BOSTON MARATHON SECURITY UPDATE
April 19, 2013
• Tamerlan Tsarnaev killed, Dzhokar detained after brothers initiate a confrontation fearing they would be identified and in the hope that they would not be taken alive.
• Their combination of resolve and technical expertise suggests a level of formal militant training.
• We believe Tamerlan was radicalised while living in the US but may have been trained in Dagestan in 2012.
• The involvement of jihadists from the Caucasus in attacks on the West is a new phenomenon comparable with the activities of al-Qaeda franchises.
SECOND BOSTON BOMBER DETAINED FOLLOWING CONFRONTATION
Late on 19 April Boston police announced the arrest of Dzhokar Tsarnaev (19 years old), the younger of two brothers suspected of being behind the Boston Marathon bombings on 15 April. Although the sequence of events remains unconfirmed, police closed in on Dzhokar and his elder brother Tamerlan (26 years old) on the evening of 18 April after they robbed a convenience store near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Boston’s Cambridge district. They also shot and killed a police officer in his patrol car and carjacked a Mercedes SUV forcing the owner to withdraw USD 800 in cash before releasing him.
The brothers had reportedly told the owner of the Mercedes that they were responsible for the Boston bombings, leading the police to identify and then chase the stolen car to the city’s Watertown area. An exchange of fire followed in which at least one improvised explosive device (IED) was thrown at the pursuing police before Tamerlan was fatally wounded by police gunfire.
Dzhokar escaped that confrontation, despite seemingly being wounded, and a massive security operation followed in which residents were told to stay in their properties whilst a house-to-house search was carried out. He was then found and captured alive on the evening of 19 April after a Watertown resident called police when he spotted blood on a boat parked in his backyard. There are reports of a second gunfight at this location.
It has been reported that Dzhokar attended university classes between 16 and 18 April and the robbery and killing of a police officer took place only after the FBI released pictures of the two brothers taken at the scene of the Boston bombings. We believe Tamerlan and Dzhokar carried out those actions to initiate a confrontation fearing they would be identified and in the hope that they would not be taken alive.
The FBI has admitted that it interviewed Tamerlan and other family members “in early 2011” after a foreign Government (believed to be Russia) asked for information about him. This request was justified by the claim that he was a “follower of radical Islam,” that he had “changed drastically since 2010” and planned to travel to the territory of the Government concerned and join “unspecified underground groups.” The FBI has indicated it found no evidence of terrorism-related activity, either foreign or domestic, at that time.
BROTHERS DEMONSTRATE RESOLVE, TECHNICAL EXPERTISE
The bombing of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured 183 others. Details released to date suggest that the bombs used were shrapnel devices contained inside domestic pressure cookers. Instructions to build such bombs are widely available on the internet, including in the first edition of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) English-language magazine, Inspire. Although they were relatively crude devices, individuals who have not received bomb-making training have only infrequently successfully built such bombs.
There are also credible suggestions that the devices may have been remotely triggered. They exploded thirteen seconds apart and may have been triggered sequentially, perhaps by SMS messages. Such triggers are complex and require bomb-making expertise. In addition, the brothers were well prepared for the car chase in Watertown, having built at least one IED, and demonstrated proficiency in the use of firearms.
Pictures taken at the marathon and released by the FBI also suggest a degree of surveillance awareness, particularly on the part of Tamerlan. He went ahead with the attack in the knowledge that he was known to the authorities as a terrorist suspect. The combination of this resolve and technical expertise suggests a level of formal militant training.
The targeting of a sporting event broadcast live on television demonstrates a desire to generate maximum media coverage; a key goal of jihadists. In May 2010 a magazine linked to al-Qaeda’s central leadership endorsed attacks on World Cup. This followed an edict by its religious hierarchy allowing such attacks and was the first public statement by al-Qaeda that attacks on sporting targets could now be justified. Somali group al-Shabab then carried out a series of bombings targeting crowds watching the World Cup in the Ugandan capital Kampala on 11 July 2010.
RADICALISED IN US, TRAINED IN CAUCASUS
Media coverage of the brothers’ motivation for the attacks has focused on their youth in Chechnya. However, both Tamerlan and Dzhokar were born in Kyrgyzstan and only moved to Chechnya for a brief period in 1999. They then relocated to Dagestan before emigrating with several family members to the US in 2000 or 2001. Tamerlan will have been about 12 years old when he lived in Chechnya and, although the Second Chechen War began in 1999, it unlikely that this brief experience directly informed his radicalisation. Dzhokar would only have been around 5 years old when living in Chechnya.
We believe Tamerlan was radicalised while living in the US, probably before 2011 when the FBI was alerted to Moscow’s suspicions about him. It is unclear whether Tamerlan was in contact with the small Salafist community in Boston but the involvement of the Russian authorities suggests he had made contact with Islamists in the Caucasus by 2011. Despite Moscow’s suspicions, Tamerlan was allowed entry to Russia in the first six months of 2012 and visited Dagestan.
Between 2009 and 2011 the security situation in Dagestan deteriorated significantly as jihadist conflict took hold. We believe it is likely that Tamerlan received militant training during his time in Dagestan in 2012 via those Islamists with whom he had already made contact. Tamerlan opened a YouTube account soon after he arrived back in the US and periodically uploaded religious videos, including one related to the Black Banners of Khorasan – a key element of the prophecy that is at the heart of al-Qaeda ideology.
However, we have seen no evidence of jihadist communications in Tamerlan’s online activity and no evidence of any subsequent direction from abroad. It is possible, therefore, that the Boston bombings were planned while Tamerlan received training in Dagestan and that he prepared his brother for the attacks on his return to the US. Although a number of people connected to Tamerlan in the US have been arrested, none has been charged and there is no evidence to suggest that the brothers were part of a wider network in the US.
FIRST LINK BETWEEN CAUCASUS JIHADISTS AND ATTACKS ON WEST
The Caucasus Emirate, the key jihadist group in that region, has denied involvement in the Boston bombings. However, the conflict in Syria has led to some splits between the Emirate’s leadership and other key militant figures in the region. There are many Chechens fighting in Syria and some militant leaders in the Caucasus have encouraged jihadists to travel there to fight the Assad regime. In contrast, the Emirate has cautioned against such action.
We believe Tamerlan may be linked to those jihadists in the Caucasus who are more closely linked to the conflict in Syria (and Dzhokar posted videos online sympathetic to jihadists in Syria). Their apparent desire to strike the United States reflects a key al-Qaeda priority, just as the fight against the Assad regime is a core al-Qaeda objective. Their involvement in operations against the West is a new phenomenon and comparable with the activities of AQAP, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban – all of which have supported attacks against Western nations. We believe that future attacks against the West will have a link to the Caucasus.
The use of locally-based individuals to carry out the attack reflects al-Qaeda’s evolving strategy. This places increased emphasis on lone wolves, those who have been radicalised from a distance and individuals who have returned to their home countries having been trained abroad to carry out attacks on the West. These tactics reduce the need for support and direction from abroad, limiting the likelihood that a plot will be discovered and disrupted and is an increasingly credible alternative strategy to the sort of large-scale plots planned by AQAP in recent years. Both approaches are likely to continue to be used.
While al-Qaeda considers the UK a legitimate and high priority target, the episode in Boston says little about the threat to the London Marathon. The growing use of individuals, both trained and untrained, to carry out attacks makes plots increasingly difficult to detect and disrupt while their complexity and efficacy can vary significantly. Nonetheless, the Boston attacks demonstrate that such individuals can succeed in striking Western targets at a time when al-Qaeda has struggled to execute more complex plots against the West.
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