Combating terrorism is now more complex than ever. Groups such as al-Qaeda have been significantly damaged and partially dismantled to the extent that it is unlikely they could ever conduct an attack like 9/11 again, but one of the results of the so-called war on terror has been that organized terror is increasingly being replaced by smaller acts of violence committed by individuals who are perpetrating abhorrent crimes based on their own personal grievances and beliefs. Some of these individuals are "lone wolves" who've received no tasking or support from other terrorists; others are typically radicalized young men who've been encouraged, via the Internet and other means, by terrorist leaders to do whatever they can to cause death and mayhem. Terrorism is moving full-circle back to the 19th and early 20th century days of embittered solitary anarchists tossing bombs into crowded areas.
Realizing its tactical reach was growing increasingly impotent, three years ago al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) embarked on a new strategy of encouraging anti-libertarian people around the world to commit "death by a thousand cuts." It's a strategy that has been adopted by other terrorist groups and it works. The cumulative effect of a number of small attacks is just as great as that of one large strike against the West. Moreover, identifying and preventing such terrorists in advance of such small-scale attacks is a monumental task because most of these individuals have no prior links to terrorism and therefore are not on the radar of the law enforcement and counterterrorism communities. Though the FBI investigation is ongoing, it is possible that the alleged Boston bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, fell into this category.
Last week we saw that two small bombs can create just as much fear and unease as massive strikes such as 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings. Terrorism thrives on people's fear of what could happen next. If a small bomb has been detonated today, will a massive bomb explode somewhere else in my city tomorrow? It doesn't matter to the terrorist that there is no massive bomb. What does matter is that he's created 24 hours of hell.
Although three people were killed, one of whom was an eight-year-old boy, and many more were severely injured, the Boston bombings could perhaps be initially interpreted as a "small cut." It turned out to be much more than that. In part that was because of the dramatic shootout on Friday morning, itself another act of terror, and the subsequent manhunt for Tsarnaev. But there is a bigger picture to the Boston bombings that will not go unnoticed by terrorist leaders and lone wolves around the world.
Bostonians spent a week living in fear and confusion; thousands of law enforcement and other emergency services agencies were drafted into Boston; senior senators and the U.S. president himself were involved in giving briefings to the world about their views on the attack and what needed to be done to catch the bombers; and ultimately the whole city of Boston was locked down for a day.
The lock down had two objectives: to protect the city's inhabitants while the second suspect was loose, and to make the manhunt easier as anyone on the streets could immediately be considered as potentially dangerous. Tactically it made perfect sense, though in the end it was an ordinary Bostonian civilian who found Tsarnaev lying injured in a boat.
But the unprecedented lock down of an entire U.S. city is also a tactical gift to all terrorists. They now know that a small cut can temporarily freeze up a chunk of America and cause panic, confusion, the dedication of vast amounts of resources, and the loss of millions of dollars of revenue due to the closure of businesses.
A 19 year-old-kid, albeit armed and dangerous, did this.
There is a risk that terrorists will view the Boston bombings and the aftermath as a new template to commit abhorrent acts -- make a small cut against American society, go on the run, gun down a cop, and ultimately transform a small cut into a massive event. Was it the right decision to lockdown Boston? Time will tell.