar, 19, the younger who continues to evade capture, were self-styled terrorists, using bombs and explosives that are easy to produce by looking at Internet and message boards.
“It was an event that would not be iconic for an international audience; these individuals did not have large amounts of funding…. They didn’t have a plan on how to leave the country,” said David Schanzer, professor at Duke University and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “I’m not saying these people aren’t terribly dangerous, but they just don’t seem to me to be highly trained operatives. They seem to be making it up as they go along.”
It is unknown whether the brothers, of Chechen origin and who identified as Muslim, were given any training by foreign networks or whether they were even influenced by extremist ideology. Friends and acquaintances expressed shock that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who just a few months ago was training to be a boxer for the U.S. Olympic team, and Dzhokar, a well-adjusted student with plenty of friends, became embroiled in such a plot.
The policy implications are very much dependent on the answers, said Ben Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
If authorities conclude that the brothers were neither influenced by nor connected to a foreign network—al-Qaida or another body—the Boston bombings will be regarded as no different than the atrocities carried out by lone, disaffected domestic radicals, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh or Weather Underground.
If there were plugged in or motivated by foreign nationals, it raises a whole set of issues of how the United States’ foreign and counterterrorism policy reacts accordingly.
“Domestic people getting violently radical and doing terrible things with whatever weapons that are at their disposal is not something that’s new to our experience and the question of how you respond to that is a very different question than the question if you understand this person to be an operative of a foreign organization or group,” Wittes said.
Schanzer said that his research since 9/11 has not found any examples of homegrown terrorists of Chechen descent, but it is a part of the world where the separatist movement is ripe for co-opting by al-Qaida and other bodies who seek to piggyback off of Muslim grievances.
As the FBI and law enforcement officials parse the brothers’ activities over the last several months, patterns of behavior may emerge that should have raised flags. But the lessons to be drawn won’t be easy.
“In terms of counterterrorism, I don’t know anything else we can do but deep engagement with potentially at-risk communities, and local enforcement using community policing techniques,” Schanzer said.