Investigators continue to fill in the blanks, but one large question continues to hang over the terror attack during the Boston Marathon: Why? What drove Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar to plant two crude homemade bombs near the finish line? The explosions killed three people and injured 282.
The evidence suggests Tamerlan, the older of the two, was motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs and a deep animus toward the United States. It is not clear what motive, if any, drove Dzhokhar. It is believed that they acted alone, but officials continue to trace all possible contacts to see if they are part of a larger terror network.
The attacks and the subsequent drama terrorized Boston and captivated the world. The bombs exploded during one of the premier international annual sporting events. The carnage was captured in all its gory detail, amplifying the message and facilitating the police work that resulted in the capture of Dzhokhar and the killing of Tamerlan.
Three days after the attack, the FBI released photos and surveillance videos of two suspects; with help from the public, the two men were identified as the Tsarnaev brothers.
A day later, the men allegedly killed an MIT police officer, carjacked an automobile, and got in a chase and firefight with the police in Watertown, a suburb of Boston. During the chaos — much of which was filmed and taped, which added to the drama — Tamerlan was captured but died of wounds suffered during the firefight, those from an explosive device he wore and from being run over by the car his brother drove when he fled the scene.
After a day-long lockdown on a 20-block area, along with the suspension of mass transit, taxi and train services, Dzhokhar was found hiding in a boat parked behind a house.
After another vicious firefight, he was captured and taken to the hospital to be treated for his wounds. During an initial interrogation, he reportedly identified his brother as the mastermind, which was consistent with other information.
The Tsarnaev family is of Chechen origin, although they never lived in Chechnya, and immigrated to the U.S. as refugees from Dagestan in 2002.
Tamerlan had reportedly become increasingly unhappy with life in the U.S. and embraced a radical form of Islam. He is said to have visited Dagestan in 2012, and was on a watch list in Russia. Reportedly, however, an FBI investigation failed to find any evidence of “terrorism activity, domestic or foreign.”
While being chased by the police, the brothers threw several explosive devices at the police. The investigation of their residence is said to have discovered several more such bombs. The brothers are alleged to have learned how to make the bombs from an online radical Islamist magazine.
If the information is correct, and both brothers were indeed independent of larger terror networks and self-schooled, it would signal an important development in the fight against terrorism.
According to a new study, there have been 53 alleged Islamic plots to attack the U.S. since 2001. Virtually all of them were broken up before damage was done; the exceptions were lone actors who shot their victims, not bombers. When the victims of the Boston attack are included, the 11-year death toll reaches 19.
That is 19 deaths too many, but they should be put in perspective. More than 30,000 people die because of firearms each year in the U.S., yet Americans refuse to reduce the availability of guns. In fact, the U.S. Senate voted days after the attack to kill a bill that would tighten background checks on gun purchases.
The Tsarnaev brothers could have killed many more people if they had chosen to open fire with automatic weapons instead of using crude explosives.
It is difficult for non-Americans to reconcile the readiness of Americans to acquiesce to the erosion of their civil rights to fight terrorism with their refusal to make it harder to acquire weapons that facilitate acts of terror.
At the same time as the Boston attacks, a U.S. senator, President Barack Obama and a judge in Mississippi received letters tainted with ricin, a deadly poison. That was reminiscent of 2001, when ricin-laced letters were sent to Congress just after the 9/11 terror attacks; five people were killed and the perpetrators of those acts remain unknown.
This time, however, the drama descended to farce with the arrest and subsequent release of an Elvis impersonator, which was followed by the arrest of a rival who is alleged to have framed the original suspect.
Days after the Boston attacks, a fertilizer plant in Texas was hit by a massive explosion that killed 14 people and wounded hundreds more. In those tension-filled days, there were fears that the Texas blast was terror-related, but it appears to have been the result of improperly stored ammonia.
The speed with which the authorities identified and traced the Tsarnaev brothers is a testimony to the effectiveness of the U.S. antiterror apparatus. At the same time, questions must be answered about the attention paid to Tamerlan and whether he should have been more closely scrutinized. After 9/11, U.S. authorities acknowledged the dangers of “stove-piped” intelligence (which is the presentation of intelligence without the proper context). That problem may not have been overcome.
The decision to read Dzhokhar his Miranda rights shortly after his arrest is another important development. As a U.S. citizen, Dzhokhar deserves the full protection of the U.S. Constitution. It is a reminder to the world that Americans remain committed to the values that have animated their country since its birth. Those values are America’s greatest strength in this struggle.