The threat of international terrorism in North America; Lessons and epiphanies from the Boston Bombing (May 16th, 2013)

(Boston Bombing, April 15, 2013; Image obtained from NewsWeek, April, 2015)

“Boston Strong” has become a rallying call for Americans. Short and sweet, the phrase ushers in mixed emotions as well images of great horror mingled amongst moments of extreme sacrifice. The United States does these moments well. Not only because it has the wealth, organization and resources to respond to such threats with overwhelming force, but because words such as “Boston Strong” are utilized quickly and effectively in America to unite a population that has become increasingly divided – politically, socially, ethnically and economically. Indeed, it was not only America that was united by the attack on the Boston Marathon on April 15, but, for just a short period in time, the vast majority of the World was united in sympathy, anger and every other emotion that surfaces following the perpetration of such a cowardly and deadly event. These fleeting incidents of global empathy seem to transpire every time some radicalized and disaffected soul embarks on a campaign of murder and mayhem. London, Madrid, Athens, Mumbai, Songkhla, Moscow, and of course Ney York City, have all suffered from the blight of terrorism since the nominal declaration of war between militant organizations espousing the spread of fundamentalist Sunni Islam through violence, and the Western world on September 11th, (2001). This point in history is often popularly conceived of in the West as the seminole moment where the forces of civilization began to exact righteous revenge on the purveyors of religiously inspired genocide, who are bent on spreading their terror across the rest of the Globe. Hyperbole aside, September 11th remains an important historical milestone, and like the recent Boston Marathon attacks, such events naturally ingrain themselves within the American psyche, bolstering the distrust many American citizens have for the wider world beyond their borders.

The goal of terrorism is to spread fear. Not simply because fear is a bad and unpleasant experience for anyone to suffer through, but because fear exists deep within the web of human emotion, operating on a primary level that can often override any other personal emotional response. What terrorism does is effect this emotional override on a mass or society-wide level. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack such behaviour can create panic, halt services and result in abuses by security forces against the population, especially if they remain unaware of the extent and perpetrators of the violence, which is often the case. But while many security experts contend that this is where the real danger lies, personal fears are often short-term responses that fade over time. In reality, the weaponization of terror is almost always a long-term project that can take years to be fully felt and understood. Yet, how can such an assertion be made after a tally of the damage of the Boston bombings has been conducted? The city was shut down, people terrified across New England, a historical event destroyed, and, most importantly, there were at least 267 casualties, including three deaths. When the bombs first went off on April 15th, they immediately produced the frenzy and uncertainty the bombers wanted, and in the lengthy manhunt that was conducted over the following 48 hours these feelings of unease and fear continued throughout the community. In fact, so effective were the Boston bombers in sewing these seeds of fear, that stories of ongoing bank heists and other similar capers – many of which turned out to be false – continued until the last Tsarnaev brother was brought into custody. While Tamerlane Tsarnaev lay dead, the surviving brother, Dzhokhar, had no idea that by his delayed capture he had furthered the effectiveness of his campaign ten-fold even while he lay bleeding to death in his hiding spot. Watertown, and the greater Boston community were in a physical and emotional state of lockdown. For approximately 48 hours, the Tsarnaev brothers held the entire metropolitan population of Boston as psychological hostages. However, the real damage – the loss in confidence many Americans now (rightly or wrongly) have in their various levels of government, the hardening of political opinion, the identification of the attackers being linked to Muslims, Russian, Turks, Chechens (American news broadcasters and those throughout the World continue to inadequately report on their origin), and, significantly, the ongoing “othering” of the Islamic World – is still to be seen.

The Tsarnaev brothers were not terrorist masterminds and they most certainly were not members of any specific terrorist organization. They did not receive extensive training from Jihadist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan or any of the other regions where Sunni terrorist organizations have sprung up, and because of this they appear to be something of an anomaly for the American public and media. In the post-September 11th world Americans are becoming more used to seeing the odd American that has become affiliated with anti-American terror networks. Figures such as Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and Daniel Maldonado in Somalia have served notice to the American people that even some of their own have seemingly been corrupted by the spread of Jihadi literature and information. But in the cases of Awlaki, Maldonado and others like them, these individuals moved away from the United States, joined known terror groups (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab respectively), and then proceeded to begin operations against the United States. The Tsarnaevs, however, did not operate under this same pattern and have become the figureheads of a new terrorist modus operandi, one that has been in place for some time but which has only recently achieved notable success. In this edition of PanAmerican Crime we will explore the new role of the lone-wolf attacker in the greater terrorist strategy and how this new pattern of terrorist behaviour has become a significantly greater threat than the former grandiose schemes of terror groups, such as the September 11th attacks of 2001.

Before the development of the lone-wolf strategy and the resulting Tsarnaev attack can be properly understood it is important to step back and review the state of the War on Terror. While it was mentioned earlier that September 11th was a Seminole moment in the campaign against Sunni extremists and terrorism, the fundamentalist elements of orthodox Islam (orthodox Islam is known as Sunni Islam) had already aligned themselves against the West, specifically the United States well before “the towers fell.”

Even before 9/11 the United States was no stranger to the dangers of terrorism, especially in the Middle East. It had suffered a major blow with the collapse of the Shaw in Iran and the subsequent Iranian revolution in 1979. In partial response to this perceived loss of power and face in the region, as well as to assist regional allies while simultaneously blocking Soviet expansion, the US invaded/intervened in Lebanon (the narrative alters depending on perception) where, once again, certain local political groups took exception. Eventually Hezbollah – a Shiite militant group and ally of Iran – and its other supporters managed to launch a series of devastating attacks, culminating with the bombing of the temporary Marine barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983, essentially forcing the American withdrawal. These attacks were the result of conflicts with groups whose adherents were members of Shiite Islam – the non-orthodox strand of Islam – and were viewed as part of the US campaign to counter the expansion of Iranian influence, which was and remains the dominant Shiite state. But apart from the Iranian issue, the Middle East was also seen as a political battleground between Soviet communism and American capitalism. Beginning in the 1950s and carrying straight through until the so-called “Arab Spring” of the current decade, many countries with predominately Sunni populations were under the control of dictators with either socialist or nationalist leanings. Syria had the al-Assad clan, Mubarak held sway in Egypt, the family of Ben Ali operated with impunity in Tunisia, and the list goes on. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen were all operated under nominally secular regimes, which, following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, became dependent on the wealth and protection of the United States to survive, if they were not already.

In the immediate years of the post-Soviet era American political confidence was at an all-time high. The great ideological foe had been defeated and American intervention and leadership throughout the World appeared to be one of the causes of this great triumph. In the Islamic world this sense of euphoria was not entirely shared. While orthodox Islam has little to nothing in common with secular Soviet communism it also runs into ideological and spiritual problems with the version of hyper-capitalism that America promotes throughout its client states. Ergo, as Soviet influence waned the regimes it once supported found themselves ever more reliant upon their security apparatuses to remain in power. The Soviet collapse did not only heighten American ambition in the Middle East, it shattered the legitimacy of many regimes, including the PLO in Palestine as well as many other states in the region, which had founded their political movements based on secular socialist principles, despite their highly religious populations. The regimes in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, for example, had been based on the development of an Arab national movement, a movement that had been supported and fostered by the Soviets as a natural barrier to the development of American hegemonic power in the Middle East, which by the 1980s had become even more strategically important due to the ongoing development of the petroleum sector for US national security concerns as well as the global economy.

So, while the 1990s were seen by America as a time where the World had fully embraced the American dream politically, in the Middle East the first cracks had formed in the legitimacy of the regimes that had been in power for three or four decades already. As the dream of Pan-Arab nationalism crumbled across the Sunni states of the Middle East, it was replaced by a growing trend towards religion. The Middle East has always been, to a certain extent, defined by the interaction of the World’s great religions. Many of which originated in the region or directly on its borders. But, rather than being innately religious, these societies and cultures have merely evolved over time, as all human societies do. Secular rulership had largely failed to bring the prosperity that had been promised by the ruling families and dictators of these countries, and these population groups had instead turned to religious organizations to fill the void left by the corrupt secular regimes. What had emerged in the Middle East were not egalitarian, representative governments, but repressive, violent and paranoid regimes, who all now looked to the United States for legitimacy, something the US was quick to grant given the upheavals being experienced in Europe following the disintegration of the Eastern Block and Warsaw Pact. To the average Sunni inhabitant of the Middle East throughout the early 1990s, America was the country that allowed the rampant repression to continue; that supported the murderous purges and made possible the ethnic genocides practiced by many governments across the region, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen to name a few.

Sunni terrorism began in the Middle East as a way of overthrowing repressive local governments that espoused a foreign political system that had failed to bring any discernable benefits to the local population. When these movements in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other countries were crushed throughout the early 1990s, with the apparent support of the US, who had become the de facto hegemonic supporter of these regimes, then the stage was set for the confrontation the World has experienced since September 11th, 2001. As local campaigns against the governments of the Middle East failed to achieve success new organizations were formed to take the fight to what was seen as the pillar of oppression in the region, the United States. Throughout the 1990s these Sunni militant groups grew in strength and ability, and were eventually able to launch several attacks against the United States. One of the most significant of these groups but by no means the most pre-eminent, was al-Qaeda, which was founded by Osama bin Laden sometime in 1988-1989. The growth of al Qaeda is not the focus of this article, but suffice to say that the group quickly absorbed other notable Jihadists and sympathizers, such as Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri (formerly second command and now leader following Bin Laden’s demise), and soon launched attacks against the United States. The first major attack was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, followed by the American embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and finally, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Each of these attacks achieved notable successes but none of them had actually achieved al Qaeda’s primary goal, which had not yet become apparent.

Then came September 11th, 2001. One of the important historical moments of the 20th Century, the event took Americans by surprise much as the last major attacks by Sunni militants had done. While America recognized al Qaeda as a threat and had reportedly tried to assassinate Bin Laden prior to this attack, the scope and scale of the devastation were difficult to comprehend. Carl von Clauswitz theorized that “no war can be conducted without the will of the people,” well there was certainly no difficulty in achieving that in the post-September 11th atmosphere. President George W. Bush, looking visibly shaken, took the podium later that night to read the entire World the riot act: join us or die. The American response was understandable and from their perspective justified. The country was repeatedly under assault by religious extremists, who had now managed to build up their operational capacity to the point where they could conduct sophisticated attacks against major targets without the authorities knowing until it was too late. How long was it before another attack of this magnitude was launched or a nuclear device obtained for that purpose? And so off to war the US and its allies went. American troops were soon on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, with thousands more stationed in countries throughout the surrounding region.

This is when that idea of the long term goals of terrorism come into play. September 11th caused casualties, panic and unease for years, but despite these effects, US military strategists and policy makers across the Globe completely misread the goals of al Qaeda’s major attack. They assumed that this group of religious fanatics had not managed to think farther ahead then attacking the US and killing people; they were perceived as evil and crazy, and when analyzing under this lens such a limited goal makes sense. Some strategists offered that al Qaeda didn’t think the US had the political will to invade Muslim countries and conduct ground operations there. Others believed that the group would never want a US invasion of the Muslim World because the local population would support the US after the September 11th attacks, and al Qaeda would lose local support. However, the real goal of the Sunni jihadist movement was not to invade the US or kill Americans, although they were clearly prepared to do these things; it was to overthrow the tyrannical regimes the US supported in predominately Sunni countries and replace these secular regimes with orthodox Islamic ones. So, under this lens of analysis, September 11th can be viewed in a different way. What Osama Bin Laden and his leadership cabal wanted, more than anything, was a US invasion of the Middle East, somewhere, anywhere. This US intervention would give al Qaeda and its adherents a place to actively confront the US while drumming up support for itself and its cause in a Muslim population that would come to resent an American presence on Muslim soil, much as they already resented their current American-backed governments. And, of course, this is exactly what happened.

The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and the ongoing military interventions in Pakistan have created a sea of unrest across the Muslim World. While the initial invasions were always successful in overthrowing the standard forces of the enemy, the United States was simply not prepared for the immense cost in wealth and lives that would be required to pacify and rebuild the regions they invaded. Indeed, twelve years after September 11th does not see a robust American presence in the Middle East, but rather a diminished one, where American policy is often concerned with looking as if they aren’t actually there. Of course, the American military machine did achieve notable successes, and Bin Laden’s death on May 2nd, 2011, was undoubtedly not part of al Qaeda’s original overall plan of trapping the US in interminable wars throughout the Middle East and establishing theocratic rule. By far the greatest success of the United States in the War on Terror was in the gradual destruction of the operational capacity of the al Qaeda leadership group, which was based in tribal areas of western Pakistan. The vast majority of al Qaeda’s main operational and strategic planners were killed or captured in the decade following September 11th, leaving the surviving leadership group isolated and alone for the sake of their own personal survival. The armies of supporters that al Qaeda had apparently developed in the hinterlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan never really materialized, with al Qaeda’s Lashkar Gul (Shadow Army) being quickly eclipsed by other networks, such as the Haqqani network. By the mid-2000s the surviving leadership was forced to either alter their doctrine of centralized authority and adopt a new strategy or otherwise be relegated to historical status in the world of Sunni jihadism.

Yet despite the isolation of the al Qaeda leadership their ultimate goal of establishing theocratic Sunni states throughout the region was pretty much successful. The developing discontent throughout the Muslim World, even in places where the United States had no presence per se, was exacerbated throughout the War on Terror, as Muslim populations began to increasingly contest the authority of their despotic governments, which they rightly saw as American allies in certain cases. This discontent eventually manifested itself in the Sunni uprisings that have been over-simplified as “the Arab Spring” movement, which began in 2008. In Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, Sunni populations have risen up against their perceived Western-backed despots, and crucial American allies, such as Egypt and even Saudi Arabia, are now rethinking their relationship with the West. But despite these successes, the war against the United States by Sunni terrorists was far from complete. Even before the initial self-immolation in Tunisia in 2008 set the whole region on fire, al Qaeda had restructured its organizational model to reflect the pressures its leadership group was experiencing. Therefore, by the mid-2000s, it began delegating its operations to powerful regional franchise groups that remained loyal to the al Qaeda brand name and mission statement, but who could use their own knowledge of the local terrain to wage their own campaigns.

In Iraq, this reorganization began with the formation of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was later changed to the Islamic State of Iraq. This Sunni group served as the umbrella organization for the Sunni side of the Iraqi civil war, which was fought between the Sunnis, Iranian backed Shiites, and the United States between 2006-2007. While fighting has subsided in the country, the ongoing accounts of suicide bombings targeting Shiite pilgrims is evidence that this group is still alive and active. Another prominent al Qaeda franchise group, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), also formed during this period as Algerian extremists fleeing the Algerian civil war (1991-2002) moved south into the sparsely controlled countries of the western Sahel, such as Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, where they quickly adopted the al Qaeda brand name and began attacking Western interests throughout the region. The development of this group has resulted in dozens of kidnappings and has brought increased support to the ongoing Islamic insurgency movement in northern Mali, where the militant group Ansar Dine has reportedly sworn loyalty to AQIM. Arguably, the most important al Qaeda franchise to develop thus far has been al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which took shape after Al Qaeda operatives fleeing the Saudi crackdown in that country founded the group in Yemen in the mid-2000s. AQAP has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against the Yemeni government as well as organizing international terrorist attacks abroad, and it has quickly become the most effective and active terror network when it comes to targeting the US and the West. AQAP was recently involved in attacks involving the so called 2009 Christmas Day bombing in Detroit and a shipment of computer printer cartridges that had a bomb hidden inside. AQAP employs many English speakers and has been actively promoting itself on the internet for years now, releasing a monthly magazine known as Inspire, which often lists ways to make explosives and how to avoid detection from security forces.

It is with AQAP that we finally return to the Tsarnaev’s and Boston. Even as al Qaeda began to operate in loosely connected franchises throughout the mid-2000s, the leadership core in Pakistan and its adherents around the Globe had already likely stumbled onto a new sad truth for the average terrorist: while terrorist targets can never be completely protected, the drastic increase in security around the planet had severely limited accessibility to easy and effective mass targets. So, while AQAP continued to launch attempts at blowing up American aircraft and targets on American soil, the new face of the Jihadi terrorist was already being developed: the Western convert. These converts wouldn’t leave their home countries for foreign militant opportunities as Anwar al-Awlaki did, rather they would stay within their home countries and launch small, hard to discover attacks against an unsuspecting population. This is what the Tsarnaev’s did. They did not seek outside help from other terrorists or depart the country for training close to the attack, both of which are the primary tools which allow authorities to apprehend potential terror suspects. They chose an easy, highly recognizable target that is impossible to adequately protect and utilized homemade explosives. No longer would terrorism be about highly-organized attacks requiring a high level of terrorism trade craft and outside help to complete. It had become about the lone-wolf attacker.

The first easily recognizable example of this form of terrorism in the United States was the attack at Ford Hood, Texas, on November 5th, 2009, by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the army base psychiatrist. Evidence has suggested that Maj. Hasan had been in contact with noted terrorists from AQAP, including possibly Anwar al-Awlaki himself. While no specific evidence of this has been seen by the author, the pattern is undeniable. A Muslim living in a Western country who had become radicalized on the internet launched an attack against unsuspecting neighbours and coworkers. In Canada this terrorist MO has been seen twice since 2009, with the infamous Toronto 17 plot in 2009 and the most recent plan to bomb a Via train between Toronto and New York City. While these attempts in Canada failed because the perpetrators eventually did seek outside help, it is clear that the trends in terrorism are moving towards radicalization at home rather than abroad. The United States has already seen multiple attempts to detonate explosives and other homemade terrorist attacks in New York City over the past four years, and more are likely to follow.

Terrorist leaders in Yemen and Pakistan simply cannot waste the time and effort to launch major attacks because Western intelligence agencies have become too adept at intercepting them. The response is to utilize people who live the country where the attack is planned and to incite them to violence through the many online resources that are available to disaffected youth. Undoubtedly, the campaign to halt these new forms of terrorism will rely wholly on the community from where these attackers originate, and social pressures associated with such attacks will increase as well. The Tsarnaevs, while undoubtedly guilty, were merely the pawns in a larger game where terrorism continues to be used as a weapon and political tool, and it would not be surprising for police to find any number of the recent editions of AQAP’s Inspire somewhere in their possession. Yes, the Tsarnaevs hail from a region where Sunni extremism is at war with a repressive Russian state, which could have helped drive them towards terrorism, but, as the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport in 2011 points out, there are plenty of targets closer to the North Caucasus region near Chechnya if they wanted to participate in the struggles of their homeland. The organization of Dokka Umarov (nom de guerre) is there and actively seeking all the recruits it can muster. Instead, they stayed in the US and conducted attacks there, a fact which clearly points to the current al Qaeda operational model of getting locals in Western countries to do the dirty work.

What needs to happen now is not another attempt at international conflict, a strategy which the US under Obama had already pulled away from during the end of his first presidential term. Al Qaeda has already partly succeeded in its goal to form Sunni theocratic governments across the Middle East, but this process is not complete, hence the ongoing violence and the development of new terrorist operational procedures. Instead, the question must be asked: what are the overarching goals of this new stratagem besides mayhem and murder? As with September 11th, there is definitely a goal for these attacks and, rather than responding with emotion, it behoves the leadership of the West and the United States in particular to discover what that is. To posit one that seems logical, it is likely that in the wake of the current financial crises gripping Europe and North America that the al Qaeda goal is to galvanize the Muslim populations in the West to violence, thereby further undermining American and Western hegemony throughout other areas of the Globe where al Qaeda has more at stake. Having Muslims who are citizens of these countries perpetrate these crimes only serves the purpose of the al Qaeda leadership, which is hoping that fear and racism will drive a wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations of Western countries, thereby increasing the feelings “not-belonging” and “isolation” that are repeatedly cited as causes for criminal behaviour amongst a Muslim population that feels increasingly “othered,” even if they were born there.

Terrorism is a battle of ideas above anything else, and as the Boston municipal leadership made clear a month ago, you can either give in to panic and behave badly, or you can recognize the horrendous nature of the strategy of terrorism and rise above it. The ball is in the West’s court now.

                        – Scott Paulseth, Editor, Pan-American Crime

Resources and other materials:

Dorrie, Peter, “Security in the Sahel and the West’s military fixation,” Think Africa Press, February 12, 2013,

Boone, Jeb, “The rather inconsequential killing of Awlaki,” The Guardian, September 30, 2011,

Gillis, Wendy, “Toronto terror plot: Third man often talked about politics, Islam,” The Toronto Star, May 10, 2013,

Bell, Stewart, “Canada’s top court won’t hear appeals of Toronto 18 terror leaders,” The National Post, February 28, 2013,

“Russian airport bomb; Medvedev sacks key officials,” The BBC, January 26, 2011,

Gallagher, Ian, and Will Stewart, “Was Boston bomber inspired by Chechnya’s Bin Laden? Mother claims FBI tracked older brother for five years, after being told by Moscow of links to Chechen terrorists,“ The Daily Mail, Online, April 20, 2013,

“Islam, violence and reform in Algeria; Turning the page,“ International Crisis Group, July 30, 2004, (Report can be downloaded and accessed here:

Friedman, George, “The Egyptian election and the Arab Spring,” Stratfor, May 29, 2012.

Stewart, Scott, “The persistent threat to soft targets,” Stratfor, July 26, 2012.

Stewart, Scott, “Evolution and trends in terrorism trade craft,” Stratfor, October 11, 2012.

Stewart, Scott, “Why the Boston bombers succeeded,” Stratfor, April 23, 2013.

Stewart, Scott, “Searching for connections amid terrorist threats,” Stratfor, May 10, 2012.


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