Analyzing the terror threat to the U.S. after the Boston bombings

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Monday, April 15 2013 will be another day chronicled in American history, with the date forever associated with the tragic, fatal bomb attacks launched during the Boston Marathon.

Black backpacks concealing a deadly concoction targeted innocent and unsuspecting people who had gathered to either participate in, or observe the event.

The bags exploded almost simultaneously, within the concentric rings of security where the masses had gathered at the marathon finish line, claiming the lives of three people and wounding more than 170 others. Those backpacks were allegedly carried by immigrants of the Russian Caucasus, who had chosen what security experts would call a ‘soft target’.

The bombings recalled the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which brought fear, panic and insecurity to the heart of the United States. Despite the use of rudimentary implements, the terror act in Boston is considered the first successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2001.

Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.

This invites the question: Does the United States really know the enemy within its borders, and is it taking the proper steps to counter the threat?

Unfortunately, many Americans stereotype terrorists as being Arab, non U.S. citizens and those of Islamic religion. However in this particular incident, U.S. government agencies did not rush into making judgments or accusations against certain groups or individuals. Senior U.S. officials including President Barack Obama warned against jumping to conclusions before receiving the results of the investigation. Nevertheless, initial hypotheses in the aftermath of the attack focused on several entities such as al-Qaeda or radical right-wing groups opposed to U.S. government policies.

Millions of Americans and the U.S. media repeated President Barack Obama’s questions, “why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence? How did they plan and carry out these attacks? And did they receive help?” To try to find some answers to these questions, we must first examine the backgrounds of the suspects.

Since the announcement of the names of the two suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26 and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (19), the media has written numerous articles about the brothers and interviewed many people who have had a relationship with them, including members of their family.

The father of the suspects, Anzor Tsarnaev, quickly insisted on their innocence and - before the police arrested him - urged his son to surrender, saying: “Give up. Give up. You have a bright future ahead of you. Come home to Russia.” Anzor accused what he described as the U.S. “special services” as having framed his sons. He said: "I don't know who exactly framed them, but they did. They framed them. And they were so cowardly that they shot the boy dead.”

The suspects’ mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, echoed the same sentiment, accusing the FBI of setting up her sons. Similarly, Maret Tsarnaev, an aunt of the suspects, claimed a lack of proof of the brothers’ involvement, demanding the FBI to provide more evidence. She noted that Tamerlan “has a wife in Boston and from a Christian family, so you can't tie it to religion.”

In contrast to the reaction of the father and aunt of the suspects, Ruslan Tsarnaev, the uncle of the suspects, pointed out that he had not talked to them for three years due to family differences. Ruslan called his nephews "losers", saying he was “ashamed” of the bombers on behalf of his family and of all Chechens.

According to a former school teacher of Tamerlan, quoted in an interview with a Russian news channel, the elder brother and his family were refugees from Chechnya in Kyrgyzstan. The teacher had taught Tamerlan in the fourth grade, and in her observation, the civil war seemed to have traumatized him. He struck her as calm and timid since he was new at the school. According to neighbors and people who knew them, the suspects appeared to be normal, quiet kids. Neighbors indicated that the suspects’ parents sounded respectable, and gave everything to their children. They come from an educated family and their parents didn't have criminal links and didn't seem like they had strong religious ties. The older brother was respected in school, and was not aggressive or the instigator of fights. He was more timid than anything else.

According to reports aired by the American media, Tamerlan was described as a handsome young man, practicing boxing, playing the piano, and driving a Mercedes. Photographer Johannes Hirn, who profiled Tamerlan in a 2009 photo essay, described him as a devoted Muslim, quoting him as saying “I'm very religious.”

Hirn also noted that the suspect did not smoke or drink alcohol. In the interview, the suspect also expressed his concerns that "there are no values any more”, worrying that "people can't control themselves." Tamerlan also appeared isolated and disconcerted from American life, despite living in the U.S. for five years. He commented, "I don't have a single American friend… I don't understand them.”

Other reports revealed that Tamerlan’s criminal record included an arrest in 2009 for domestic assault and battery after assaulting his girlfriend, whom he later married. Media reports revealed that the FBI has questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev in January 2011 “upon the request of the Russian government”, but they did not find "any suspicious information" related to terrorism during his interrogation. After his death, investigations indicated that Tamerlan had traveled on January 12, 2012 to Russia from New York, and returned to the U.S. six months later. Strikingly, one month after his return, investigations showed that Tamerlan had created a special page on YouTube on August 17, 2012 where he expressed his admiration for a number of Jihadist videos.

Following the revelation of the suspects’ identities, media met with many friends, acquaintances and school teachers of the younger brother. Many said he was a polite man of pleasant character. Unlike his elder brother, Dzhokhar was more integrated into American society, although his comments on social media sites like Twitter indicated his interests in some figures who support jihadist ideology. Ironically, Dzhokhar tweeted the day of the bombings, "Ain't no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people".

After one day of the bombings, he wrote, "There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don't hear them cuz they're the minority".

It is worth mentioning that statements of Dzhokhar’s relatives have revealed the influence of his older brother on him. This was also suggested in the recordings from street cameras that showed Tamerlan taking the lead with his brother following.

The Boston bombings may seem a kind of “lone wolf” attack on a soft target, but the sequence of events draw conjecture that the attack was made under influence of others, considering the planning, implementation, weapons and explosives used.

But until more details are known, one thing is already clear following the deadly attacks in Boston: the U.S. is not immune from terrorism, and it is not easy to identify every potential enemy in the quest to combat such attacks.

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