As motives and operational set-up of the Boston bombers become known, urgent questions will be asked about how US intelligence agencies are prioritising threats in the United States. The case reveals the huge dilemma faced in collecting, evaluating and acting on credible intelligence leads.
We do not yet know with absolute clarity what motivated the Boston bombers, who last week so dramatically caught the public's attention. It also remains unclear the extent to which the two may or may not have been connected to international terrorist networks. What is clear, however, is the danger that such small and disconnected terrorist cells pose and the difficulties that security services face in countering them.
Questions are now being asked about the degree to which the Boston brothers' were connected or directed by any outside forces. Their Chechen heritage, recent travels to the restive Dagestan part of Russia and their online footprint showing an interest in Chechen jihadism all point to a possible link through the northern Caucasus to international jihadi networks. The fact that Russia appears to have flagged their concerns on older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the FBI suggests that there may have been more to this connection than simple coincidence. However, given Russia's robust approach to counter-terrorism, it seems unlikely they would have let a suspect of serious concern travel in and out of their country without some form of action. Furthermore, while there have been instances of Chechen individuals being involved in plots outside Russia, for the most part Chechen jihadist networks have focused on Russia with some links to battlefields in Afghanistan and Syria.
Instead, it seems more likely that the Tsarnaev brothers are a 'lone' or 'solo' actors that were partially radicalized online and carried out their attacks without direction from overseas.. While there seem to be some investigative strands that suggest others - specifically a mysterious figure named Misha - may have facilitated on Tamerlan's radicalisation, the investigation does not seem to be pointing to a wider terrorist cell with many external connections. The conclusion seems to be that the men found and absorbed radical ideas largely by themselves, before deciding to launch a terrorist campaign to punish America for wars against Islam and in line with ideas they found in publications like Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) Inspire magazine, advanced by preachers like Sheikh Feiz Mohammed and possibly explained by individuals like the mysterious Misha.
Reportedly, Dzhokhar, the younger brother, told investigators that they got their bomb design and ideas from Inspire magazine, the publication put out by Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It seems that the reported pressure cooker device used at the Boston bombing may have been drawn from a design suggested in the first edition of the magazine from Summer of 2010 . Moreover, it appears that this was merely the first incident in an intended campaign of further destruction. According to investigators, the brothers told a man whose car they hijacked that 'we just killed a cop. We blew up the marathon. And now we're going to New York.' But so far no evidence has emerged that there was anyone orchestrating this plot, telling the men what to do and who to attack. The targeting of a marathon, a random policeman and then heading to New York is all very evocative of Inspire magazine's brand of terrorism against society at large rather than symbols of government or authority.
The Dilemma of Identifying an Isolated Threat
From a security analysis perspective, it is often connections that make it possible for authorities to become alert to individuals or terrorist cells. Intercepted communications or contact with known extremists will place cells or individuals on official radars, leading to possible deeper investigation that may uncover the existence of a threat. Networks tend to trip over intelligence leads directing authorities to focus on them as particular potential threats.
The particular problem, however, posed by 'lone' or 'solo actor' individuals - that is a terrorist cell that conduct attacks without any clear direction or command and control from external groups - is that oftentimes they may throw up subsequent connections, but these are hidden amongst a mass of other information. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev's travel to Chechnya and his online activity may be something that now seem deeply suspicious, but it is possible that at the time they would have been pieces of evidence that are fairly common amongst young North Caucasians. The fact that the extent of the Russian follow-up was to warn American counterparts of their concerns suggests that these links did not draw bright red flags.
One is faced with the dilemma of identifying which of these strands of information or intelligence will result in an unravelling of a terrorist cell, versus information of people simply flirting with radical material online. This is clearly a very difficult job, and in some cases it seems likely that it would be almost impossible to identify people pre-event. For example, Roshonara Choudhry, the King's College London student who in May 2010 tried to kill MP Stephen Timms for his support of the Iraq war, would have been very difficult to detect prior to carrying out her attack. Thus far, all that is known about the extent of her radicalisation was that she was watching videos by Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah Azzam online.
Other cases, however, like Khalid Aldawsari in Texas, show how tripwires can catch potential 'lone' or 'solo actor' terrorists. In that case, Aldawsari attempted to purchase chemicals from the Carolina Biological Supply company, using a commercial shipping company to have them delivered to his home in Lubbock, Texas. Both the chemical company and the shipping company flagged the purchase as one of concern to authorities, leading to an investigation by the FBI that uncovered Aldawsari as a loner terrorist cell building a bomb whose diary was full of menacing jihadist ideas. He was convicted in November last year and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Recognition of the difficulty to detect such cells is exactly why Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been actively pushing, through its magazine Inspire, towards the idea of people carrying out terrorist attacks on this basis. By simply using everyday items, they are able to launch whatever sort of incident they are able to against the West. What has loosely been called 'Just Do It' terrorism in the press and has been referred to as 'Open Source Jihad' by AQAP in Inspire. It is all aimed at detaching operational command and control from the terrorist cell in recognition of the fact that it is this element which most often proves the compromising element.
But while AQAP has been actively pushing this through their publications and messages, and Inspire has repeatedly shown up in investigations in Europe and North America, there is little evidence that the magazine has in itself been a generator of cells. It is a regular feature of terrorist investigations, but it does not seem as though simply reading the publication is turning people into terrorists. Rather, people have used it for ideas - with already radicalised individuals using it as a way to figure out how to build a device. From an investigative perspective, it is difficult to know how to identify the individuals using it for operational purposes versus curious young men and women is difficult without a fuller intelligence picture. Even if individuals have downloaded the magazine, it is not necessarily the case that they are worth the resources of an investigation by authorities.
However, the picture becomes more interesting for investigators if the magazine appears alongside other potentially incriminating evidence. For example, that the individual is consuming increasingly radical material, is planning travel to parts of the world where Al-Qa'ida or affiliated movements are particularly active or is seeking connections with other radicals or groups. And it is here that intelligence and police agencies clearly need to focus when they are trying to pre-emptively identify Lone or Solo Actor terrorist cells. No doubt a difficult prospect, but given the growing propensity of terrorist cells to look like this, something that requires deeper understanding.
A final note to touch upon is the fact that the Boston cell appears to be made up of two people rather than an isolated individual. However, as brothers with the older leaving a more radical footprint, it is possible that he was the radicalising agent who influenced his younger brother. Stories are emerging of the older brother's influence over his younger sibling. While such isolated cells with no external connections are rare, they are not unheard of: for example, in October 2009 Mohammed Game blew himself up at the gates of a Milan barracks. While later investigation uncovered links to two others who were subsequently prosecuted, no wider connections from the cell were ever uncovered. Similarly, in May 2007, a group in New Jersey were arrested for plotting some sort of attack against the Fort Dix barracks - at the heart of the cell were the three Duka brothers, Albanian-Americans, and their brother-in-law Mohammed Shenwer, who were apparently Anwar al-Awlaki fans and were plotting some sort of incident in New Jersey. These sorts of isolated 'solo' or 'lone actor' (or as the author has previously referred to them 'Lone Wolf Packs') cells tend to be easier to locate given their tendency to have more external links or tripwires for authorities to come across them. However, as shown in the Boston and Milan cases, these cells can also slip by undetected.
The key conclusion for security agencies is that such terrorist cells are notoriously difficult to uncover prior to event. Some work can be done in targeted public information campaigns aimed at chemical companies, storage firms or other industries that might be conduits for individuals to obtain transformative material for homemade explosives. This will help give authorities leads like those that led to Khalid Aldawsari's detention. As the tendency towards 'lone' or 'solo actor' cells becomes a pattern, a more comprehensive pattern may emerge of such lone/solo actor individuals or cells, providing authorities with a better profile that they can test information against to see if individuals are moving in a direction of concern.
The main policy conclusion that can be usefully drawn is that as such cells are hard to detect, greater work needs to be focused on subsequent response and management of information that would allow analysts to determine whether a terrorist plot is part of an externally directed or self-directed campaign.
Furthermore, a concerted effort will be required to remove the mystique around such attackers. The first step would be to encourage a public culture that equates would-be attackers to mass shooters rather than a heroic terrorist. If this is done successfully, it is possible they will consider other avenues of expression and Inspire's message will be less inspiring.
Senior Associate Fellow