I happened to be far away from my New England home when Boston was hit by the most consequential terrorist attack in the city since, well, the original Tea Party. Boston has been an important part of my life, having lived and been educated in that special city; like many Americans, I have an affection, indeed love for Boston which will never leave me. So the news of the bombing was shocking, even to this counterterrorism professional. Not least because not long ago I stood at the very spot where the attack occurred with my own sons.
While Chechen losers were doing their worst I was in Bucharest, for a meeting of the Combating Terrorism Working Group – a very successful meeting, I’m happy to report, and our Romanian hosts were superb – and it’s an odd thing to be surrounded by terrorism gurus from a couple dozen countries when something like Boston goes down. Then I went to Switzerland for more meetings, and the conversations continued. I was en route to Geneva when the most interesting thing to ever happen in Watertown went down, and I followed it in real-ish time; how I do love me the Twitter.
I’m home now, getting over the jet-lag, and have a bit of time to collect my thoughts in a more methodical fashion. So here it goes, dear readers. BLUF: We were lucky that the casualty count wasn’t higher; I realize how callous this may sound but compared to, say, London’s 7/7 attacks (52 victims dead, several hundred injured) or what Najibullah Zazi & Friends had planned for NYC in 2009, Boston got off almost lightly.
The brothers Tsarnayev were amateurs, thank God, and read their Inspire magazine closely; professionally trained terrorists would have produced more lethal bombs, and very likely an escape plan too. It’s important to note that Tamerlan and Dzokhar were really just losers: the former a narcissistic douchebag, the latter a dumbass pothead. They are fodder not for a Bond film but something by the Coen brothers. They are anything but interesting. It’s not hard to see why they sought “meaning” for their stupid, pointless lives.
I have no doubt that we will soon find out that they had a circle of muj-wannabe pals, mostly online, violent fantasists like themselves, but if the T-Bros were agents of any real intelligence service or even bona fide terrorist group I’ll be surprised. They – and here I mostly mean Tamerlan, the obvious driver of the plot, leading his younger, smaller, and frequently stoned little brother along for a sick ride – are self-styled mujahidin from central casting. We’ve seen this movie before, the sordid saga of the do-it-yourself Salafi holy warrior, and unfortunately we’ll see it again.
Federal law enforcement and intelligence didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory pre-bombing with this one, but neither do I (yet) see much evidence of what the pundits love to term an “intelligence failure.” Dots, some provided by our frenemies in Moscow, were not connected, per the world’s worst intel cliche. A Customs and Border Protection rep at the Boston JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force: the interagency place where guys and gals from different teams are suppose to collaborate, share information, and “build synergies” but don’t always) failed to pass some nuggets about Tamerlan to the right people – the sort of human-derived screw-up that happens every day in the real world of CT but seldom matters as here – but it’s time to be honest and admit that, given existing laws, there’s not a lot the FBI could have done about the T-Bros “left of boom” as we like to say.
Media commentary on FBI methods is mostly uninformed, and the American public needs to understand that there are a lot more people in the country with wacky ideas, some of them violent and nasty, than we like to imagine, and that is not, in itself, a crime. As long as Tamerlan confined his activities to talking like a jihadist asshat to boxing pals and online fantasists like himself, plus visiting weird places with deep Al-Qa’ida connections, there wasn’t much to be done about it. More clearly should have been done here, Tamerlan’s long visit to Dagestan ought to have set off a lot of alarm bells, but just as I previously reported about France’s Mohammed Merah, the local security service knew quite a bit, some of it worrying, but didn’t actually do much of anything, or at least nothing effective, to stop the carnage that was coming. Ultimately this is a matter of policy, not intelligence.
Why exactly does this country allow immigrants with violent views to remain, hang out, collect welfare, etc? I happen to think this is insane, I have no idea why the United States allows non-citizens to remain here when authorities know they hold deeply disturbing and potentially violent views. People like Tamerlan Tsarnayev need to be declared persona non grata and shown the door, for good. Vladimir Putin warned the West a few years back about the wisdom of allowing Chechen refugees, some of them scary people, into their countries and, no matter what one thinks of that ex-KGB colonel, here he was surely right. America has enough native-born wackos, we really don’t need to import more. Yet given that the current administration cannot even mention the word “jihad” and persists in describing MAJ Nidal’s Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we should not be surprised that Washington, DC, isn’t eager to look deeply into the real roots of the Boston catastrophe either.
Until the United States gets serious about immigration and pondering the sort of people we want to come and stay here, not much will change. And incidents like Boston will happen again. In the years after 9/11, Americans took pride in the fact that Muslims here seem so much better adjusted and genuinely assimilated than their immigrant co-religionists in Europe; and, in the main, they undoubtedly are. But what happened in Boston should make Americans pause to reflect on this again, as the trajectory for angry, disaffected Muslim immigrants here may be no happier in the long run than in Europe, a development with alarming implications.
That said, we shouldn’t let the FBI off the hook just yet. The Bureau has a long and depressing history of botching big terrorism investigations and leaving important questions unanswered and sometimes not even seriously asked. The FBI ought not take the fall for the travesty of the 9/11 Commission, which simply refused to deal with issues it didn’t like or feel comfy with. But AQ’s huge and complex “Planes Operation,” the ultimate muj “big wedding,” bears little resemblance to the Tsarnayev’s half-baked, bomb-in-the-kitchen-of-your-mom undertaking.
Yet the Boston bombing does bear more than a passing resemblance to another major domestic terrorism case, namely what happened in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That investigation, what the Bureau termed OKBOMB, was vast yet unsatisfying and incomplete. While there is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh (executed three months, to the day, before the 9/11 attacks) and Terry Nichols (in prison for the next millennium or so) were part of the plot, the FBI never looked very seriously at the wider conspiracy – yes, I said it – behind the awful attack that killed 168 Americans, 19 of them children under the age of six.
Perhaps they didn’t want to know more details, since somehow the FBI missed McVeigh and Nichols during the course of their intense, multi-year investigation into radical-right circles, known as PATCON, which dug up a lot of information in the early 1990s about neo-Nazis but nothing on, you know, the actual bombers. That never looks good. Over at INTELWIRE you can find a lot of information about just how badly the FBI handled the case, none of it making for edifying reading.
In the absence of a thorough Federal investigation, reporters and self-motivated investigators, plus more than a few upset private citizens, some of them not altogether in earth orbit, took up the slack, and dug deep and put out a lot of information, some scurrilous yet some tantalizing. As a result, important questions that the FBI left unanswered (or worse, unasked) became fodder for “conspiracy theorists” and weird websites. But the simple fact is that, eighteen years later, there’s a lot of stuff about OKBOMB that we don’t know and really ought to.
The best official effort to get to the bottom of some of this morass of unknowns came a decade after the attack, when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) sponsored a re-look at some of these questions, above all – were foreigners involved in the OKBOMB plot? Federal authorities, especially the FBI, were anything but cooperative with this Congressional investigation, as Rep. Rohrabacher made clear publicly, and the ultimate report, which bears reading by anyone interested in this topic, is detailed yet inconclusive. Among the key issues which the FBI failed to unravel, and obstructed others from getting to the bottom of, include:
1. Who were the other persons unknown (not just the vaunted “John Doe No. 2”) seen with McVeigh and/or Nichols in the days before the bombing, by multiple credible witnesses?
2. What were McVeigh and especially Nichols doing during multiple trips to the jihadist-infested southern Philippines and whom did they meet with? And relatedly, who taught them to make the bomb that was used in the OKBOMB plot?
3. What was the relationship between McVeigh and Nichols and the neo-Nazi compound at Elohim City, which was filled with violent extremists who seemed pretty serious about making war on Uncle Sam at home?
At this point, with McVeigh dead and Nichols keeping quiet in his cell, not to mention almost two decades of uncooperative behavior by the FBI – which reeks to this counterintelligence hand like CYA of a serious kind – it seems unlikely that any of those big questions will ever be answered satisfactorily. As a result, the American people may never know what really happened in Oklahoma City, and the field is mostly left to guys running websites while wearing tinfoil hats in their mom’s basement. Some serious researchers have kept the investigation open, but there’s not much room for optimism about a “big break” in OKBOMB now.
Which is a travesty. It’s important that the same not be allowed to happen again. Federal investigators, with the FBI in the lead, must dig into the Tsarnayev case with more than due diligence. The victims deserve answers, even if they are not edifying to the Bureau’s image and reputation, or to the administration’s preferred theory of the crime. The public should demand no less.
[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and in no way representative of the views of any of his employers.]