It remains too soon to know who was behind Monday’s attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, though law enforcement authorities say they are treating it as a terrorism investigation. Over the next several hours, investigators will aim to determine whether the bombings were the work of homegrown extremists or whether it was an “international” operation along the lines of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
According to Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the scale and location of Monday’s blasts suggest the work of a relatively small number of radicalized individuals. “I’d be very surprised if this was directed by al-Qaeda,” he says. “This isn’t the kind of venue they’d typically attack. Al-Qaeda tends to go for higher-profile targets—something more visible and of a more spectacular nature than a race in Boston.”
Attacks carried out by homegrown radicals using small explosive devices are especially difficult to stop. Despite the many improvements in U.S. intelligence and homeland security since 2001, “We are always going to be vulnerable to some degree,” Nelson says. “We live in a free and open society—which means we are always vulnerable to any extremist, radical group that wants to perpetrate this kind of thing.” Boston has a “very seasoned police force” that was backed up by Massachusetts National Guard personnel, but it’s nevertheless “very difficult” to prevent someone from placing small bombs in trash receptacles during a public event like the marathon.
Should the attacks be traced to radical Islamic militants, whether homegrown or otherwise, the Obama administration will likely face criticisms for heralding the demise of al-Qaeda as a strategic threat. Nelson says “our track record has been pretty good—and that’s what makes this a very difficult problem. In many ways, it’s easier to dismantle an organization like al-Qaeda—where you have a No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 and which operates from a defined geographic area—than it is to stop individuals who are disenfranchised for whatever reason and are looking for a cause to embrace. When do you determine when an individual has crossed from rhetoric to radical action?”
After more than a decade of fighting international terrorism, “we know what to do with al-Qaeda,” Nelson says. “We know how to dismantle that organization. We understand this enemy. What we don’t understand nearly as well is what to do when Americans embrace a radical ideology and commit acts of violence.”