For some while now it has been evident that President Obama is reluctant to talk about ‘terrorism’ and, still less, about ‘Islamic terrorism’, or ‘Jihad’, or ‘the war on terror’, or all those other things that are so offensive to the political correct. It is now becoming clear that this ideologically-driven denial is extracting a price. Apart from the absurdity of continuing to refer to the Fort Hood shooting as ‘work-place violence’, it is now emerging that the various agencies responsible for home security have seriously dropped the ball in regard to the Boston bombing.
Despite a series of warnings from Russian intelligence about the activities of the elder of the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan), neither of them was under surveillance in the period before the attack on spectators at the Boston Marathon. The reason for Russian interest was that Tamerlan had spent six months in Dagestan, apparently consorting with extremists. Despite the fact that the US authorities were made aware of his departure, they did not apparently notice that he had returned. At this point, Russian intelligence contacted the CIA, having earlier informed the FBI. Homeland Security also seems to have known something but it seems that the various agencies were not talking to each other about the matter. If this is so, it would seem that the Bush intelligence reforms after 9/11, which stressed inter-agency cooperation and intelligence sharing have somewhat atrophied.
It should also be noted, that it now appears that the social media sites of both brothers featured extremist messages from manifestly Jihadist sources. These are easily detectable and together with the activities of Tamerlan, should have meant that both brothers would have been under serious surveillance from well before the events of 15 April. The information that the Tsarnaev brothers were on their way to New York, with the rest of their stockpile of munitions, when they were fortunately intercepted by the police, only underlines this point. It should be added here, that the US Director of National Security, James Clapper, has recently claimed, by way of defence, that ‘the intelligence and law enforcement communities would have needed broader powers to monitor internet communications of American citizens’. This is scarcely to be believed, and in any case it does not explain failure to follow up the Russian leads in other ways. What does explain all this, is the pervasive influence of the sort of administrative denial referred to earlier, which was also reflected in the astonishing decision by the US Attorney General to curtail FBI questioning of the surviving Boston bomber, Dzhokhov. In their recent testimony to Congress, the FBI is reported to have said that ‘they were stunned’ by this.
Of course, the larger game is to support the claim of the Obama Administration (stemming from before the Presidential election), that the so-called terrorist threat ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden and other prominent leaders of al Qaeda. This is why the Obama Administration initially denied that the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Libya, last September, was a terrorist attack (See my ‘Questions from Benghazi’ of last October). It also explains why Major Nidal (Fort Hood) was just an upset defence worker, and that in early reports, the Boston bombers might have been a couple of right-wing extremists.
There are lessons to be drawn for New Zealand from all this. The first is that there is a threat and we are not immune from it. We have a significant Islamic population and the possibility that disaffected youth may be influenced by radical interests is present here, as it is in many other countries. The extent to which fundamentalist influences are at work here in New Zealand (and the degree of denial) was amply illustrated in a recent article in North and South magazine (Mark Scott, ‘Tolerating Intolerance’, April 2013).
The second lesson follows from the first. We need to have the legal capacity, and the will, to keep an eye on these phenomena and pay attention to possible anti-social developments. In the event of a ‘Boston’ type of attack in New Zealand, I cannot think that we would be satisfied with an official response to the effect that, although there were grounds to anticipate such an atrocity (perhaps, we even had warnings from abroad), we did not think it was appropriate to spy on New Zealand citizens.
Shortly after the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as the bombers, their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni said of them (by way of explanation for their actions), ‘They are losers’. He then went on to refer to the fact that neither had employment and both had been supported, one way or another, by public welfare for most of their lives. He hinted at feelings of inadequacy in a land of opportunity, which may have driven them towards radicalisation and to an impulse for that ‘moment of fame’, when their lives become significant. Mr Tsarni seems to have subsequently retracted some parts of his original statement but the picture he drew matches a familiar profile for radicalised young Muslims, or Muslim converts, who aspire to strike a blow against the infidel. We need to take the possibility seriously.