McCaul Op-Ed: Inviting more Boston-type massacres; Downplaying outside links emboldens terrorists to strike again

May 22, 2013 Issues: Counterterrorism

The tragedy in Boston was a wake-up call for Americans. In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, many have moved on from the fear of another imminent terrorist attack. However, the blasts at the Boston Marathon were reminiscent of that day more than a decade ago. With extreme tragedy and heroism on Boylston Street came questions of how far we have come, and what the nature of our enemy is today.

There is a common misperception that we have won the war against radical Islamist extremism — most aggressively waged by al Qaeda and its affiliates. While our armed forces have made great progress in decimating some of their strongholds, the administration appears to be downplaying the fact that the jihadist movement has since scattered and taken root in safe havens around the world in places like North Africa and Eastern Europe. While we have brought many of al Qaeda's leaders to justice, their ideology's reach has not diminished.

This reach was shown a month ago when two seemingly typical residents of this country coolly made their way through a crowd of men, women and children, and detonated two improvised explosive devices.

These bombs were like those used against our troops in Afghanistan, and were improved versions of those in al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, the online propaganda playbook for aspiring al Qaeda operatives.

In addition to their weapons, demeanor, dress and intent was something else we have seen before. The now-haunting images of their movement through the crowd mirrored the discreet and coordinated methods of those behind the 2005 London bombings. The calculated, mass-casualty intent was also reminiscent of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit.

What happened in Boston illustrates the evolution of the jihadist strategy promoted by al Qaeda. Because of stepped-up security when individuals try to enter the United States, the most appealing surrogates of this mission are radicals already within our borders.

To understand their radicalization, it is crucial to analyze the connections and motives of the Boston bombing suspects, beginning with where they came from.

Chechnya is not often associated with the global jihad. It has been embroiled in conflict with Russia for centuries, and in recent decades, oppression in the region has caused many rebels to forge a bond with the al Qaeda jihadist movement.

Until now, this relationship, reaching back many years, has been eclipsed by the more well-known war between the Russian government and Chechen separatists. This volatile region is precisely where Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited before the bombings.

He traveled to Dagestan in the Chechen region and remained for six months, a little more than a year ago. His exact activities there are still unknown, but intelligence linking him and his mother to radical groups paints a clear picture of what may have transpired during his time overseas.

Judging from his reported meetings with local militants, it is likely that he received training, funding or other help in carrying out his plot. Whether his actions were directed by senior leadership of al Qaeda's franchises, or were part of its self-radicalizing grass-roots movement, the result is equally deadly.

Upon Tsarnaev's return, he posted radical jihad propaganda on his YouTube page, including videos proclaiming the caliphate — the ultimate aim of Osama bin Laden. After his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured, he admitted under questioning that he was motivated by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and his inspiration for carrying out the attacks came from U.S. involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Yet, officials said that there is no link between the Tsarnaev brothers and any outside group — a claim reportedly made before FBI investigators even touched the ground in Russia. The administration immediately walked back Secretary of State John F. Kerry's comments on how Tsarnaev traveled to Russia and came back with a willingness to kill.

This confidence in there being no outside connection is both premature and misleading, since the jihad movement is a network of ideas — an ideology that preys on the angry and the hopeless, and seeks to destroy any alternate way of life.

A dangerous pattern is developing. The implications of the now-decentralized al Qaeda movement are being downplayed. Whether this is happening purposefully — as in the labeling of the Fort Hood massacre purportedly by al-Awlaki follower Nidal Malik Hasan as "workplace violence" — or misleading the American people about the motives behind the attacks in Benghazi, there are real-world implications for denying this evil at work.

You cannot confront an enemy that you refuse to acknowledge. Retreating from the war against radical Islamist extremism is costly in that it inevitably emboldens our enemies. When pressed at a congressional committee hearing to answer who was behind the attack at Benghazi, Libya, after reports of al Qaeda being linked to the Libyan militia, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton angrily exclaimed, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"

In light of Fort Hood, Times Square, Detroit, Benghazi and now Boston, it makes all the difference in the world.

Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, is the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.