What can the US learn from the Boston Bombings?

It is only a few weeks since Boston was brought to a standstill. First came the explosions, their detonations claiming three lives whilst injuring countless others. Then there was lockdown as police hunted two suspects, one who died while the other was captured and now faces trial, along with potentially three others who have more recently been arrested in relation to the bombings. For Boston, it has been a time of grief followed by a determination to carry on as before. The US government however will do more than this. Its work now is to unpick these attacks, study them and see what if anything can be learnt that may help prevent a repeat. At this stage drawing too many conclusions is difficult. The biggest question after all is still not known – why? What drove these men to commit such heinous acts?

One point that has drawn an instant red flag in many media outlets is the men’s links to Chechnya and this is understandable. A complex and volatile region, Chechen grievances with the Russian state go all the way back to Stalin’s forced deportations in the region and since the 1990s, it has suffered from a concentrated dose of violence, conflict and warlords – a perfect storm for terrorism to flourish in. It was from Chechnya after all where the plotters responsible for the Moscow theatre siege in 2002 originated, so too those responsible for the Beslan hostage crisis that tragically claimed the lives of 334 people, many of whom were schoolchildren. Indeed, while the US thinks of Afghanistan when terrorism is mentioned, it is in fact Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan where there are more suicide bombings than anywhere else, to the extent that Russian media barely even bothers to cover them anymore.

So the Chechen origins of the brothers were always going to be a source of interest, but does it factor much in the Boston case? It seems not. Certainly, growing up during the 1999 second Chechen War would have been a horrific ordeal for any child as Russian troops carpet bombed the region and may have helped desensitise them to the sort of violence they would go on to inflict. However, they also been living in the US for roughly ten years and, in any case, Chechen violence has always been against Russia. It was their actions, deemed by Chechens as oppressive, which has been the motivator for waging terror, meaning it is hard to see any motive linked to Chechnya that would cause an attack on the US, who in the 1990s at least openly expressed concern over Russia’s military action in the region. The arrest of more individuals suggests some sort of group attack, but when one considers the devices, it seems unlikely they were part of a larger terror cell. While filling them with objects reveals a sadistic attempt to maim as well as kill, they were also very crude in design. Indeed, many weapons experts have noted that given the high volume of spectators, a well made device would have been capable of hurting many more people.

This suggests limited outsider help, which points towards what nations fear – the lone wolf model. Although the number of people means it cannot be completely compared to say the Oklahoma City bomber or those responsible for the US’s countless school massacres, they do somewhat fit these people’s profiles in that they seem to have acted independently of wider terrorist organisations, possibly for their own perverse motives. How do you tackle this? With great difficulty. Wider terror cells mean states can probe and investigate, but the fewer people directly involved, the harder it is to detect. The fact another nation – presumably Russia – expressed concern over these men could have brought closer investigation. But intelligence capability is not bottomless and they simply cannot monitor everyone. So can the US do anything to prevent this? Maybe, but they would do better to look more closely at radicalisation. This idea has been well established in Europe, but the US has not shared their concern. This is due to the US’s famed ability to integrate immigrants, the well-used ‘melting pot’ analogy which sees nationalities blended in such a way as to prevent the alienation that allows radicalisation to foster. Yet, while the Boston plotters both sought a stake in US society, there is also a suggestion of distance, of brothers caught between two worlds. It is this sense of being outside of mainstream society that is often found in the profiles of high school mass murderers too, indicating the US may not be as good at integrating as it thinks it is.

Addressing this is not simple. Across Europe, governments have tried to incorporate distinct groups and address gaps where radical ideas and violent action can seep in, so there are at least policies the US could examine to see whether they are ripe for exportation across the Atlantic. Above all though, US security services must face the sad reality that these individuals were actually more likely radicalised not by their Chechen experiences, but during their time in the US, meaning radicalisation is a problem for them as well and not just a European phenomena. There is no iron clad way of preventing a repeat of Boston, for the US knows the lone wolves are fiendishly hard to tame. However, it could be that by further acknowledging this issue of radicalisation, the US could improve its chances in its never ending struggle against terror.