Analysis: Five dangerous myths about the Boston Marathon bombings

Investigating the Boston bombingsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
The endless opinion pieces about the Boston bombings that have flooded the media-sphere since Monday have one thing in common: they are highly speculative and, for the most part, unreliable. At this early stage, nobody outside the security or intelligence establishments has any idea about the identity or motives behind the attacks —and if they say they do, they are lying. Even those on the inside routinely refer to the ongoing investigation as one of the most complex in the country’s post-9/11 history. As the probe continues, and the nation deals with the meaning of the Boston bombings, it is critical that some of the dangerously misinformed and premature notions about the attacks are dispelled.

To begin with, the Boston Marathon bombings were not necessarily terrorism. They were clearly calculated and indiscriminate, but in order for them to qualify as terrorism, their planners must have a broad political or ideological objective. Terrorism is a tactic used to further a political goal. There is a reason why we don’t refer to school shootings, such as the one that took place on December 14, 2013, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, as terrorism. They are calculated and extremely violent, but they do not contain a political motive. Before we can attach a terrorist label to the Boston bombings, we have to uncover the motive of the perpetrator(s). Barring that, the incident must be treated simply as a criminal act.

Second, the bombings do not necessarily suggest an intelligence failure. This is especially the case if the bombings were conducted by a single perpetrator. In order to fulfill their preventive counterterrorist role, intelligence agencies attempt to neutralize militant organizations by penetrating the connections —either physical or electronic— between their members. If the Boston bombings were acts of ‘lone-wolf’ terrorism, then it would have been virtually impossible for intelligence agencies to penetrate this operation in its planning stages. In that case, the burden of protecting civilian lives would fall on the shoulders of law enforcement, whose job was to protect the contestants and spectators at the Boston Marathon.

Third, the indiscriminate attack on civilians was an atrocious act of indescribable cowardliness. But it was relatively minor in both size and human/material damage, and this is how it should be treated. It pales into insignificance in comparison to almost daily suicide bombings that take place today in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and it certainly cannot be compared to 9/11 in any meaningful sense. This is particularly significant in light of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ that America is supposed to be involved in presently. If this is really a war, then it is at least embarrassing to witness the frantic response of the media and the political class to the Boston bombings. The British, who fought bravely in World War II, suffered a 9/11 every week for nearly three years, as a result of routine bombings of large British cities by the German Luftwaffe. They won the war by keeping calm and carrying on.

Fourth, if the Boston attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, then most American counterterrorism officials will probably view this as a good thing. If, after all its post-9/11 rhetoric about “destroying the infidels”, the best al-Qaeda can do now is detonate a couple of improvised explosive devices in downtown Boston, then this supposedly high-profile organization is almost certainly nearing its end. No sane person expects the United States security and intelligence community to shield this country from deranged fanatics 100 percent of the time. Still, despite the horror they caused, the attacks in Boston were both crude and rudimentary. As terrorist strikes go, they were certainly amateurish and will prove inconsequential to America’s military prowess or strategy. American intelligence agencies will be a lot more worried if the attacks turn out to be the work of domestic far-right groups, because they will confirm the alarming ongoing ascent of far-right extremism in the United States.

Finally, it must not be taken for granted that religiously inspired foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda are necessarily eager to strike America on its own soil. The events of 9/11 were carefully planned to further the wider strategic goal of luring American troops into Muslim lands. At this point in time, it is much easier for al-Qaeda to kill Westerners in Central Asia or Africa, than in America or Europe. We are even beginning to see American-born Islamists relocate to these regions in order to fight the jihad there. The cases of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Coleman Headley and the Somali youths of Minnesota, who left America to fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia, are just two in a growing list of such examples.

The very extent of the investigation into the Boston bombings ensures that we will have much more information about the missing pieces of this puzzle before too long. But until that time comes, pundits of all political persuasions should display both restraint and decorum in opining about these attacks and their meaning.

10 Responses to Analysis: Five dangerous myths about the Boston Marathon bombings

  1. The type of crude device used in Boston, has been used in the middle east so it could be an al – Qaeda attack, but we all have to be very wary here as there are hundreds of ex servicemen in the U.S who have dealt with these devices and who could easily put something together, the suicide rate amongst ex military is approx seven a day, mental illness, PTSD and depression are rife and disgruntled veterans have joined neo nazi groups who are classed as domestic terror groups, let us look at all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.

  2. Kidd says:

    there are people (volunteers) that handle bags (litter such as cups) and no one would suspect them of planting anything. they also wear latex gloves, leaving no prints. i suspect someone had an issue with the operating procedures of the race, or wanted some notoriety. and since on one has claimed responsibility, there is no manifesto to deliver. just a personal gripe with the race committee.

  3. Paul says:

    Whilst I agree with JF’s piece above the perpetrator of this horror must have either been trained to make such a device or he’s at least read al Qaida’s Inspire Magazine.
    The Summer 2010 edition mentions use of the pressure cooker and other editions feature untising a cellphone, remote control and the humble timer to initiate an explosion.

    The method is good enough to warrant the issuing of a Roll Call Release 1 July 2010 decribing the useage of the pressure vessel.

    Terrorist organisations will happily disperse their methods because even if there is no direct link to a persons’ successful actions it remains a small victory against the establishment for the terror group and no direct damnation from the suffering society.

  4. Carl Clark says:

    You have a point, Kidd, but I think if it were one of the volunteers it was a planned attack maybe with no claim as a strategy, which casts doubt on all groups including domestic which is much more work for the authorities to investigate and potentially a new phase that terrorists will use.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a good analysis, very objective.

  6. nada says:

    I am all for impartial subjective analysis but you sir are an insensitive baboon.

    How dare you, only two after this attack, have anything but sympathy for the victims. You are the one that needs to keep calm and carry-on. Most of these journalists have been working around the clock covering the tragic event. Most people (media included) are not accustom to watching that type of carnage live on TV. Criticizing the media for a very human response is not constructive at all.

  7. Stuart Mill says:

    As usual a well-written piece, but I have wondered for some time whether the definition of “Terror” is becoming problematic. Although JF’s definition might work in the traditional sense, laws and prosecutors throughout the US seem to be increasingly characterizing criminal acts as “terroristic.” I suppose the motive for pushing the term further and further down the non-ideological criminal ladder is to extract greater fear and awe from juries and judges for acts of violence. The end result however is that it’s not really fair to say, as JF does, that it’s a myth to characterize what happened in Boston as terrorism, when for example, wikipedia states, “A terroristic threat is a crime generally involving a threat to commit violence.”

  8. VET says:

    why does everyone say its Right Wing, there has been more bombings in this country from left wing groups the right wing. and that comment about PTSD and Disgruntled vets is bull, like the whole DHS memo about us being the number one terrorest threat.

  9. Pete says:

    A very well written article.

    In the US exploding targets provide gun owners (and any other adults) with a well developed explosive mix. No need to research fertilizers these days.

    See :

    “A month before the Boston Marathon bombings, the FBI warned that commercial “exploding targets” used for recreational rifle shooting could power homemade bombs on American streets…”

  10. James Robertson says:

    David Coleman Headley and the Somali youths of Minnesota are hardly good examples of “jihadists flocking to Central Asia and Africa to target Westerners” , according to your own website Headley was an informant for the US government, and as far as I know there are few if any Westerners in Somalia at this stage. I am certainly unaware that there are any Western soldiers stationed there, although there are occasional attacks by US aircraft.
    Surely if this phenomenon is as common as the article asserts you could have found better examples than these.
    As far as the September 11th events go, your analysis is missing the crucial fact that al Qaeda was merely a front for western intelligence elements, there is no good evidence that any Muslims were involved in those atrocities. I know this will sound utterly insane to many, I simply implore anyone who reads these words, check for yourself. Test the evidence. It all points in the same direction and that is not towards some big mouthed fool in a cave in Afghanistan.

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