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RMS commentary on the Boston bombings

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The bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed 3 people and injured more than 178 people have been a strong reminder of the homegrown terrorism threat in the United States.

As widely reported, the U.S. authorities have identified the two men who are suspected to be behind the Boston Marathon twin bombings as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar.  While both individuals are of Chechen descent, the two brothers have been in the U.S. for almost a decade and follow the pattern of homegrown jihadi terrorism.

In recent years, attacks perpetuated by homegrown jihadi groups in the U.S. have become very common. According to our research, more than half of the macro terrorism plots perpetuated in the U.S could be considered homegrown terror plots.  “Homegrown terrorism” is the term that describes terrorist plots perpetrated within the United States by American citizens or legal permanent residents.  These “self -starters” are often inspired by Al-Qaeda or its associated groups, but may have little or no actual connection to these militant groups. Homegrown groups in the West represent the broadest layer of the jihadi network and tend to be radicalized segments of migrant and Diaspora communities.

The Tsarnaev brothers conform to the model of decentralized homegrown jihadi groups. This concept is defined by key Al-Qaeda strategist Mustafa Al-Suri’s doctrine of nizam la tanzim (system, not organization). In Suri’s view, the future of jihad consists of small autonomous groups having decentralized organizational structures with no official links to Al-Qaeda leadership, so that even if the senior hierarchy was dismantled, the threat from Al-Qaeda would continue to persist.

The attacks in Boston have undermined the widespread assumption that American Muslims, unlike their European counterparts, are immune to radicalization. Many counterterrorism experts have argued that the homegrown jihadi terrorism threat in Europe is due to the lack of integration among the immigrant Muslim population and that radicalization is the subsequent by-product of the failed integration. In contrast, Muslim immigrants in the U.S. have more successfully integrated, which reduces the likelihood of radicalization. The wave of homegrown U.S. jihadist arrests in the last few years as well as the Boston attack seem to demonstrate, however, that radicalization has indeed affected a small minority of American Muslims.

RMS assesses that the U.S. terrorist threat will increasingly come predominantly from such homegrown extremists. Due to the highly decentralized structure of such “groups”, they are difficult to identify and apprehend. This problem is further compounded if the homegrown operative is a “lone wolf” who does not seek any type of external assistance. Their proficiency in the English language, the ability to understand Western culture, society, and context  allows them to execute and plan their terrorism plot without raising much suspicion.

As the terrorism threat will mostly come from homegrown operatives, their technical expertise will be limited. Thus, simple conventional attacks such as IEDs will remain the preferred weapon of choice. While such weapons have limited range, they potentially can cause significant property damage and inflict numerous casualties. Such attacks will occur in densely populated areas, at a time of day selected to cause the most damage and fatalities. As witnessed in the Boston bombing, by refining their targeting and timing, terrorists have become more efficient, making major impacts with lesser-yield bombs. As a result, smaller, but still deadly bombs that can circumvent security measures are the more likely terrorism attack scenarios.

In the past few years, several homegrown plots against the U.S. have been orchestrated by individuals acting independent of Al-Qaeda’s leadership. Most of these plots have been amateurish at best, as the perpetrators lacked the basic tradecraft and were unable to mount a successful attack. However, as the Boston Marathon bombing attests, this is not always the case. The Tsarnaev brothers were able to conduct a successful attack that was within their capabilities and resources. Such attacks by similar-liked radicalized individuals cannot be discounted in the future.