As police closed in on 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two men alleged to have been the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was regretfully noting that there was little chance that the United States could absolutely protect itself from such acts of terror. “This is the cost of an open society,” Cusimano Love told America on the evening of April 19, taking a break from following the real-time coverage of the hunt for the younger Tsarnaev. His older brother Tamerlan had died during a shootout with police in the early hours of the same day.
“There is no way to zero out the threat of terrorism,” she said. “What you do is the same thing you do to protect your home. You have a layered approach to security. You lock your doors; you have strong windows, good relations with your neighbors; you leave the lights on. One thing alone won’t work,” she said. “But what you end up with is a pretty good package…that’s going to get to a 90 percent solution.” But in a free, open society like the United States, she said, “There is nothing that is going to get you to 100 percent.” Cusimano Love points out that even comparably closed societies, like China and Russia, remain vulnerable to acts of terror.
Cusimano Love said the comprehensive response to the attack indicated that antiterrorism efforts in the United States have improved since the shock and lack of coordination experienced after the attacks on Sept. 11. This time, she said, federal, state and local agencies launched a well-coordinated, united response. “The public is your best line of defense,” she added. After the bombing, the public provided the raw data of the investigation in photos and videos of the marathon that anti-terrorism forces culled to track down the Tsarnaev brothers.
Could the response and preventive efforts have been better? “Well, we are not at the heightened state of awareness of Israeli society,” Cusimano Love said. But she believes that over all the nation has been effective at thwarting terror strikes since 9/11. “The threat of Al Qaeda core groups has been greatly diminished through the killing of their core leaders and the disruption of their network,” she said. But “lone wolf” attacks, as the marathon bombing appears to be, are much more difficult to defend against.
The brothers, U.S. residents for years, hailed from Chechnya, where they maintained family and cultural ties. All the same, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a visiting research fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism–The Hague, said in an e-mail that it remains too early to say if the Boston attack was directly connected to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya. “The attackers could have a different radicalization trajectory and a different purpose,” he said. “I think we will know more soon, but it’s always perilous to have an overly static conception of what motivated an attack when there are still so many possibilities.”
Al Qaeda has been the focus of much of America’s anti-terrorism effort in recent years, but Gartenstein-Ross would not say that campaign has meant other threats have been improperly discounted. “The potential for attacks from homegrown as opposed to international terrorists has been widely discussed, and the F.B.I.’s sting operations have largely focused on homegrown extremists,” he said. “This case may ultimately point to aspects of transnational terrorism that security experts have overlooked, and less prominent violent non-state actors may be one of them. But, again, we can’t say that with any degree of certainty. While the time Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent in the Caucasus is known, it’s not clear that he liaised with extremist groups while there.”
It is possible, in fact, that the brothers are not connected to any particular terror network but became radicalized independently. Tamerlan “favorited” YouTube videos that depict radical Islamist messages, but “we shouldn’t consider radicalization that occurs over the Internet to be ‘self-radicalization,’” Gartenstein-Ross said. “Thinking of it that way will cause us to fundamentally misunderstand why the Internet can serve as such a powerful medium. Relationships formed over social media are real relationships; and an individual who radicalizes through social media without meeting any of his influencers is in no way radicalizing alone,” he said. “In fact, some social science studies suggest that online bonds may form more quickly.”
“The materials are out there,” said Cusimano Love. “Even back when the first U.S. attacks took place in Afghanistan, every second fleeing Al Qaeda militant had an AK-47 and a laptop. You don’t need to go to the remote areas of the world to learn the tools of the trade anymore."