The Boston Bombers and the Decline of Al-Qaeda

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (left), 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing Photograph by The Lowell Sun and Robin Young via AP Photo

The full biographies of the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing are still coming into focus. What we do know is that the Tsarnaevs are Muslims; that they’ve lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years; and that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, became a U.S. citizen last year. By most accounts the men seem to have had no prior history of violence and embarked on a path of radicalization relatively recently. The investigation will continue, but for the moment the brothers more closely fit the description of “homegrown” militants than that of international terrorists.

This is largely what counterterrorism experts expected. As I wrote in this week’s print edition of Bloomberg Businessweek, because the U.S.’s campaign against al-Qaeda has been so effective in dismantling the organization’s capabilities:

“Acts of terrorism against the U.S. are less likely to be committed by a global enterprise like al-Qaeda than by small numbers of ‘self-radicalized’ domestic jihadists, far-right hate groups, anarchists, and radical environmentalists. Because they’re more diffuse, these potential perpetrators are also harder to identify and stop. ‘We know what to do with al-Qaeda,’ says Rick ‘Ozzie’ Nelson, a senior associate in the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘We understand this enemy. What we don’t understand nearly as well is what to do when Americans embrace a radical ideology that might lead them to commit violence.’”

It’s important, however, to keep that threat in perspective. Since Sept. 11, domestic terrorist attacks—even attempted attacks—have been exceedingly rare and caused a tiny number of deaths compared with, say, gun violence. Overall, the period between Sept. 11, 2001, and April 15, 2013, has been remarkably uneventful when it comes to domestic terrorism. Here’s the evidence:

“Since Sept. 11, 380 people have been indicted for plotting attacks inside the U.S., according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. Of that number, 77 were able to obtain materials for a bomb. Until Boston, only one, a white supremacist named Dennis Mahon who targeted a black city official in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a letter bomb in 2004, managed to make and detonate a device. Overall, the post-Sept. 11 era has been ‘the most tranquil period in terms of domestic terrorist violence since the 1960s,’ says Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. ‘During the 1970s we were dealing with 50 to 60 terrorist bombings [in the U.S.] a year. If we were dealing with that now, people would be going crazy.’”

So what does this all mean? The Boston bombings show that the threat of terrorism persists and that there are people living in the U.S. who are determined to kill and terrorize others. But it’s folly to believe every plot can be stopped. Shutting down major American cities and telling people to stay indoors every time a potential threat presents itself isn’t sustainable either. The best, smartest, and most cost-effective strategy for dealing with terrorism is to build up our capacities of “resilience” that allow us to respond effectively to attacks, knowing that they are rarely carried out successfully. To quote from this week’s issue:

“That means, for example, de-emphasizing costly Pentagon weapons systems and steering resources toward local police, health-care providers, and first responders like those who performed so brilliantly when the bombs went off on Patriot’s Day. The dispatch with which Boston’s emergency personnel handled the crisis, transporting dozens of injured people to triage tents and hospitals in minutes, undoubtedly limited the death toll. Such heroism was no accident. Several physicians had experience working in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the city has conducted simulated bombings to drill its first responders on how to react.

“‘The military value of terrorism is to cause disruption and to get maximum bang from an attack. But if you’re a terrorist and you have reason to believe it’s going to be a fizzle, it lowers your incentive to do it,’ says [homeland-security analyst Stephen] Flynn. ‘Building resilience doesn’t solve the “nut” problem. What it does is change the cost-benefit calculation of a terrorist or group of terrorists and lowers the value of engaging in terrorism on U.S. soil.’

“Once the initial trauma has passed, the greatest danger of any terrorist attack is the temptation to overreact. Pouring more money into open-ended military campaigns or instituting costly new security measures won’t necessarily make the U.S. any safer than it is. The most resilient societies are those that manage to tolerate risk. Praising the citizens of Boston for their bravery and generosity, President Obama said, ‘The American people refuse to be terrorized.’ Learning how to live with terrorism is the surest way to defeat it.”

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