Saturday, May 11, 2013

Counter-Terrorism: Significance of the Boston marathon bombing for counter-terrorism in Africa

Source: ISS

Significance of the Boston marathon bombing for counter-terrorism in Africa

On Monday, 15 April 2013, two young American brothers of Chechen origin allegedly detonated two homemade bombs in pressure cookers, just meters away from the finishing line of the 116th Boston marathon, killing three people and injuring over 260 others. Although not comparable to 9/11 in terms of magnitude, the Boston bombing bears important lessons for counter-terrorism in Africa and beyond. As the first major terrorist bombing in the United States (US) in just over a decade, the attack represented a major test of the post-9/11 counter-terrorism architecture.

The bombing undermined the solid record of achievements made in the past 12 years to contain terrorist attacks against the world superpower. These include, among others, the arrest and killing of the kingpins of several terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda leaders, most notably, Osama bin Laden. Indeed, some analysts contend that the post-9/11 US counter-terrorism efforts have prevented major terrorist attacks against Washington. A recent report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland shows that some 2 362 terrorist attacks occurred in the US between 1970 and 2011. Of these, only 207 occurred in the decade between 2001 and 2011: a decline of over 70% and the lowest figure in any decade during this period.

For many Americans, the ‘real terrorist threat’ in the post-9/11 decade has been the problem of gun violence. The US Centre for Disease Control estimates that more than 31 000 people die each year in the US from gunshot wounds. The problem is further compounded by the involvement of children and youths who have stormed their schools with guns and deadly ammunition, killing their fellow schoolmates. Prior to the Boston bombing, Americans were engaged in a tense national debate on gun control after 20-year old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, in December 2012. The Boston bombing brought to the fore the connection between gun violence and terrorism.

While large-scale terrorist attacks have not occurred in the US since 9/11, terrorist acts committed by US citizens acting alone, or the so-called ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon, have characterised the post-9/11 period. This phenomenon is not new in the US. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh singlehandedly carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured 680 in the most catastrophic terrorist attack by an individual in US history. So while the US has been able to avert large-scale attacks by international terrorists on home soil, it remains vulnerable to individual terrorist acts perpetrated by Americans. This is an inherent problem in the US counter-terrorism strategy after 9/11, which focuses more on al-Qaeda and other external threats without the same emphasis on internal or homegrown terrorists.

The attack also highlighted the vulnerability of major sporting events. The Boston marathon is an international event, which brought together runners from 90 countries this year. The marathon itself has a long history, dating back to the first race in 1897, making it an iconic American event that attracts huge media attention. Marathons are also easy targets for terrorists because they cover a wide surface area, which makes the task of ensuring safety and security daunting. Indeed, this is not the first time a marathon has come under attack. Terrorists have targeted marathons directly or indirectly in Colombo, Sri Lanka (April 2008), Gideon’s Green, Northern Ireland (May 2005), and Belfast, Northern Ireland (May 1998 and May 2003).

The specific reason for targeting the Boston marathon remains a mystery. Although Boston was an important city for 9/11, particularly for the hijacking of the two aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Centre buildings in New York, the city has not witnessed a terrorist act in over a decade. According to the Global Terrorism Database, Boston experienced 16 attacks between 1970 and 2011, making it the 14th most targeted city in the US behind cities like New York (430 attacks) and Los Angeles (103 attacks). Earlier terror activities in the city, particularly between the 1960s and 1980s, were carried out mainly by black nationalist groups, white supremacists and far-leftists motivated by a range of issues such as racism, racial inequality and civil rights. Although none of these bombings resulted in deaths, they nonetheless demonstrated the city’s vulnerability to such terrorist acts.

The Boston bombing highlights a number of significant developments that could serve as lessons for African counter-terrorism practitioners. The fact that the attacks appear to have been planned and executed by amateurs offers clues for investigators and underscores the point that the ‘usual suspects’ are not always responsible. Of more importance is the effective use of CCTV as one of the primary sources of investigation, which proved instrumental in identifying the bombers. This emphasises the role of science and technology in counter-terrorism.

Although there is thus far no conclusive information about whether the bombers operated alone without links to any organisation or group, the incident nevertheless illuminates the challenge that the ‘lone wolf’ phenomenon poses for counter-terrorism efforts. In particular, it raises the serious question of how to prevent the actions of an individual who operates in the privacy of his home, using the Internet to train, plan and execute an attack, as was the case in 2011 with the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.

The Boston bombing also highlights that greater attention should be paid to the potential for a new wave of terrorism involving disaffected youth. This takes on greater significance in regions with high numbers of young people, such as Africa, where the youth population is predicted to grow exponentially while access to key resources remains scarce. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) may well exploit these conditions in future by reaching out to disaffected youths with no previous criminal record.

The deliberate strategy of the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to involve both the public and various media agencies in the search for the suspects – a practice that departed from the FBI’s traditionally secret and highly classified investigations – highlighted the potential role that social media could play in counter-terrorism efforts. In particular, the release of photographs of the suspects and the appeal to the general public for information proved effective, enabling law enforcement agencies to trace the suspects only days after the bombing. This underlines the need for counter-terrorism efforts to include both the traditional ‘intelligence-centric’ approach as well as new methods such as social media. Security agencies should learn the new craft of strategically sharing intelligence with the public.

Lastly, African countries can draw lessons from the rigorous criminal justice approach employed by the US. This approach, rather than a reliance on military responses, is central for counter-terrorism. The seemingly tedious justice process that is now unfolding around Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the bombing, and his three accomplices, is necessary to deter future acts of terrorism.

Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria