On Not Knowing What to Look For
The Congressional delegation investigating Russian intelligence alerts about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 returned from Moscow this week with a message that completely misses the point.
If we had had the kind of U.S./Russian cooperation a year ago that we have now, the delegation postulate, the Boston Marathon bombings might have been prevented. According to the Boston Globe, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that organized the trip, said that "[the bombing] could have been averted [if] both countries were working together on a much higher level."
This conclusion, however, is wrong. The Russians did warn the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and their warnings were quite specific. Based on their own intelligence intercepts, the Russian secret service knew that Tsarnaev was communicating with jihadists in Chechnya, had become a follower of "radical Islam," and might attempt to travel to Russia to join the Chechnyan "resistance" -- something he apparently did, or tried to do, one year later.
So the FBI dutifully interviewed Tsarnaev and his family in January of 2011. When they failed to find any evidence that Tsarnaev had committed, or was about to commit, a crime, they closed his file and forgot all about him. They did not share the Russian warnings with anyone in the Cambridge police department (the city where the Tsarnaevs lived) or the Massachusetts State Police, apparently because becoming a "follower of radical Islam" is not illegal and therefore not something the FBI should worry about.
That's too bad, because nine months after the warnings -- on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- three men in Tamerlan's social circle were murdered in the Boston suburb of Waltham under what must have struck local police as highly unusual circumstances. The three -- Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Raphael Teken -- were found in different parts of their apartment on the morning of September 12, their throats cut so deeply that they had been nearly decapitated. Furthermore, the bodies had been sprinkled with marijuana and money - over $5,000 in cash. One local police officer said that it was the bloodiest crime scene he had ever encountered, and that it looked like something "right out of an al-Qaeda training video." What it did not look like was a typical "drug-related crime."
And yet that is how the police apparently treated it. If investigators had asked questions about the victims' associates, they would certainly have turned up the name of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and possibly also Tamerlan's younger brother Dzhokhar. Tamerlan was a close friend of Brendan Mess. After the Marathon bombings, in fact, Mess's family told reporters how puzzled they were that Tamerlan had not attended Brendan's funeral, since they had once been very close. But apparently the police did not discover this in 2011.
However, even if local police had learned of Tamerlan's association with the Waltham victims, would they have noted the significance of the 9/11 anniversary, the religion of the victims (two of them were Jews), and the Koranic method of execution -- "strike [the unbelievers] on their necks" (Koran 8:12), commonly cited by jihadists when beheading infidels? If so, they might have given Tamerlan the kind of scrutiny that would have turned up the same information that had alarmed the Russians in the first place -- Tamerlan's Youtube page, to name one possibility, featuring jihadist preachers from Lebanon and Chechnya.
Would they then have learned that the FBI had also been interested in Tamerlan Tsarnaev, less than a year earlier, based on warnings from Russian intelligence? Wouldn't it have been helpful if the FBI had alerted local authorities more broadly to keep an eye on the Tsarnaevs? Had local authorities known these things, and if they had been trained to spot the pattern of jihad crimes and jihad incitement, then Tamerlan Tsarnaev could not long have escaped whatever responsibility he might have shared for the killings in Waltham. He would now be in prison, and the victims of the Marathon bombing would be alive and well.
So it would seem that Russian/U.S. cooperation is not what we need more of, if we are to prevent so-called "lone wolf" terrorist attacks. Rather, we need more cooperation between the FBI and local law enforcement. But what we need most is a greatly enhanced program for educating law enforcement about what jihad means, where it comes from, who promotes it, and how to spot it. We would have had such a program long ago were it not for the baleful influence of the government's "Muslim outreach partners," who have convinced government officials that there is no connection between Islamic doctrine and acts of terror. The bloody consequences of such deliberate miseducation are more apparent now than ever before.
Until the police know what to look for, they will never be able to find it, and if they don't know what it looks like, they won't be able to see it, even when it is right in front of their noses -- even when it looks like something straight out of an al-Qaeda training video.
Dennis Hale teaches political science at Boston College, and is a director of Americans for Peace and Tolerance.