The last week has had a number of interest revelations about the two men who bombed Boston and, apparently, intended to bomb New York as well. I’ve been accumulating these articles for a week and waiting for a common thread to emerge. And I think I’ve found it.
The first thing that emerges from the reporting is that Uncle Ruslan had it right the first time he spoke to the press: these guys were losers. The elder Tsarnaev was on welfare for a while and only got off because his wife was apparently working two jobs. He has some vague boxing ambitions but doesn’t seem to have put the effort in that athletic success requires. The younger one was in school but was a genial pothead at best. While it’s possible they had some training — certainly the bombs showed an unusual degree of sophistication — they bumbled around quite a bit. They lingered around Boston, had a single gun to take on the cops and the elder brother died when his younger panicked brother accidentally ran over him trying to flee the police. Indeed, this is common in terrorists:
In describing the “adversary,” the case studies far more commonly use words like incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, foolish, and gullible. Many of the cases suggest that there is little exaggeration in the 2010 film, Four Lions, the impressive dark comedy about a band of hapless home-grown British terrorists.
Amazingly, the Boston perpetrators apparently thought they could somehow get away with their deed even though they chose to set their bombs off at the most-photographed spot on the planet at the time. Moreover, although they were not prepared to die with their bombs, they do not seem to have had anything that could be considered a coherent plan of escape. This rather bizarre inability to think about the aftermath of the planned deed is quite typical in the case studies. (Also commonly found: an inability to explain how killing a few random people would advance their cause.)
We don’t see it this way because we usually hear about terrorist success stories: 9/11, Boston, 7/7, etc. We don’t hear much about terrorists blowing themselves up with poorly designed bombs, groups hugs or stumbles over errant sheep. So I think the critical question here is not how these guys became radicalized or how they became bitter or whether their mommy hugged them enough as babies. The question is how they were able to succeed where so many of their idiotic misguided brethren failed. Was it training? Was it luck?
The other thing to emerge is that this didn’t exactly come out of left field. We received multiple warnings from the Russians who had wiretapped his mother and heard some vague jihadist murmurings. The elder brother was, in fact, on a watch list but was later taken off.
So why didn’t we pay more attention to him? Well, there are watch lists and there are watch lists. Philip Bump:
The terror watch list, as it’s known, isn’t really a watch list. For one thing, it isn’t regularly watched. For another, it’s not one list. It’s more of a set of hierarchical, integrated databases which are checked under various circumstances, most notably when individuals want to travel. According to Reuters, after he was interviewed by the FBI in 2011, Tsarnaev was added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which is compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center. It’s a list that comprises over half a million names. “Because of its huge size,” Reuters reports, “U.S. investigators do not routinely monitor everyone registered there, said U.S. officials familiar with the database.”
In other words, there’s a sort of pyramid of terror investigation. At the bottom of the pyramid are hundreds of thousands of people who’ve come to the government’s attention for some reason. As the FBI and other agencies look into behavior and patterns, people can move up the pyramid — fewer people evincing more suspicious behavior — winnowing to a point once held by Osama bin Laden. Or, after a determined time, people can drop out of the pyramid entirely if they don’t behave in a way that raises suspicion. That’s the track Tsarnaev was on.
This is a problem we had on 9/11 and a problem we have had since. Our government is collecting astonishing amounts of information and considers the terrorist potential of hundreds of thousands of people. But it doesn’t really seem to have a good way — 12 years on from 9/11 — of figuring out which pieces of information are useful. Afterward, we can go back and say, “Ah, here, here and here. Why didn’t we see it?” But the ability of all that intelligence to predict terrorism seems limited at best.
(There are some other issues that I regard as meaningless, such as the judge advising Dzhokhar of his right not to testify against himself.)
I was contemplating all this last night and it finally came together. These guys were nobodies. One was a bum, the other was on his way to bumhood. They were flagged as potential risks but didn’t do anything to really grab the FBI’s attention. There are questions that still need to be asked: how did they learn to build the bomb and did the FBI miss anything important? Could this have been prevented with a better approach? All that will come out.
However, based on the current information, this seems to reinforce the reality that, in the end our citizens are our best line of defense. Our citizens have succeeded where other have failed. It was citizens who stopped United 93. It was citizens who stopped Richard Reid. It was citizens who stopped the undie bomber. It was citizens who stopped the Times Square Bomber. And it was citizens who snapped the pictures and gave the testimony that nailed these guys. Homeland Security will never design a system that can catch everyone, even if we didn’t care about civil liberties. No matter how intense a police state we create, dangerous people will slip through the cracks. Our last and best line of defense is 300 million people keeping their eyes open.