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Were Boston Suspects ‘Lone Wolves’ or Part of a Larger, Radical Confederacy?

April 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Authorities are examining whether the Tsarnaev brothers had become ideological militants and whether they acted alone or had accomplices. Jeffrey Brown talks to New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, Mark Hosenball of Reuters and Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

JEFFREY BROWN:And now to some of the leads being pursued in this investigation.

Authorities said a short time ago they believe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev remains in the Boston area and is the only person they’re looking for at the moment. Investigators said — quote — “His ties seem to be here.”

For more, I’m joined now by New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, Mark Hosenball of Reuters, and Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

Michael Schmidt, you have been watching what the FBI is up to. We heard a bit about the two brothers. What are investigators most focused on now to fill in the picture?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, The New York Times: They’re really just, you know, in a basic game just trying to find this guy and trying to exploit all the different tools and techniques that they have, through the interviews that they have been conducting today, and particularly through the information provided by the man who was in that car that was hijacked.

He’s the only person that we know of that’s had direct contact with the suspect in recent days that’s talked to the authorities. And they’re trying to exploit all that information for whatever clues may be there, in the hopes of trying to find out where the suspect may be.

JEFFREY BROWN: So are there any particular leads at this point that you’re aware of that they’re following or of particular interest to them?


There were different things about whether the suspect may have been heading towards New York or the suspect may have been heading towards Connecticut or — he was in a car. But we — they haven’t taken those any further. And they’re just still looking for leads and trying to scour Eastern Massachusetts as much as possible, in the hopes of finding something. But I think they’re pretty stumped right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Hosenball, what would you add? What do you think the leads or clues might be out there that investigators are looking at, here or abroad?

MARK HOSENBALL, Reuters: Well, what I have been looking at is, who are these guys? What are their connections? Why did they do it?

From the sounds of things, you know, everybody wants to know what the motivation is. The authorities do seem to think that they are some kind of Islamic militants. But then the question is, do they have confederates or accomplices either in the United States or abroad? If they have confederates in the United States, that raises the question of who are these confederates? Have they gone underground? Could they commit further attacks from hidden lair?

As I understand it at the moment, investigators believe that, in fact, this is not an al-Qaida operation. It’s not clear how these guys became radicalized, but they don’t seem to think that they have any significant overseas connections, and they don’t seem to think, as I think you quoted somebody there earlier, that they have any accomplices in the United States.

So, from the sounds of things, they’re a couple of what they call in the counterterrorism trade lone wolves who dreamt this all up on their own, who probably radicalized themselves perhaps over the Internet, who may have even gotten the designs of their bombs over the Internet.

And such people, because they don’t do the kinds of things that would attract the attention of intelligence agencies, they’re very hard to spot in advance.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bruce Hoffman, what do you think should they be looking at now? What do you think is the interesting part here?

BRUCE HOFFMAN, Georgetown University: First and foremost, I think the authorities are going to be combing through the computers that they seized to find out precisely if they were in contact with anyone either in the United States or overseas, if they were downloading, for instance, the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, who’s the deceased lead — one of the deceased leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who has had a role in the radicalization of many Westerners, and also looking for any foreign travel.

JEFFREY BROWN: With great caution here, because there’s so much we don’t know, but the two brothers are ethnic Chechens.

Now, that’s an area, Bruce Hoffman, that has been rife with a lot of turmoil, but we don’t have any particular evidence that links them to that, right?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: No, not necessarily, we don’t.

There’s been, I think, two interesting data points, and that’s all they are, perhaps coincidental, perhaps not. But over the past eight months, there’s been arrests in late February in France of three Chechens who were charged with plotting terrorist attacks in Spain, and then last August, a Dagestani, a Chechen and a Turk similarly plotting attacks in Spain against both British and American targets.

There may be a link. It may be coincidence, but it could be that. Movements are turning more to non-Arab Muslims to carry — to recruit and carry out terrorist operations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Schmidt, have you heard anything that connects anything on the Chechen angle? Is that something that’s being actively pursued at all?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yes, it’s something that they have been actively pursuing and it’s something they are very focused on. They’re very focused on whether there’s a nexus abroad, whether it’s coming from there or elsewhere, whether there were militants in Pakistan or elsewhere in the Middle East that may have helped spur these individuals to do what they did.

But at this point, I — similarly to how they’re having trouble finding the suspect, I think they’re also having trouble figuring out what sort of caused them do this. But at the same time, we have to realize that this incident happened on Monday, and we are just a few days after it. And it may be weeks if not months until we find out exactly what led them to do this.

So I think there’s a bit of patience that we all have to have, as much as we all are anxiously trying to get to the bottom of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Hosenball, what would you add to that, about specifically where they’re looking at?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, again, as they say, they’re looking at all these places.

One of the other things that they’re actually looking at as well is whether the U.S. government — what the U.S. government knew about these guys, if anything, before this event happened. In the past, for example, the case of the guy who tried to attack the American-bound jet on Christmas Day in 2009 with the bomb in his underwear, it turned out that that guy’s father a month earlier had been to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, and warned them that his son was hanging around with very bad people.

The U.S. Embassy sent a cable to the State Department. The CIA guys there sent a cable to the CIA, saying, this is a very weird story about this guy, but nobody seems to have paid much attention to it. So, even though they had some evidence that perhaps could have kept that guy, the — Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, off a plane, they never put it into operation. They never used it.

Now they’re going back here with these guys to see what they might have known or not known about these guys. Again, it’s not clear what they did or they didn’t know. They clearly had immigration files on them because they came into the United States. But did they have other information that they — that were clues that were overlooked? That’s one of the things we’re looking at. We don’t know what they got, if anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bruce Hoffman, how — who were they talking to? How does one pursue all these leads and what kind of resources does the American government have to marshal to pursue them?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, again, certainly, any communications on the computer is going to be enormously important, and then in the attempt of Tamerlan, who is believed to have had traveled abroad, where he may have gone and who he may have met with.

But I think it’s all going to boil down to the question of, where and how were these two individuals radicalized and were there any connections with anyone else? Thus far today, we haven’t heard very much of the third suspect who was taken into custody this morning. That may be an enormous link to this as well.


BRUCE HOFFMAN: Or not, or not, precisely.


The lone wolf type that I think we heard referred to earlier, that clearly has to be — that’s part of the pursuit as well to see how they — who they are and how they might have gotten radicalized.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Yes, absolutely.

At least the pattern of this type of terrorism in the past few years has gone one way or the other. Either it has turned out to be general lone wolves, autodidacts, for instance, in bomb-making and weaponry, self-radicalized.

But at the same time, all of this sounds remarkably like the situation and the scenario after the July 7th, 2005, bombings. Their relatives spoke of the bombers the exact same way we have heard earlier. The reporters described their process of radicalization as being something that was much more isolated than it turned out to be.

So, I think, as Mike Schmidt cautioned, it really is just too soon to know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce Hoffman, Mark Hosenball and Michael Schmidt, thank you all very much.