One Year After Boston Marathon Bombing: US Efforts to Combat Homegrown Terrorism

March 31, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

The Obama administration’s terrorism strategy abroad is pretty clear at this point: drone strikes on high profile members of terrorist organizations, and Special Forces Operations, when feasible, to capture and interrogate terrorists to gain intelligence.  What about at home?  Two weeks from Tuesday will mark the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings carried out by a naturalized American citizen and his brother who was here on a visa.  In a new report published by the House Homeland Security Committee and its Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) last week, there were apparent holes in the investigative process to prevent the attacks and according to the report, there are still lingering dangers that have yet to be resolved from the 9/11 Commission Report.

Similar to England’s program called “Channel” to counter homegrown terrorism, in 2011 the United States announced their program referred to as combating violent extremism (CVE).  The government’s “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” (SIP) focuses on three main points: 1) enhancing federal community engagement efforts related to CVE; 2) developing greater government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism and, 3) countering violent extremist propaganda.  Another large part of the government’s program is coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, which has been reiterated several times by top US officials including FBI Director James Comey at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing last November.

The report regarding the Boston Marathon bombing focused on the older of the two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s, trip to Russia and the warning signs of his extremism.  A key to the government’s CVE program is identifying these radicalization signs early.  According to a study conducted by the NYPD in 2007, four steps to radicalization were identified as: 1) a pre-radicalization phase where subject lives a normal life unaware of violent ideology; 2) a self-identification phase in which a life changing event such as job loss, social alienation, or loss of a family member occurs; 3) subjects undergo some type of jihadist radicalization and adopt certain jihad ideals and, 4) subjects identify themselves as radical jihadists who seek to inflict violence.

The McCaul report makes note of certain warning signs of Tamerlan’s radicalization such as a YouTube account featuring videos praising jihad, individuals that Tamerlan met on his trip to Russia including his desire to join Chechen fighters and, shouting matches at a Boston mosque which he frequented.  In the myriad investigations that followed the bombings, the McCaul report noted that Boston Police Department Commissioner Edward Davis testified that no localities were made aware of the potential threat Tamerlan Tsarnaev posed.  The government’s SIP called for greater information sharing between federal, state, and local law enforcement communities. However, the McCaul report suggests there is still a disconnect.  Despite Boston PD members being assigned to the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), there was an agreement with the FBI that local officials required FBI approval before sharing information with parent agencies.  The McCaul report noted that similar prohibitions exist in many other areas of the country.

Furthermore, the report noted that the FBI, initially, was reluctant to share information regarding their investigation of Tamerlan with the House Homeland Security Committee, which is a violation of House oversight rules.  According to the report, “Initial reluctance to assist the Committee in this investigation, was unfortunate because it is another example of problems identified in the 9/11 Commission Report that have yet to be solved.”

Among the Committee’s seven recommendations, the most important included greater information sharing between agencies as well as follow up reports on suspicious individuals.  Tamerlan was on federal investigators’ radar yet his record was not reviewed by officials at JFK airport prior to his trip to Russia.  He subsequently was not checked on his return either, again, despite being an interest of federal officials.  In addition, his record consisted of several errors including the misspelling of his name and an incorrect birth date further hindering investigators.

The McCaul report also makes recommendations regarding greater community involvement and pointed to a community effort to identify the suspects once their pictures were released to the public.  The government’s CVE policy outlines a strategy to integrate undercover officials into local communities.  “Following the 9/11 attacks, law enforcement agencies came to realize the prevention of terrorist attacks would require the cooperation and assistance of American Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities,” stated a report regarding the government’s CVE strategy.

A similar strategy was used to capture an individual recently in Washington State.  Nicholas Teausant, 20, was captured by border patrol officers while attempting to cross the border to Canada in the hopes of joining the most radical terrorist faction involved in the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS.)  Teausant, a Californian, was a member of the US Army National Guard but never went to basic training due to academic requirements.  Federal investigators identified the early warning signs of radicalization such as Teausant’s social media posts praising jihad and his desire to “join Allah’s army,” but not knowing how to start.

In a government complaint filed in federal district court against Teausant, FBI Special Agent Justin Jacobs (also assigned to JTTF) outlined his investigation of Mr. Teausant in which he used a confidential human source (CHS), who was not an FBI agent but a vetted and trusted informant, to make contact with Teausant and pose as a fellow extremist.  The FBI was able to gain several pieces of useful information against Teasuant such as his affiliation with al-Qaeda Facebook groups once Teausant trusted the CHS.  This led to a meeting between an actual undercover FBI agent and Teasuant where the agent was able to advise Teausant to purchase a ticket to cross the Canadian border in order to travel to Syria to join ISIS.  Teasuant did what he was told as he thought he was speaking to a trusted fellow extremist.  He was then met at the border by agents who arrested him.  FBI investigators also uncovered a potential plot by Teausant to bomb the Los Angeles subway.  The FBI, in this case, was able to act on key warning signs and arrest a potentially dangerous individual.

Federal officials are wary of self-radicalized lone wolves such as Teausant and Tamerlan Tsarnaev who also influenced his brother, Dzhokhar, to join his cause.  One of the most sobering conclusions of the McCaul report is that officials believe the Boston Marathon bombing may not have been prevented raising further concerns that issues in the 9/11 Commission Report have not fully been addressed. While the case in California/Washington is a victory for CVE, the McCaul report details revealing conclusions for the future that if not addressed could result in further disasters.