The Tsarnaev Follies

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.

Comments are closed.

  1. TxAg94

    Our last and best line of defense is 300 million people keeping their eyes open.

    All the more reason to support amnesty…11-50 million more pairs of eyes out there watching for evildoers!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. I won’t be surprised if that becomes a selling point amongst our politicians.

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  2. InsipiD

    All the more reason to support amnesty…11-50 million more pairs of eyes out there watching for evildoers!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. I won’t be surprised if that becomes a selling point amongst our politicians.

    To be fair, the illegals and the terrorists aren’t coming from the same places. On the flipside, they kill Americans other ways.

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  3. TxAg94

    I wasn’t actually implying that illegals are terrorists. Just thinking like a politician where you twist the logic of any absurd plan you come up with to cover up one thing while boosting another. It was just a joke, really. Maybe it wasn’t as funny as the voices in my head made it out to be.

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  4. Mississippi Yankee

    Hal I read your words (and there was a lot of them) but I’m still unclear what you tried to say. Would it be correct to say that DHS (77,000 strong BTW) and a bunch of other recently christened agencies are about as useless as a soft dick?
    And if so can I have part of their ammo allotment?

    If all of these databases and responsible gov’t, taxpayer funded, agents are only effective after the fact, even after 12 years, where is the outcry to make them more efficient? Or less in number? I certainly remember similar demands when the evil Booosh was at the helm.

    And as just an observation but depending on the average “low information voter” to save us from the next terror attack seems quite Pollyanna-ish to me. Please feel free to tell me where and why my thinking is wrong.

    PS the fact that anyone missed the pointed sarcasm in TxAg94’s first comment speaks volumes about how the ‘herd mentality’ is developing around here.

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  5. Thrill

    Would it be correct to say that DHS (77,000 strong BTW) and a bunch of other recently christened agencies are about as useless as a soft dick?

    Not exactly. Was the Boston Police Department “useless” because the attack was carried out in its jurisdiction? Crimes happen in all big cities every day. It doesn’t mean that the police departments are worthless. You can say that police could do more crime prevention activities, for sure, but only a fool would think police could prevent all murders even if they threw 100% of their resources into it.

    Prevention of attacks and other crimes is just one function of DHS and its various agencies. Other roles include mitigation, response, and resilience. How useless or useful is DHS? You would have to look at their record. No major attacks since 9/11 until the Marathon Bombing? No hijacked planes and how many foiled plots?

    Efficiency may be the best word you used there. Any organization can do better and for less money. But to say that DHS is a failure because of one successful bombing in 11 years is just not fair.

    At any rate, I say this happened because one thing hasn’t significantly changed since 9/11: Intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies still do not speak the same language, do not have the same objectives, and do not talk to or listen to each other. The big warning that something like this was coming should have been the Underwear Bomber, when both the CIA and State Department stupidly let Abdulmullatab get on a plane despite the alarms screaming right in their ears.

    We will continue to experience terrorist attacks. Most will be stopped due to a number of factors. The ones we can’t stop won’t cripple us. That’s probably the best we can hope for.

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  6. Hal_10000 *

    MY, I’m not sure if DHS and all that have been effective because we rarely hear about the guys they catch. I’m suspicious that they are very effective because they are simply collecting so much information and keep missing things like the undie bomber.

    My point is that even if we assume that DHS is doing the job effectively — which I don’t think they are — they can never be 100%. The pendulum seems to have way too far into the “anything to keep us safe” column. I think we could swing it quite a ways back without putting ourselves in danger.

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  7. Thrill

    because they are simply collecting so much information and keep missing things like the undie bomber.

    That one was not their fault. I will defend DHS on this particular case. Blame must rest on State for that.

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  8. Miguelito

    However, based on the current information, this seems to reinforce the reality that, in the end our citizens are our best line of defense.

    Yet there was Bawney Fwank out there last week talking about how awesome large gov’t is and that any cuts anywhere would make it impossible to help people after an attack like that, or we wouldn’t be able to track down the perps. Yet anyone with their eyes open could see that plenty of ordinary citizens rushed in and helped people left and right. Ordinary citizens helped (through information and especially pictures/video) track down the culprits and it was an ordinary citizen who finally helped pinpoint the kid on Friday… after his home and yard had supposedly been searched.

    Anyone else love the irony of so many police or other LEO lately being so against citizens filming them, going so far as to arrest some in cases… but when they need help, hoo boy does that attitude about people having cameras change.

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  9. Mississippi Yankee

    Efficiency may be the best word you used there. Any organization can do better and for less money. But to say that DHS is a failure because of one successful bombing in 11 years is just not fair.

    Just a partial list of words you’ve managed to put in my mouth in only one comment. Incredible.

    So you belief is that DHS is the National Police Force? ” A civilian force just as strong and just as well equipped as the military” are the words your hero used in 2008.
    And to think I called you ‘quasi-prog’ last week. My bad. You make Hal’s apologies for this Regime seem like mis-statements.

    A hint, make sure you spit that dear leader penis out before Reggie Love smacks you with your own Biden approved shotgun.

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  10. Thrill

    I didn’t put any words in your mouth. You asked:

    Would it be correct to say that DHS (77,000 strong BTW) and a bunch of other recently christened agencies are about as useless as a soft dick?

    And:

    If all of these databases and responsible gov’t, taxpayer funded, agents are only effective after the fact, even after 12 years, where is the outcry to make them more efficient?

    I replied:

    Efficiency may be the best word you used there. Any organization can do better and for less money. But to say that DHS is a failure because of one successful bombing in 11 years is just not fair.

    This wouldn’t be difficult to follow if you would just show the slightest interest in understanding what I’m writing for you.

    Let me dumb it down a bit for you:

    No. DHS not useless.
    Not possible stop all attacks all da time.
    Sometimes DHS do best work after tings go boom.
    DHS has many good work done over da years.
    DHS need be more cheap and get work done.
    Hard when federal buddies in other groups not make nice wid each other.

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  11. Seattle Outcast

    Up until 9/11 most people looked at the track record of would-be jihad terrorists in the US and their attempts to blow stuff up and decided they were too stupid/inept to actually accomplish their goals.

    With the exception of 9/11, that looks to be true 99%+ of the time. The people to look for are radicalized losers that look to religion to sooth over the fact that they will never amount to a fucking thing.

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  12. Mississippi Yankee

    Let me dumb it down a bit for you:

    No. DHS not useless.
    Not possible stop all attacks all da time.
    Sometimes DHS do best work after tings go boom.
    DHS has many good work done over da years.
    DHS need be more cheap and get work done.
    Hard when federal buddies in other groups not make nice wid each other.

    It’s all coming back to me now why I stopped reading your condescending smug bull last time.
    Just another “common” elitist ass.

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  13. Ed Kline

    Just another “common” elitist ass.

    Ummm what? Thrill an elitist?! I don’t think so. Far from it actually, and this comes from someone who has never gotten along with him.

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  14. Thrill

    This is true. Ed rates me as more of an elite douche rather than an elitist one and has never been shy about pointing it out. This is well recorded in the annals of RTFLC history.

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  15. Mississippi Yankee

    Hal your insecurities are much too great to be an elitist. Will you settle for Academic Snob?

    Ed rates me as more of an elite douche rather than an elitist one and has never been shy about pointing it out.

    But Thrilly, has Ed ever called you an “asshole”? Not that you aren’t one, in spades mind you, but still…

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  16. Mook

    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.

    You seem hell-bent on pushing the narrative that these two were simply “losers” rather than part of an organized terrorist network. Early on you claimed in a post that that “no one” was claiming terrorist ties, a claim which was demonstrably false at the time you made it as there was plenty of stories and evidence pointing to possible organized terrorist ties. Now it turns out that the older brother was on a CIA terrorist watch list.

    If they were involved with an organized terrorist network trying to kill innocent Americans, that’s no different than Americans joining the Nazi SS during WW II to kill fellow Americans. Joining a terrorist network, if true, is no minor willy-nilly thing. It’s an act of war and they should be treated as an enemy combatants rather than mirandized.

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