Boston Marathon Explosion

The Story Behind the Bombers

Did al Qaeda ideology inspire the attack or were the two brothers driven by other motivations? Christopher Dickey, Eli Lake, and Daniel Klaidman report on the latest.

The Boston Marathon bombing was not another 9/11. Not close. The order of magnitude speaks for itself: three dead in Boston, nearly 3,000 in New York City. Still, in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy with what now appear to be links to conflicts half a world away in the Caucasus, it is impossible not to ask the same questions that came on the heels of 9/11: just how safe are we in our homes, in our workplaces, on our streets, and at our celebrations? Why on earth would the United States be targeted so often by so many people with so many grievances—why do “they” hate us? And given the destructive power now available to almost any lunatic, just how safe can we be?

A blazing gun battle with police in a Boston suburb early Friday morning left little doubt as to the identity of the two main suspects in the marathon attack: two young brothers, 19 and 26, whose family originally came from Chechnya. During the fighting, they exploded bombs made from pressure cookers, much like the ones used to attack the marathon finish line. The elder, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died in the firefight. The younger, Dzhokhar, who identified himself on VKontakte, a Russian-language social-network site, as a 2011 graduate of the prestigious Cambridge Latin School, is still at large.  

As the investigation unfolded this week, federal and local authorities had become increasingly convinced that they were looking at an operation carried out by one or two individuals. One U.S. intelligence official who was regularly briefed on the investigation told Newsweek that he and his colleagues all but ruled out al Qaeda central or one of its affiliates giving direct and specific instructions for the attack. 

The trail of the Tsarnaevs seems, for the moment, to remain one of lone wolves. But counterterror operatives see details that suggest a wider organization may yet be discovered. Most telling: the sheer firepower the Tsarnaevs were able to bring to bear in their shootout with police. They appeared to have several unused bombs. And because terrorists learn from each other’s actions, some counterterror analysts are speculating that they may have planned a bigger operation at the marathon, or perhaps to come. One possible example is the bloody Mumbai attack in 2008, carried out by a handful of men, which killed 164 people. “These are ‘wise guys,’” said one veteran counterterror official. “These are intelligent individuals who thought they could outsmart everybody and get away with it. They didn’t want to die. But they prepared a lot of stuff.”

This doesn’t mean al Qaeda played no role: on the question of whether the lone wolves had domestic or international grievances, officials thought it likely that they were “inspired” by al Qaeda’s ferociously anti-American ideology, which paints the United States, essentially, as the root of all evil.

That said, early in the investigation some officials took seriously the possibility that the attacks could have been motivated by far-right ideology. “Have you ever read The Turner Diaries?” one counterterror adviser to the Obama administration asked provocatively when questioned about leads in the case. The reference was to a racist diatribe that partly inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City 18 years ago. But the adviser would not elaborate.

The bombs used in Boston were improvised explosive devices, IEDs, made from everyday pressure cookers filled with easily fabricated explo­sives as well as nails and ball bearings to act as shrapnel. Investigators believed that could point to al Qaeda-inspired individuals. Jihadist guerrillas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and India commonly use such IEDs. But the bombs could also have been related to domestic terror. After all, the last man to attack strangers with an IED in the United States was Eric Rudolph, who planted a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Boston was, without question, an electrifying shock to what had become widespread American complacency. It underscored the analysis of many experts that the primary danger facing the United States today is no longer a 9/11-type attack resulting in thousands of casualties but rather smaller-scale violence, whether foreign or domestic in origin. “Are we safer than after 9/11? Absolutely! Are we absolutely safe? No,” says the veteran official whose career in counterterrorism goes back decades. “And you’re never going to be. That’s the challenge.”

To understand the threats we face, it makes sense to begin with al Qaeda even if it was not directly involved. Osama bin Laden is no more, but his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still at large and anchoring Internet videos broadcast on al Qaeda’s propaganda networks. One of the organization’s most dangerous operatives, Adnan Shukrijumah, has been lying low but remains a major worry for the United States, where he was brought up and knows his way around.

Americans tend to forget the long list of “holy wars” over the past 20 years, from Chechnya to Somalia to Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the hinterlands of Pakistan. But all were—and remain—potential spawning grounds for terrorists who want to put their cause in the public eye. Terrorists are usually young men who see themselves almost in chivalrous terms defending oppressed people—and not always their own. (Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page is full of videos with references to Muslim knights of old.) They want global respect, or at least a global audience, for their acts. And where better to do that than in the United States? When better than at a public event watched by millions?

We do not know the Boston killers’ specific motivations, but the grievances of terrorists usually are general, and may not even be for overt American acts. Sometimes they lash out because they think Americans just don’t care, or don’t even know, about the suffering peoples the terrorists claim to be fighting for. When the terrorists slaughter innocents, they and their sympathizers inevitably point to the United States doing the same with its war machine, or just failing to stop others.

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The best defense against terror is intelligence before an attack takes place, not prosecutions afterward. But, for better or worse, the Arab Spring that erupted in early 2011 disrupted or destroyed critical intelligence relationships that Washington had cultivated for years in the Middle East with dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and, yes, even Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. All were focused, for their own reasons, on fighting the threat of Sunni jihadi terrorism. Now those intelligence networks are weak, alienated, less competent, or nonexistent.

Daniel Benjamin, who was the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism until the end of last year, insists that “right now there is no greater threat to the United States from that region than there was before those revolutions.” True, he concedes, in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya “the security services are not what they once were, and that increases insecurity, especially for foreigners in those countries.” (The deadly attack on the American consulate and a CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last September was proof of that.) “But,” he argues, “as a base for carrying out attacks abroad, I don’t think there’s a significant change.”

Some of those in the counterterrorist trenches would beg to differ. The veteran official, who declined to be identified because of his involvement with ongoing operations, says that “the expansion of al Qaeda affiliates is just incredible.” In the past 12 months alone, the State Department has added two new al Qaeda–linked organizations to its list of terrorist groups, al-Nusra in Syria and Ansar Dine in Mali.

One of the biggest worries now—and Benjamin shares it—is in Syria. “I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “I don’t see in the trajectory we’re on that we don’t avoid a highly fractured and failed state with a significant foothold for extremists.”

The Quilliam Foundation, an anti-radical think tank in London, has tracked an even more ominous trend: the effective alliance of Syria’s al-Nusra and Iraq’s branch of al Qaeda, which increasingly operate as a single and effective organization—fighting the Syrian regime on one front, the Iraqi government on the other. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced this week that up to 200 troops will be sent to neighboring Jordan to “prepare for a number of scenarios.” In the past such deployments in other parts of the world often have been used as a screen for expanded covert operations.

Meanwhile, Obama’s secretive drone war may seem remote, but killing suspected terrorists can sometimes create dangers even as it terminates enemies. The technological terror of killing conducted as if it were played on an Xbox heightens the sense of impotence, and anger, among those already inclined to hate America. The countless stories of “collateral damage,” women and children slaughtered along with jihadists, ignite an incandescent fury.; Barcroft Media, Landov

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev

In early 2010, the police chief of a major American city said that he had started to worry about those drones and their possible consequences for security in the United States. By this point drones were already Obama’s weapon of choice in the struggle against al Qaeda. The president’s goal was to shrink America’s footprint in the wars of 9/11 while continuing the fight against the most dangerous bad guys. Soon after his inauguration, he began to step up the covert CIA program. At the time he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, he had authorized more drone strikes than George W. Bush had approved during his entire presidency. (There were only nine strikes conducted in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007. In 2010 there were 111.) By his third year in office, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

There was little doubt that the program was effective as a tactic; drone strikes routinely killed “high-value targets” on the CIA’s hit list. And by eliminating scores of lower- and midlevel militants, the drones diminished al Qaeda’s ability to train terrorists and plan operations. The Washington Post quoted a CIA official relaying the boast of the CIA’s counterterrorism chief: “We’re killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them.”

Yet at the same time, it was obvious that stories about drone attacks had become another pretext for terrorists to plot against American targets. Which is what worried the above-mentioned police chief.

A glaring example was the case of Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghan-American obsessed with the U.S. drone war, which he claimed was indiscriminately targeting innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2008 he traveled to Pakistan and trained at an al Qaeda camp. In 2009, along with two friends from Flushing, Queens, he plotted suicide bombings at New York’s two major railway stations, Grand Central and Penn Station. Fortunately they were thwarted by foreign intelligence collection and good old-fashioned police work. But had they succeeded, the bombings would likely have been the deadliest attacks on the homeland since 9/11.

“We’re seeing that blowback,” retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, Obama’s former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

Perhaps the most insidious plan for revenge by al Qaeda came out of its affiliate in Yemen as the drones turned their sights on the radicals there in 2010. With advice and direction from the charismatic American-born propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, the AQ acolytes made several ambitious bids to carry out attacks. They persuaded a young Nigerian to fly to Detroit with explosive underwear and blow up a plane, but all he did was burn his genitals. The Yemen crew sent bombs by international courier service to Chicago, but the packages were intercepted.

Yet the furor in the politically divided United States was so great, and the panic of the international community so obvious, that the failures were, in their own way, successful. And al Qaeda in Yemen, which calls itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, quickly realized just how much could be done with very little, and started to lower its sights still further. With the publication of a slick online magazine called Inspire, it sought to spread the open-source technology of terror in English to anyone who might be interested, even if they ignored or detested the al Qaeda ideology.

Ten issues of Inspire are now available on the Web. One of the first, famously, taught you how to “build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” That infernal device was much like the ones made from pressure cookers used in Boston.

The most recent issue of the magazine sets the bar even lower, demonstrating, for instance, how to screw up traffic, and maybe cause a few fatalities, with boards full of nails and oil slicks. “Following simple instructions, you can carry out a lethal ambush,” it advises. “There is no retaliation to face, just place and vanish.”

In 2011, Awlaki and the magazine’s editor were blown away in a drone attack, but the publication goes on. Right-wing nuts can use it; so can Black Bloc anarchists and, for that matter, conventional criminals and extortionists. All may have their own reasons for creating mayhem, but they also serve the general cause of disruption.

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.”

An additional challenge facing law enforcement is that, as Americans felt safer and 9/11 receded into history, the public seemed increasingly to resent the surveillance and sting operations the government carried out to try to keep the threat under control. This translated into questions about abuses, about funding, and about effectiveness. “In the immediate post-9/11 period you could be rough and ready,” as one senior law enforcement official put it. “Twelve years later, everything has to be really well defined.”

Of course, Obama himself has encouraged the public to move on from 9/11. Since coming into office, he has pushed the idea that terrorism ought to be deemphasized in public discourse. Sometimes, he may have taken that principle too far. For instance, he waited 72 hours to respond to the attempted airplane bombing en route to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Yet as Obama knows, and anyone in counterterror operations learns, the core objective of terrorists is not to conquer territory but to conquer the psyche of average citizens. To the extent that Americans can show restraint and go on with their lives in the face of tragedies like the one in Boston, terrorism—whatever form it comes in—will never succeed.

Editor's note: This web version of Newsweek's April 19, 2013 cover story has been updated from the tablet edition to reflect the developing events in Boston.