Within a week of setting off two bombs in Boston, two brothers, Moslems from the Russian Caucasus, were identified and caught. But now questions are being asked about why the American FBI did not discover how radical one of the brothers, 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had become, even after receiving an alert from Russian intelligence that Tamerlan had become an Islamic radical and might be dangerous. Russia has centuries of experience with radicals, gangsters, and rebels from the Caucasus.
It may be a while, if ever, before all the facts are known on this incident. It could simply be that Tamerlan was simply one of many potential terrorists that become known to the FBI but was not considered likely to be dangerous enough to warrant regular monitoring. The FBI is alerted to a lot of potential terrorists and does not have the resources to monitor them all. This is a common problem with police and military intelligence organizations. The FBI does not discuss how it deals with this sort of thing because that would give potential terrorists an edge in avoiding detection.
There is another problem the FBI, and all federal counter-terror operatives, have to deal with and that is the U.S. government policy (since the 1990s) to play down the role of Islam in Islamic terrorism. To many people that sounds absurd but it represents a policy of trying to counter Islamic terrorist accusations that efforts to destroy the terrorists is just an infidel (non-Moslem) excuse to make war on Islam. This issue recently became a public controversy when the U.S. government continued to deny granting military personnel killed or wounded in a 2009 terrorist attack the award for combat wounds (the Purple Heart medal). The U.S. government refuses to categorize the November 5, 2009 attack in Ft Hood as a terrorist action. In that incident a Moslem U.S. Army officer (Major Nidal Hassan, a psychiatrist) shot and killed 13 people at a clinic, all the while yelling "God is great" in Arabic. It was later revealed that Hasan had a long history of Islamic radicalism, which his army superiors ignored. Now, in an apparent effort to not offend Moslems, the U.S. government refuses to designate Hasan's murders as terrorism and thus his victims cannot receive the Purple Heart. The government is calling the Hasan incident workplace violence and military victims of that kind of violence are not eligible for a Purple Heart.
The Hasan controversy has been going on for over two years, with the government resisting demands from military personnel and Congress that the Department of Defense follow its own regulations regarding military victims of terrorist attacks and give the Purple Heart to the Ft. Hood dead and wounded. In response to these Congressional efforts, the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense has now been ordered to oppose the new law on the grounds that it would also deny the attacker a fair trial.
The U.S. Army has reacted in other ways to major Nidal Malik Hasan's 2009 attack. This was obviously the act of an Islamic terrorist, although the U.S. government initially tried to explain it as just the act of a lone madman. But the subsequent investigations (army, FBI, and so on) made it clear that this is what terrorist attacks often are. The investigations recovered Hasan’s communications in which he was told that acting individually would still be “jihad” in the name of global Islamic domination. Meanwhile, the investigations also revealed that he had not made a secret of his beliefs and that many of his peers, subordinates, and superiors had complained about his Islamic radical beliefs and verbal outbursts. The guy was scary, but nothing was done because of the government policy of downplaying religion as much as possible in the matter involving Islamic terrorism.
The army investigation of the Hasan attack did acknowledge that this policy of downplaying the religious aspect of Islamic terrorism fostered an atmosphere of political correctness that underpinned most of the bad decisions that enabled Hasan to stay in uniform and even get promoted. This recognized that in the army, as in any large organization, all the rules are not written down. In the army many of the unwritten rules come in the form of "the commanders' intent." Sometimes this "intent" is spelled out, but in many cases subordinate commanders have to figure it out.
In the Hasan case the commanders' intent was that Moslem officers, especially doctors, were to be kept happy and in uniform. When in doubt, look the other way and hope for the best. In the case of Hasan no one expected the guy to turn into a mass murderer. But, then, Hasan's superiors were encouraged to be optimistic about their Moslem problem child. So Hasan's radical rants and abusive behavior towards non-Moslems was, if not ignored, certainly played down. Questions are being asked about whether the FBI ignored indications that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been radicalized (as the Russians reported) so as not to risk accusations that the United States was persecuting Moslems for their beliefs.
In the meantime, army commanders have been ordered to pay attention to religious or political activities of their subordinates and sound off if radical or dangerous behavior appears to be in the works. This is a lot to ask from officers who know that some bad publicity not only makes the army look bad but damages career prospects.
Would any of this have caught Hasan before he went at it with his murderous intentions? Probably, as Hasan made no secret of his Islamic radical attitudes. Some of his fellow soldiers reported this but nothing came of it. Now, at least on paper, something should happen. But already there are complaints about medical personnel being required to report troops who indicate potentially violent behavior. Civil rights groups are questioning whether the army can punish, or even investigate, troops exercising their constitutional right to free speech or practicing religion as they choose to.
Commanders are caught between stopping another massacre and getting accused (especially in the media, which loves stuff like this) of violating the civil rights of soldiers and their civilian dependents living on base. Officers will be tempted to back off, rather than risk their career on a hunch. Commanders closest to the potential problem are supposed to pass their findings up the line, with the FBI now sharing this information. But the media will head for the source and the officers in the line of fire know it.
The FBI is now being accused of backing off on monitoring Tamerlan Tsarnaev because of the possibility that the government might be accused of persecuting a Moslem for simply being devout. The FBI has grounds for fearing this sort of thing. In the last year the New York Police Department has been facing growing criticism for its policy of aggressively seeking out and monitoring potential Islamic radicals. The New York police commanders have not backed off and listed a long list of terrorist conspiracies that were disrupted because of the energetic monitoring of Moslems to detect radicals before they could become killers.
While Nidal Hasan may have been stopped with more aggressive monitoring, not enough is known about what the Tsarnaev brothers were doing while unmonitored and preparing for the terrorist attacks. It may turn out to be another Hasan case, or not. In any event it’s another example of how close many successful terror attacks in the West come to being detected and disrupted before the terrorists actually act. The U.S. has detected and disrupted dozens of attacks in the last two decades. The only ones that become big news are the ones that avoid detection, or any police action, and proceed to kill people.