Beyond the Boston bombing
Anthony Tucker-Jones surveys the latest terrorist plots that have blighted North America and says it’s business as usual for the jihadists
Without warning, the double blast caught the spectators and runners on the streets of Boston completely by surprise. The terrible shrapnel-riddled shock wave scythed outward, not upward, and one of the fatalities was a helpless eight-year-old child. A handful of others fell to the ground stunned by the blast, while hundreds more scattered in sheer panic, bloodied and bruised. This attack was exactly the worst case scenario urban space security specialists fear. Crowds are targets of opportunity, and even with the best will in the world, it’s impossible to make modern, bustling cities fully terror proof.
With the Boston bombing, the Toronto train plot and the ricin mail attack, April was a particularly harrowing month for terror plots in North America. But instead of exhibiting the jingoistic knee-jerk reaction you might expect, Americans have been considered in their response; almost accepting. Perhaps this is because the Boston bombing in particular was a highly embarrassing intelligence failure that caught the US counter-terrorism community apparently unawares. And the tragedy is also compounded by the fact the FBI had been forewarned about the presence of Chechen Islamists, but at the crucial moment failed to join up the relevant dots.
When around 23,000 runners gathered for the Boston Marathon on 15 April, little did they realise that they and their cheering supporters would be the victims of a vicious and unprovoked attack that would leave three people dead and more than 280 wounded. Two pressure cooker bombs containing ball bearings and nails tore through the happy crowds near the finish line. Because the bombs were low to the ground, they resulted in horrific injuries to the lower extremities, especially the legs, and a number of blast victims had to have shattered limbs amputated.
Clearly, the most likely culprits were either an al-Qaeda-affiliated terror cell or a right wing extremist group. But in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there were few clues to go on. It is always easy to jump to the wrong conclusions: in Norway, the rampage of bloodletting by far right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik initially seemed to be the work of jihadists; similarly, Basque separatists seemed the most likely perpetrators of the Madrid bombing, but in reality it was al-Qaeda. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, a right wing militant appeared the most likely culprit because the attack seemed to have come out of the blue, with little discernable motive. But no; it was business as usual for Islamist-inspired jihadists.
The finger was soon pointing at the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, which have an axe to grind because of America’s continued presence in Afghanistan. The latter, though, was swift to distance itself from the attack. Speaking to Channel 4 News, Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed: “We have nothing to do with these attacks in Boston in the US.” He then added, somewhat cyptically: “However, we would further comment on these attacks in the United States once a group of Mujahideen [God’s Warriors] that carried out these blasts publicly claim them.”
It was the Pakistani Taliban that claimed responsibility for the botched Times Square attack in New York in 2010, having trained a Pakistani, Faisal Shahzad, to carry out the attacks. When Shahzad was arrested in the US, the Taliban issued a video in which its leader Hakimullah Mehsud was seen at ease with Shahzad, giving him instructions.
Any misconceptions about right wing US militiamen having carried out the attacks were soon dispelled. The sad reality is that the state of Massachusetts in general has been a hub for Muslim militants for more than two decades. Let’s not forget that some of the 9/11 hijackers who seized planes from Boston Logan International Airport were already operating from the city before the attack. Since then, jihadists have continued to use the state of Massachusetts for fundraising, as a base for failed plots on US soil and to travel to Afghanistan and Lebanon to carry out attacks.
Investigators into the Boston bombing were soon given a vital clue when one of the casualties reported seeing a man wearing a dark jacket, hoodie, sunglasses and a baseball cap drop a backpack on the ground in the vicinity of the blast. This and CCTV footage led them to 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar. It was at this point that the investigation took a surprising turn, as the suspects were both immigrants from Chechnya who had arrived in the US about a decade ago. Following two invasions by the Russians, Chechen Islamists had become implacably opposed to Moscow – but they had never shown any hatred for America.
Three days after the bombing, the FBI issued surveillance footage showing the pair at the marathon finish line. After killing a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on 19 April, the pair hijacked a car and were cornered by the police in the suburb of Watertown. Tamerlan was killed, while his wounded brother was eventually captured hiding inside a boat parked on a driveway. Their motives remained baffling.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, a letter containing the toxin ricin was intercepted, having been addressed to the Republican senator representing Mississippi. Alarm bells rang immediately; in 2001, anthrax was sent to Capitol Hill, and three years later letters containing ricin were intercepted en route to the Senate Majority Leader’s office. A resident of Mississippi was arrested but subsequently released as no evidence was found at his home. The FBI was quick to dismiss any link between this incident and the Boston bombing.
Across the border in Canada, the authorities thwarted an al-Qaeda-inspired attack by two men apparently intent on bombing the Toronto to New York railway. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said their intelligence indicated that the men had been supported by al-Qaeda elements inside Iran. This seems strange, as Shi’ite Iran is ideologically opposed to Sunni al-Qaeda. Indeed, for many years the Iranian authorities kept members of al-Qaeda who had fled there from Afghanistan under house arrest.
Once again, on the face of it, this seemed a new and unwelcome development. However, like Massachusetts, Canada has had more than its fair share of terrorist plots. While there was no connection between the Boston bombing and the Toronto plot, militant Islam was the common denominator. The Canadian authorities unmasked plans for a series of attacks in 2006 by a terror cell that became known as the “Toronto 18” and had links to al-Qaeda. Earlier this year, in January, two Canadian citizens were among the militants killed attacking a gas plant in Algeria.
In Boston, it seems that the FBI dropped the ball. The bombers’ mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, was added to the US watch list at the same time as Tamerlan in 2011 after Russian intelligence alerted the Americans to an extremist link. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev following the Russian tip-off but then promptly failed to pick up his visit to the highly troubled Russian Republic of Dagestan in 2012. The republic has long been a hotbed of Islamic militancy.
For the past decade, Dagestan has been blighted by spillover from the conflict in Chechnya. Attacks on the security forces, especially the police, are a regular occurrence. The organisation Shariat Jamaat, also known as the Armed Forces of the Dagestani Front of the Caucasus Emirate, constitutes the largest and most active of Islamist terror organisations operating in the republic. It came into being during the Second Chechen War and is campaigning for Dagestan to become an independent Islamic state. In early 2012, Russian security forces killed Shariat Jamaat’s leader, but this has had little impact on the level of terrorist attacks in Dagestan. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s visit there should have been of interest to the FBI, but a slight change of name on his travel documents meant the US authorities failed to make the connection.
According to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers were motivated not by the Islamist struggles in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan, but by America’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the Boston bombing, they had planned to move on to New York with a view to attacking Times Square with up to six bombs. Investigators are looking at whether the brothers were influenced by the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the former leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His online magazine showed how to make pressure cooker bombs similar to those used by the Tsarnaevs.
Although the Boston bombing was the jihadists’ first successful attack on a US city since 9/11, the Americans have been made painfully aware that such threats are a horrible fact of life.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is intersec’s terrorism and security correspondent. He is a former defence intelligence officer and is now a widely published defence commentator specialising in regional conflicts