It is now clear that the Tsarnaev brothers had no strategic plan but to kill in a very public fashion. There was no mission so sacred that they were willing to die for it. According to FBI interviews of Dzhokhar, the surviving younger brother, the siblings hastily decided to bomb the Marathon, shifting from their original plan for a suicide attack at the upcoming July 4 Charles River Esplanade celebration. Maybe they were cowards; maybe just fickle. But their choice of the Boston Marathon had no ideological significance. And their exit strategy — desperate and violent, luring friends into a web of destruction — wasn’t planned. They were making everything up as they went along.
It is completely fair to ask: What were they thinking?
They weren’t. And their very haplessness can be seen as vindicating some aspects of America’s counterterrorism strategy: For the past decade, US efforts have focused on eliminating the biggest threats — the global masterminds, who aim for mass destruction. What’s been left behind are potential attackers like the Tsarnaevs, with their unscripted zeal. Careless, spontaneous, immature, they are attackers who are most difficult to identify, precisely because of their lack of sophistication.
Guarding against them is, paradoxically, even harder than targeting international threats. There are 315 million people in the United States, representing a significant segment of a global population of 7 billion. Every day, millions of people are entering and exiting through land and sea borders that are porous because we need them to be: They facilitate the economic, social, and intellectual activity that define who we are as a nation.
No society as open as ours can promise perfect security. Thus, it makes sense that a strategy that resigns itself to some form of terrorism in our modern age would, naturally, concentrate on making sure that those who do harm us are stupid, disorganized, rushed, and fickle. Their violence is smaller scale and therefore more manageable, made even more so by the efforts of well-trained first responders.
Sophisticated terrorists focus on the target and not simply the means. The two US embassies in Africa that were bombed in 1998, marking the beginning of Osama bin Laden’s rampage against Americans, were chosen nearly a year before the explosions occurred. In the court case that followed, bin Laden’s operatives testified that he was so focused on choosing the right target that he studied photos of the facilities and marked clearly, with a red pen, where the trucks should detonate. The same sense of rigorous planning was evident in the attacks on 9/11, for which all of the terrorists took dry-run flights beforehand.
Though evidence may yet emerge that Tamerlan Tsarnaev received some technical training during his trip to Russia in 2012, whichever foreign elements were involved in the Marathon bombings, if any, seem to have cared little that Tamerlan’s lack of an exit plan could eventually expose them.
Indeed, it now appears that the Tsarnaev brothers let tactics drive their strategy. The Marathon was chosen simply because it was the closest event to when the brothers finished the bombs. Their disturbingly nonchalant behavior after the fact, leading to their violent behavior once the FBI released their pictures on April 18, is further evidence that they had no blueprint.
As the nature of the terrorist threat has so clearly changed, so has reality for the American public. Counterterrorism is no longer the sole province of commandos who raid compounds in places like Abbottabad, Pakistan. Signs of violent extremism may be best identified by the potential assailants’ family, friends, and community — not the CIA or FBI. This has long been the case for those who’ve been responsible for mass murder at elementary schools and movie theaters.
Random acts of terror will have to be acknowledged as a threat, just like mass killings are, while authorities do all they can to make sure any such attacks do as little harm as possible. A post-Marathon bombings Pew poll showed that 75 percent of Americans believed that occasional terror will be a part of our future. That isn’t a sign of resignation. It is mature realism.
In a nation like ours, there may be future Tsarnaev brothers.
We seem to have accepted that the alternatives could be much, much worse.