On April 15, 2013, two terrorists of Chechen origin – the Tsarnaev brothers – detonated two bombs in a building on the side of the Boston Marathon finish line, leaving three people dead and 282 injured, many seriously. On April 30 of the following year, the United States Senate called a hearing to evaluate the work of the intelligence agencies, the way in which they collaborate and determine if there was any responsible in not having avoided the attack. The Senate Commission in charge of the hearing determined that there was little that the intelligence agencies could do to avoid the attack, even with the power to extract and massively analyze data as stipulated in the PATRIOT Act .
The biggest criticism of the agencies, particularly the FBI, was that they did not take the opportunity to arrest one of the Tsarnaev brothers in 2012 when the Russian government alerted them to the possibility that they were planning a terrorist attack. Once this opportunity was over, according to the Senate Committee, there was little they could do to stop it.
After the traumatic September 11 attacks and the actions taken by the security agencies to prevent it from happening again, it is important to note that the Senate was quite flexible in its determination that the Boston attacks can not be attributed to failures of the intelligence agencies, why?
The mechanisms for combating terrorism in the 21st century are designed to counteract events such as the attacks of September 11. Current techniques in the prevention of terrorism depend on techniques that place attackers inside a terrorist network. That is, to identify their ideological motivations and thus anticipate attacks and even eradicate key leaders. However, the Boston terrorists do not correspond to the ideology of a particular terrorist cell. After the Boston attacks, the FBI conducted an investigation to identify the terrorist group to which the Tsarnaev brothers belonged without finding any important link.
These types of terrorists are called lone wolves. They are individuals who self-radicalize without being a militant of a terrorist structure. In fact, most lone wolves are self-taught in the preparation of terrorist attacks thanks to Internet access.
The millions of dollars spent on counterterrorism were insufficient to prevent two individuals from detonating a pair of bombs made with household items. Adam Schiff – congressman and member of the Intelligence Committee – argued that, in order for the FBI to become aware of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers , he would have had to resort to surveillance techniques that the Justice Department does not authorize him. This presents a great dilemma for the democratic values of the United States since, to capture lone wolves, its government must resort to measures that exceed its constitutional limits for the protection of individual liberties.
For example, PRISM – an authorized surveillance program for the mass collection of personal data – can inform intelligence agencies if a neighborhood is prone to radicalization. However, despite the enormous amount of data, inferences about the propensity to radicalize a community are still the result of a computational system and not an analysis of an individual’s personality traits or history. If the premise that any member of one of these neighborhoods is a potential terrorist is accepted, preventative measures can be justified for the detention of individuals in these neighborhoods to protect national security. That is, with methods for the identification and capture of terrorists in force,only the actions of individuals can be anticipated if the State is imposed on the civil liberties of the individual, such as the right to privacy.
The limit is clear when it comes to a terrorist network made up of external individuals. However, what is the limit if the threat comes from within a democratic country? Is there a limit if any citizen is a potential terrorist? And, given the experience in Boston, is it valid to expand the discretion of intelligence agencies? Is it legal to register and monitor citizens in communities prone to radicalization? Is it justified to overreach the work of intelligence abroad in order not to violate individual liberties in their own country?
Thanks to the investigative tools available to the FBI, they were able to identify one of the Tsarnaev brothers as a suspect in the commission of crimes, but not to locate him as a potential terrorist. Russia, on the other hand, identified its process of radicalization thanks to the fact that it followed up its trip through Chechnya (a region converted into a hotbed of extremist Islamism in recent years).
There are experiences worldwide that are worth mentioning since they have shown their effectiveness in deradicalization processes without generating threats to the human rights of people. Since lone wolves tend to radicalize in their own country, there are programs that place radical behavior as a manifestation of criminal activity and not as a characteristic of a social group. This allows terrorism to be prevented without the need to make a sharp choice between safeguarding individual liberties or national security.
There is evidence that an adequate coordination between civil society and government makes it possible to prevent terrorism by identifying individuals who have initiated a process of radicalization and instructing them in ways to express their religious motivations within a legal and democratic framework. In turn, civil society not only contributes to combating radicalization, but also to providing valuable information to the government on cases that require urgent attention.
Such is the case of Aarhus, a city in Denmark from which 30 inhabitants left in 2013 to join the Islamic State and which for 2015 did not report any cases. Its deradicalization program includes initiatives such as workshops on social reintegration, psychological care, advice to parents and forums for dialogue with Muslim communities; all in which religious, civil and governmental organizations participate jointly. It is an example of a successful program to combat radicalization without involving a quasi-totalitarian supervision by intelligence and police agencies. At the same time, it implies the participation of civil society with government for the identification of patterns of violence which, in turn, strengthens the democratic value of civic participation.
Either way, it is important that governments and businesses in the 21st century consider the attack in Boston as an important example of how the political motivations of a small group – even an individual – can disconcert and perhaps paralyze large security apparatuses of the States.
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