Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.19.13

Manhunt for Boston Terrorists

Two Chechnyan brothers have been fingered in the attack. One is dead, one still at large. Why did they do this terrible thing?

America has been attacked by a terrorist who seems to be named after Tamerlane.  That's not a sentence I expected to be typing on any Friday morning, ever.  

By now, you probably know the news; if not, you should read our story on it.  The Boston bombers have now been identified as two brothers, 19 and 26, asylum-seekers from Chechnya who have been in the United States for at least a decade.  It's not clear what motivated them, though the older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have had some sort of affinity for Al Qaeda.  We don't know whether they're part of a network, or freelancers.  We don't know why they did it.  We do know that last night they got into a lengthy police chase during which they apparently hurled explosives at the cops.  Tamerlan was shot during the chase and later died.  The younger brother, Dzhokar, is still at large.  Boston is effectively shut down--no trains, no busses, no schools--while police hunt for him.  

Should we call them terrorists?  There's as yet no public evidence that they're affiliated with a formal organization.  But bombing the Boston Marathon seems like as good a definition of terrorism as any.  So they're terrorists of some sort.

The worst possibility is that they are affiliated with Al Qaeda or some other terrorist network.  Of course, that doesn't really alter the havoc they've wrought.  But it means that Al Qaeda has decided to focus on soft targets that are hard to defend, rather than airplanes, symbolic buildings, or military targets.  That would be very, very bad news.  

It seems more likely to me that they were acting on their own, though I'm not sure why this seems more likely.  Perhaps because the marathon bombs were low-tech and homemade.  Perhaps because they've been here for so long.  Perhaps because no organization claimed credit for the attack.

Or perhaps because I just hope that that's the truth.

I'd like to know where they got their explosives.  Modern explosives are pretty tightly controlled; it shouldn't have been easy for them to lay their hands on any.  If they're using homemade stuff from commonly available ingredients, that will weigh towards the "freelancer" thesis.  If they have professional explosives, I'd suspect a network.  But right now, we just don't know either way.  

I don't know what else to say at this point.  They've wrecked so many lives, including their own, for . . . what? 

Like Tyler Cowen, I suspect that they've also wrecked the chances of immigration reform.  And immigrants from the Caucasus can expect much greater scrutiny from INS.

And as I say, I can't figure out why.  In college I took a course from Stephen Gale on terrorism.  He asked us to think about three facets of terrorism: strategy, goals, and tactics.  The tactics here are obvious.  But what are the strategy and the goals?  What did these two brothers want?  And how did they think that bombing the Boston marathon would achieve it?  

We'll find out in a few days, I suppose.  Until then, we watch and wait.