Tonawanda News

May 8, 2013

Boston's lesson: Closer ties can help

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — As the terror attack in Boston two weeks ago slowly fades to the back pages of the nation’s newspapers and the back of most Americans’ minds, I find myself still with a nagging thought: How could these guys have been stopped?

In particular was a disturbing story in Sunday’s New York Times, talking about a new era in the fight against extremism: that of the do-it-yourself-jihadist.

Just like you can go on the Internet and get instructions about how to make guacamole, you can go online and learn how to make a bomb. And if you’re looking for it you’ll find plenty of encouragement to do so.

Counterterrorism officials told the Times an attack like the one perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers was only a matter of time. Acknowledging that a 9/11-style massive, coordinated assault is extremely difficult to pull off given advances in intelligence gathering and analysis, al Qaida has moved on to sowing seeds of discontent among the persuadable types who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the kind of extremist agenda here in the United States.

The Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, were prime targets. The elder brother, Tamerlan, had failed at his dream of becoming an Olympic boxer. He’d dropped out of college and his hot temper had boiled over into an abusive marriage. 

He was, as his uncle so bluntly put it, a loser — a latter day Stanley from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The only person in the world who seemed to admire him was his kid brother, Dzhokhar, his partner in crime.

Philip Mudd, a former counterterrorism expert with the FBI and CIA, told the Times most in the intelligence community thought this kind of attack would have happened already.

“Like everyone who looked at the threat matrix every day, I was surprised that this didn’t happen sooner,” he said.

And yet, to hear the people who knew these brothers express their genuine shock should give us all pause.

In the post-9/11 haze, the government demanded “vigilance” from the citizenry. For too many this meant being suspicious of anyone with brown skin.

(It’s worth pointing out the Tsarnaev brothers weren’t Arabs or Africans but Eastern European Muslims who eschewed the stereotype of an al Qaida terrorist.)

But here’s the truth: If we are to remain vigilant against these kinds of attacks in the future we must fully embrace religious diversity and forge intercultural bonds that foster understanding.

After all, a Muslim pacifist and a Muslim extremist — let alone one with violent ambitions — don’t look any different. And they don’t sound any different if all you’re willing to hear is the hate-filled agenda you’ve already prescribed to an entire religion.

There is a government policy lesson here as well. With many law enforcement agencies — particularly the New York Police Department — trying to infiltrate and cull intelligence from young Islamic men living here, how likely is it that peaceful, patriotic American Muslims will report what they believe is suspicious behavior in their own ranks?

Imagine if Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s imam had a better relationship — any relationship at all, really — with the local police. Perhaps he would have considered reporting what has been described in hindsight as odd, anti-American outbursts during prayer services.

The only way to begin discerning who might be a target for radicalization is to learn what separates a radical from the pack. That means getting to know the pack.

Mudd described the Tsarnaev brothers’ allegiance to radical Islam as nothing more than a desperate young man’s flailing attempt to ascribe meaning and purpose to his frustrated life.

“They’re angry kids with a veneer of ideology that’s about skin-deep,” Mudd said.

With that in mind, it seems plausible a deeper, personal intervention at some point could have stopped the Boston plot before it was ever a passing notion.

In other words, stronger cultural and societal bonds may well be our best defense against these kinds of threats. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind when the natural inclination personally and societally is to regard those different than ourselves with suspicion. 

Intelligence gathering has its place. So does intelligent interaction.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.