How Tamerlan Tsarnaev Might Have Been Stopped

Michael Hirsh

Perhaps the biggest “what if” question to be asked after the Boston bombings is this: Was there some way that U.S. authorities might have been able to notice and then stop or dissuade Tamerlan Tsarnaev as he began his descent into terrorism, ultimately bringing his younger brother Dzhokhar along with him?

In recent days most Capitol Hill and media critics have focused on what the FBI may have failed to observe when it questioned Tamerlan in 2011, and then dropped his case. But the FBI, overall, has been successful in interdicting many domestic terrorist plots, despite having to sift through a vast pile of tips that is far larger than the number of agents who are available to chase them all down. Perhaps the more telling issue is whether the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has failed to follow through on promised programs to build deeper relationships with the Muslim community in the U.S. and abroad, so that signs of dangerous radicalization can be spotted early.

Muslim community leaders in the U.S. say such efforts have been meager at best, amounting to a shallow focus on counterterrorism and little more than the functional sharing of cell-phone contacts between local Muslim leaders and police. What Washington needs to do, they say, is to emulate the more aggressive program started up in Great Britain in 2007 after the last serious terrorist attack there on July 7, 2005, when British-born suicide bombers targeted the London transport system, killing 52 and injuring over 700. Though the British program has occasionally raised questions of whether civil liberties are being violated, the FBI’s sting operations in the U.S. have done no less.

“There has to be a national strategy,” says Qamar-ul Huda, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who is an expert in such programs. "It needs to be a clear, concise strategy like the 'Prevent' program in the UK.” In the United States, Huda adds, “I don’t even know who has that portfolio.” Critics say there has been little implementation of an August 2011 White House report called “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, ” which set out general guidelines for such programs. That report was itself a follow-up to previous efforts such as the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council’s “Preventing Violent Extremism Working Group.”  

Critical to the success of such programs is to make government outreach be about more than just counterterrorism, which raises civil liberties issues and elicits charges of ethnic or religious profiling, says Daniel Silk, a law enforcement expert at the University of Georgia who has closely studied the U.K. program. In Britain, outreach under "Prevent," which is short for "Preventing Violent Extremism," is multi-layered, involving national health services and other agencies as well as involvement by MI5 and Scotland Yard, though even that has sometimes been controversial.

“If the police, whether at federal or local level, come into any community but particularly marginalized [Muslim] communities and start talking about counterterrorism, it would be like going into an Italian-American community in the '70s or '80s and asking them about the Mafia,” says Silk. “The reasonable pushback you get is, ‘Why is the government framing my community in these terms?’ But if police can make the effort to put out a broad-based program of involvement, dealing with such issues as graffiti, drug dealing, and burglary, and then perhaps they add on top of that, ‘I have a concern about ideological violence,’ that’s the foundation for a much more solid relationship.”

Two moments when Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s direction may have been spotted by such programs were last November, and then again in January, when the increasingly angry and unstable ethnic Chechen twice interrupted sermons at his local mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, according to The Boston Globe. After a speaker at a religious talk in January compared the Prophet Mohammed to Martin Luther King Jr., Tamerlan shouted at him and was pressed to leave. Last November, Tsarnaev also angrily interrupted a talk when a speaker said it was all right for people to celebrate Thanksgiving and July 4 in the same way they celebrate the birthday of the Prophet. Tsarnaev challenged him and the two talked after service.

Silk says a better, deeper relationship with law enforcement could easily have led to a tip that might have prompted authorities to watch Tamerlan, question him further or even put him under surveillance, preventing the Boston Marathon bombings in the end. That’s particularly true because the FBI had already checked out a tip from the Russian government about his alleged connection to radical Islam. “In the ideal world that is exactly what you would have wanted to happen. That is exactly what these kinds of programs are designed to build,” he says. Silk says he has heard many anecdotes from British law-enforcement colleagues “where it’s not that the relationship leads to preventing a terrorist act, but to something further down in the process, where mosques or communities of mosques have been very up-front when people come into their areas and say things that are offensive and against British values. They want the police to help, but for them to be willing to do that requires a sound relationship.”  

Alternatively, Huda says, a better relationship between Tsarnaev’s mosque and U.S. authorities might have led to an effort to get local imams to talk to him, and learn more about what was troubling him.

Obama administration officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an interview in April 2012, Farah Pandith, the State Department's first "Special Representative to Muslim Communities," indicated the administration was concerned about stigmatizing the very Muslims to whom it was trying to reach out. “Everything that we are doing, both through the State Department and with other departments and agencies around the world, is that we’re breaking down the narrative of an ‘us and them,’ " she told the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. “That’s something the president has talked a lot about—that there this is no 'us and them,' there is just a 'we.' The president has said that Islam is part of the West. He’s talked about the fact that Muslims are part of the American family.”

As National Journal has documented, the administration has also shrunk from dealing with the rise of political Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring overseas, failing to mount a concerted "counter-jihadist" ideological campaign, in part because the administration does not want to be seen as targeting or profiling the religion of Islam in a negative way.