It’s unusual, but one of the most crucial findings in a recently released inspector general’s report about the Boston Marathon Bombing actually focused on something that did not take place.
To be released on April 15, the first anniversary of the deadly events in Boston a year ago, the report stated that although one of the perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, did travel to Dagestan, a restive region in Russia’s North Caucasus in 2012, the FBI could find no evidence that he received training or encouragement from terrorists based there.
Indeed, Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were radicalized, in part, by online terrorist propaganda geared toward young American audiences. They learned how to make the pressure cooker bombs they planted at the Marathon from Inspire magazine, an online English-language propaganda magazine produced by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
If we are to prevent the next Boston-style terrorist attack, we must commit ourselves to better understanding the way terrorist groups recruit in the U.S.
1. Terrorist groups have embraced online platforms to such an extent that face-to-face interaction is no longer a prerequisite for radicalization.
Inspire is by no means the only online outlet aiming to recruit adherents far beyond the shores of their home countries, but it is the best known. In addition to containing the very bomb-making instructions that the Tsarnaev brothers later utilized in their attack - in an article called “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” - Inspire provided various ideological justifications encouraging attacks on U.S. soil. The issue of Inspire released a month after the “Blessed Boston Bombings” took special pride in noting that the Tsarnaev brothers were “inspired by Inspire.”
Terrorist groups and their supporters are not only using social media and other Internet platforms to spread their messages more quickly and effectively than ever before, but also actively to recruit adherents who live in the communities they seek to target. Face-to-face interaction with terrorist operatives is no longer a requirement for radicalization. Individual extremists, or lone wolves, are increasingly self-radicalizing online with no physical interaction with established terrorist groups or cells – a development that can make it more difficult for law enforcement to detect plots in their earliest stages.
Al Qaeda recently released the Spring 2014 issue of Inspire. The magazine provides detailed instructions on how to build car bombs and suggested locations for where to plant them in various U.S. cities. The author notes, “The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs!”
2. Americans are more susceptible to online terrorist propaganda than you may think.
In 2013 alone, 14 American citizens or permanent residents were implicated in the U.S. on terror-related charges, ranging from domestic plots and conspiracies to providing material support to terrorists abroad. Many were directly influenced by propaganda easily accessible online. And in the past five years, there have been 31 plots in the United States. American citizens and permanent residents have planned or been intricately involved in 26 of the plots, typically targeting military institutions, major landmarks, Jewish institutions and populated areas.
Nicholas Teausant, 20, a community college student from Acampo, California, was arrested last month for attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, a terrorist group formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda. Like many before him, Teausant reportedly accessed online terrorist propaganda including issues of Inspire magazine and its companion “Mujahid Pocketbook,” which contains a compilation of articles designed as a “how-to guide for becoming a lone wolf terrorist.”
3. Killing terrorists abroad – or even removing their content when it shows up on the web – won’t be enough stop terrorism.
The Tsarnaev brothers were also allegedly inspired by the radical online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric who encouraged attacks against the West on behalf of Al Qaeda through dozens of online English-language videos, articles and lectures.
Despite being killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011, Awlaki’s messages have continued to reach audiences well after his death. For example, a Facebook page called “Generation Anwar al-Awlaki,” which is made up of images of Awlaki and many of his most militant sayings, continues to attract followers from around the world every day.
As Internet proficiency and the use of social media grow ever-more universal, so too do the efforts of terrorist groups to exploit new technology in order to make materials that justify and sanction violence more accessible and practical. Because of the enormous volume of extremist content online, strategies that prescribe simply taking down such materials when they appear seem impractical and ineffective.
4. The first line of defense against future attacks by homegrown terrorists is an informed community.
Law enforcement, government, technology companies and community organizations deserve credit for attempting to develop strategies to disrupt, dilute and counter extremist recruitment. But public awareness of the changing nature of radicalization is the first step to addressing the challenges.
Although most homegrown Islamic extremists have lacked the capacity to carry out violent attacks – plots have been foiled by law enforcement at various stages – the Marathon bombing showed how two brothers influenced by online terrorist propaganda can terrorize our communities and undermine our security.
Oren Segal is Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.