The debate occurring under the surface of the Boston coverage is summed up by the question: were the Tsarnaev brothers lucky or good? The obvious answer is “Yes.” Any time you can pull off a hostile operation in enemy territory, luck plays a role. Ask Anna Chapman, the Russian mole whose 11-member sleeper-cell had been activated for six months before being rolled up by the FBI. But from what we are learning of Dzhokhar’s communication with authorities, they were also taking the advice of al Qaeda, as published in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP’s) online English-language magazine Inspire.
The problem (for both sides) is one of scale. The FBI has been spectacularly successful in penetrating and foiling big plots – splashy, high-profile attempts like October 17 2012, when Bangladeshi national Quazi Nafis was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation after he attempted to detonate a vehicle borne improvised explosive device outside New York’s Federal Reserve Bank, among many others. The problem with these has been that the plan is larger than the expertise contained within the cell planning the attack. When they reach out for funds, expertise or materials, the FBI intercepts the query and offers undercover help. This is the scale problem for the perpetrators.
In reacting to the increased difficulty in sending professional terrorists into the United States, al Qaeda countered by sending in suicide attackers to take out the plane in-flight. Their first attempt – the now famous December 25 2009 crotch-bomber – failed through poor tradecraft (the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, perspired into the PETN explosives in his underwear, severely degrading the charge) and heroic passengers (who subdued Mr Abdulmutallab until landing). That was followed on October 29 2010 by the UPS printer cartridge bombs intercepted in the UAE and England after a frantic search initiated by Saudi intelligence. These were ingenious devices, build by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bombmaker, each containing 300 to 400 grams of C4 and a detonating mechanism.
It was after these failures that al Qaeda decided to shift tactics. To change scale. Actually, the first mention of going smaller was in 2009 in their Arabic-language magazine Sada al-Malahim. The al Qaeda core organization embraced this approach in May 2010 in an English-language video featuring Adam Gadahn, the Oregon-born senior al Qaeda operator, who serves as cultural advisor, media expert and English-language spokesman. But the change of heart fully kicked-in with the November 2010 issue of Inspire, when a letter from the editor, the late Samir Khan, in his “death by a thousand cuts” missive, advised “…to bring down America we do not need to strike big. In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve fewer players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America has worked so hard to erect. This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller, but more frequent operations is what some may refer to the strategy of a thousand cuts. The aim is to bleed the enemy to death.” This was the official beginning of al Qaeda’s Lone Wolf tactic, encouraging domestic followers to “use what is at hand – a knife, a gun, things in your mother’s kitchen” and to strike at small soft targets in greater numbers that it takes to mount a larger strike.
Timothy McVeigh et al and Major Nidal Hasan are held up as prime examples of this “small ball” approach. While the Oklahoma City bombing wasn’t related to al Qaeda-esque militant Islam, it serves as an example of the difficulty to intercept a dedicated lone wolf, the Fort Hood shooting was related, and is illustrative of the dangers of allowing political correctness to taint tradecraft on the part of the authorities. The brothers Tsarnaev serve as a further example of the efficacy of lone wolf attacks.
Major Hasan was bristling with so many pre-attack red flags that luck played the largest role in his ability to carry out his horrific spasm. His business card carried the notation SoA(SWT), known to mean “Soldier of Allah” (Subhanahu aw ta’ala), the latter translating to “Glory to God.” He had put out a PowerPoint presentation while serving at Walter Reed entitled The Qur’anic Worldview as it Relates to Muslims in the US Military, which emphasized allegiance to Allah above all other allegiances. He exchanged eMails with the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born master propagandist for al Qaeda, operating out of northern Yemen. He so worried and disturbed co-workers that he was promoted and transferred by commander after commander to “give the problem to someone else.” Major Hasan was a walking caricature of a homegrown terrorist. Nobody dared mention “radical Islam” as a danger dwelling within Major Hasan because it just wasn’t talked about in polite circles within government. The “Allahu akbar” shooting itself was hilariously branded as “workplace violence” by the Obama administration.
Now to Boston. Pressure cooker bombs aren’t new, they’re just new here. They’ve been used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to much more effect – military-grade explosives are pandemic in war zones – as the Tsamaev brothers had to make do with fireworks charges and black powder. These devices are widely discussed on Islamist websites and how-to articles have appeared in Inspire, which Dzhokhar has freely admitted to the FBI that he and his brother regularly read. Al Qaeda encourages familial cells – parent-children, siblings, cousins etc – for security reasons. Almost automatic loyalty helps strengthen operational security among cell members running up to the attack, particularly among amateurs or first-timers.
Where Fort Hood sounds an alarm about the lack of scrutiny to warning signs, Boston demonstrates the scale problem of “a thousand cuts” for the authorities. Small, isolated, self-contained plots are hellishly difficult to detect, almost requiring friends and neighbors to provide any pre-attack intelligence for any hope of interception. And while the Tsamaevs are ethnic Chechens, tracing their roots back to that troubled region of southern Russia known to export violence, it is far more likely that the older brother was radicalized by militant Islamism and brought his younger brother along for the ride.
But the message is clear. We may be in for a spate of attacks that are much harder to preemptively stop, even if the post-attack tracking of the perpetrators is as efficient as it was in Boston. They also demonstrate an axiom of al Qaeda that is alien to the Western mind – they don’t mind in the least throwing away the shooter in the attack. As Abu al-Zarqawi famously said, “You value life, we live for death.” It may also be of interest that there are numerous tutorials on the construction of suicide vests online.
 C5H8N4O12 or [3-Nitrooxy-2,2-bis(nitrooxymethyl)propyl] nitrate, commonly called Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, and abbreviated as PETN.
 Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier were also convicted as conspirators in the Oklahoma City bombing.
 The Fort Hood [Texas] shooter.
 Leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) up to his June 7 2006 killing via American air strike.