The terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon in many ways played out along predictable lines: The bombers were foreign-born Islamic militants with an affinity for jihad, our law-enforcement and emergency medical personnel responded with the awesome speed and skill that we too often take for granted, Bostonians behaved with prudence and restraint while the manhunt unfolded, the media performed in the opposite fashion, and, rather than turn into the “Islamophobic” lynch mob of the Left’s fevered fantasies, the American public took a few days to raise millions of dollars to help care for victims of the attack. Terrorists always hope to awaken the worst in us, and Americans reliably disappoint them. In that sense, the American people act in the spirit of Saint Francis: always preaching the blessings of liberty and prosperity, sometimes using words.
The country’s leadership has performed less admirably.
Many acts of terrorism are entirely beyond foresight or prevention. The Boston Marathon bombing was not one of them. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been investigated by the FBI in 2011 after the Russian government flagged him as a potentially dangerous Islamic radical. Since that time, Tsarnaev all but shouted his intentions from the rooftops, going so far as to make a public YouTube playlist labeled “terrorists,” helpfully published under his own name. Between his domestic-violence arrest in 2009, Russian warnings that he intended to link up with overseas extremists, his subsequent travel abroad (including, according to his father, a trip to Chechnya, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and the scene of a bloody insurgency), and his recent ejection from a local mosque for disruptive public outbursts and behavior described by one member of his community as “crazy,” there was plenty of reason to be keeping an eye on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s flagging by the Russians is the reason that his application for citizenship was denied, according to the New York Times. But apparently, it was not enough to keep him on the counterterrorism radar. Contrast that with the performance of the New York Police Department, which has had all manner of unfair abuse heaped upon it for its surveillance of possible terrorist threats originating in the city’s Muslim community — for doing its job, in short. The Obama administration, which leans too heavily upon its favorite tactic of patrolling faraway crossroads with drones, would do better to place more emphasis on human intelligence.
There are of course political aspects to these failings. The Obama administration has promised to remain vigilant for the threat of “right-wing” terrorism. In the wake of the attacks, former Obama operative David Axelrod suggested that the attacks were linked to Tax Day, and Obama’s camp followers in the media were quick to speculate that anti-government militia groups, neo-Nazis, right-wing fringe outfits — anybody but radical Muslims, in fact — were behind the attack. Liberal commentator David Sirota went so far as to publicly offer his fervent hopes that the bomber was “a white American.” Once the identity of the bombers became public, Mr. Axelrod et al. became strangely circumspect.
Our nation’s singular focus on al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 should not distract us from the fact that Islamic radicalism is a multifaceted phenomenon, by no means limited to such now-familiar domains as the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While highly organized terror networks remain the most significant threat, Islamic radicalism is highly diffused; there need be no Osama bin Laden masterminding every act of violence. But the Boston attack, like 9/11, is a reminder that while there are not always signs of a terrorist assault in the making, we will never see what signs there are unless we are looking.
The Chechnyan insurgency has never loomed very large on our national radar. But the jihadist campaign is a campaign against Western civilization. There may be local targets — Israel for the Arabs, Russia for the Chechens — but the jihad is never limited to targets in the immediate environment. Simply put, every jihad is a threat to the United States, regardless of the particulars of its origin. That this jihad found instruments that were not as disciplined or creative as al-Qaeda or the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — there is a whiff of Klebold and Harris about the Tsarnaev brothers — is no reason to take it less seriously. If anything, the mutation of the terrorist threat from a handful of centralized radical organizations into a motley collection of militants and misfits with varying degrees of ability and sophistication means that we must be more vigilant.
As always, intelligence remains the most precious commodity. The elder Tsarnaev brother is dead. The younger is in custody, and it is unlikely that he will ever set foot outside of the succession of jail cells and courtrooms that await him, whether he is treated as an ordinary murderer or, in the event that he is meaningfully tied to al-Qaeda, as an enemy combatant. Determining whether the Tsarnaev brothers were in fact lone wolves or part of a wider enterprise is at the moment our most pressing priority. We should be in no particular hurry to turn him over to the criminal-justice system until our national-security questions have been satisfactorily answered. He can always be remanded to the criminal-justice system for prosecution at a later date.