Three people were killed in Boston on Monday and dozens injured in explosions. Those are the facts. Now the question: was it criminal or security-related? A terror attack or an ordinary crime?
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In a similar case (later solved) in Tel Aviv, in December 2003 − at the bloody height of a wave of terror − then Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki coined the hybrid phrase “criminal terror attack.” But the obvious public response to the sights − that it is terror − does not suit the American mind-set; certainly not the well-ordered logic of a man who studied law at Harvard, not far from the scene of Monday’s explosions − U.S. President Barack Obama. Information first, conclusions later.
However, in the first 24 hours after the explosion there was no information. There were also no warnings. The Department of Homeland Security, established after the attacks of September 11, 2001, had recently changed its method of warnings. It no longer uses the metaphor of the traffic light, changing according to the seriousness of a warning − deemed too confusing, especially as the years pass without attacks. Now there are only two types of warning: “elevated” and “imminent,” and these, too, are issued for limited periods. Monday there were no warnings, either new or old.
If there were no warnings, that means there was no intelligence. Here, too, there are two possibilities. Either preparations were carried out under the extensive network of federal, state and municipal radar, or there were no suspicious preparations.
Preparations mean obtaining equipment, collecting information ahead of the operation and chatter among operatives. A single individual, a “lone wolf” − who knows that stores selling explosives or nitrates that can be used as explosives must report strange orders to the authorities, likewise delivery services − will proceed with caution. If he has not shared his plot with anyone, it will be very difficult to intercept him before the act is committed.
Obama was frank yesterday in pointing out the contradiction between deeming the explosions an act of terror and the double mystery of “who” and “why.” If the identity and motives of the operatives are unknown, how can their actions be categorized? The solution to the conundrum is amazingly simple: the president will decide. If Obama says it’s terror, it’s terror. And he has a new definition of terror − any event with multiple explosive devices. That is the wording the White House used Monday, and Obama used similar wording yesterday.
That, of course, is a reasonable assumption based on the modus operandi of Al-Qaida and similar groups, although a determined and thorough individual can also hide explosive devices and time them to go off. Such an individual can also choose a commemoration date on the Al-Qaida calendar − the second anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. According to the general calendar, there are still two weeks to go before that anniversary, but according to the Muslim calendar, it was marked last week. And under those circumstances, a week’s-wait is possible for the tempting opportunity of a mass event such as the marathon.
After 9/11 (in which Boston’s Logan Airport played a key role in terms of lax security), the Bush Administration responded with clumsy organizational steps. The establishment of Homeland Security was one of these. The establishment of the interagency National Counterterrorism Center, which answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (a coordinating agency of the intelligence community); but the center does not deal with domestic terror.
And the Pentagon’s lexicon defines terrorism as “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” The motive for terror, the definition adds, is frequently religious, political or another ideological belief, and usually serves political goals. Military action against terrorism, according to this definition, is taken directly against terror networks, and indirectly to prevent global and regional environments from providing a welcoming attitude to terrorist networks.
What does all this have to do with Boston? Very little, but Obama was burned last year in Benghazi, Libya, when intelligence − and thereafter the entire Administration − first talked about “spontaneous demonstrations.” These had morphed into an attack on the CIA annex and the killing of the ambassador and three of his security guards, before the Administration was informed and conceded that it was terror.
This time, Obama prefers to take a risk in the direction of conservatism: the number of explosions defines the crime, even before we know who carried it out and what the motives were. The struggle against terror, administration spokesmen will certainly say − repeating the old adage − is not a sprint but a marathon.