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One of the questions outstanding in the wake of the terror-bombing of the Boston Marathon is whether the Tsarnaev brothers acted on their own, as “lone wolves,” or were they part of a terror cell that might well be planning other attacks. At the Daily Beast, authors Christopher Dickey, Eli Lake, and Daniel Klaidman lay out the problems posed by terrorists acting on their own:
These sorts of lone wolves—whether inspired by al Qaeda or a domestic agenda—are in many ways the toughest cases for law enforcement. “Mobile homegrown types are difficult to stop and to find,” says Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “There is not a conspiracy ring to penetrate. It’s very difficult to stop them and find them.”
“The toughest risk to address is the motivated individual with no known connection to groups, who takes it upon himself to do something,” says Roger Cressey, who worked on counterterrorism in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “The best example of that is Eric Rudolph.”
Compounding the problem is the ease with which the technical knowledge needed to carry out attacks is available online. As the article points out, al Qaeda even has an online magazine, “Inspire,” an article in which showed how to make a bomb similar to the pressure cooker bombs used in Boston. While published by jihadists , the information is there for anyone with a murderous grudge against the world to use.
The threat of the lone wolf jihadist, a Muslim inspired by religion (1) to wage holy war on his own, is one that has worried counterterrorism personnel for years, particularly since American and other nations’ efforts since 9/11 have severely hampered al Qaeda’s ability to carry off catastrophic attacks, such as the attack on New York. Instead, setting their sights lower, the fear is that al Qaeda and other jihad groups would simply educate and train prospective jihadis, and then send them out into the world to find their opportunities. Such is perhaps the case with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the marathon-bombing brothers, who traveled to Russia for six months a few years ago. Did he meet with jihad groups in the volatile Caucasus, his ancestral home?
But even that much “help” might not be necessary to the lone wolf: Major Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who turned on his comrades in an act of jihad and murdered over a dozen at Ft. Hood, was merely in email contact with an al Qaeda imam, Anwar al-Awlaki (2). The imam provided the ideology, Major Hassan provided the gun.
As the quote above points out, lone terrorists are hard to stop before they strike; warning signs that seem obvious in retrospect are hard to spot beforehand, and it become all to easy to make the wrong judgment call and say that someone isn’t likely a threat.
Until the bomb goes off.
But were the Tsarnaev brothers lone wolves? The UK Mirror reports that the FBI is looking for a “sleeper cell” of up to a dozen individuals:
The FBI was last night hunting a 12-strong terrorist “sleeper cell” linked to the Boston marathon bomb brothers.
Police believe Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were specially trained to carry out the devastating attack.
More than 1,000 FBI operatives were last night working to track down the cell and arrested a man and two women 60 miles from Boston in the hours before Dzhokhar’s dramatic capture after a bloody shootout on Friday.
A source close to the investigation said: “We have no doubt the brothers were not acting alone. The devices used to detonate the two bombs were highly sophisticated and not the kind of thing people learn from Google.
“They were too advanced. Someone gave the brothers the skills and it is now our job to find out just who they were. Agents think the sleeper cell has up to a dozen members and has been waiting several years for their day to come.”
So, which is it? A couple of lone wolves, a clandestine commando unit from an overseas jihad group, or even a mix of both, a “pack” of lone wolves, trained and set loose?
To the police and intelligence agencies charged with protecting us, the answers matter, larger groups being easier to spot and stop than the loner hiding murder in his heart.
But for us, the potential victims, it doesn’t matter all that much. In an age when “soft targets” –marathons, pizza parlors, and book fairs, for example– are the targets of choice, whether the attack comes from the plot of a group or the sociopathic mind of a single person, it’s the act itself that matters.
They’re still trying to kill us.
RELATED: Some articles of interest.
At PJM, Rick Moran wonders what the Russians knew and when they knew it. His colleague Richard Fernandez notes Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a familiar face to the FBI, but our stubborn, foolish concentration on things rather than people makes it easy for him and others to be overlooked. I’ve said the same thing, myself.
Winning today’s “No, really?” award for telling us what we already knew, the LA Times alerts us that the elder Tsarnaev followed radical Islam. Meanwhile, Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism looks at the evidence that the brothers held Islamist beliefs. One has to ask, “how did the FBI miss all this?”
(1) For example, Sura 9, verse 123 of the Qu’ran: “O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him).”
(2) Now a satisfying grease spot somewhere in the Yemeni desert.
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)