Originally Published 2013-04-25 00:00:00 Published on Apr 25, 2013
Given the US's counter-terrorism experience and security threat, it is in its interest to come out of its earlier bureaucratic deadlock and view the threat of terrorism more objectively and work to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation with countries such as India.
Boston bombings: The challenges ahead for the US counter-terrorism policy
For almost 12 years, there has not been a single terrorist attack in the US homeland after the 9/11 terror attacks. The US counter-terrorism measures were able to protect its homeland from terrorist attacks and made it almost invincible. It became a catchphrase and was considered as exemplary by many nations dealing with the problem of terrorism. But the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013, in which 3 persons were killed and more than 150 injured, has once again brought the horror of terrorism in US homeland and questioned this invincibility. While raising questions starting from its origin, nature and motives, the Boston terrorist attack also poses new challenges for the US counter-terrorism measures and approach.

The Boston Marathon bombings was carried out with the help of a bomb put in a pressure cooker and another in a metal container. The pressure cooker bomb, at the initial stage of investigation, indicated towards the terrorists groups operating in the subcontinent. But after the Friday evening manhunt in which two ethnic Chechen brothers, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wanted in the Boston Marathon bombings taken into custody and his accomplice and 26 year old brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead, has put an end to all to speculations about the perpetrators of the bombing. No international terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Boston Bombings leads to two major explanations: an act of international terrorist network or concerted indoctrination of Jihadi fundamentalism among disoriented Muslim youth, which may result into similar type of attacks in the US in future. The second explanation seems to have more ground, as these two Chechen brothers have been living in the US for almost a decade. Their father said his children moved to the US to escape persecution in Kyrgyzstan and claimed he is "confident" that his children are innocent. But the fact that these two Chechen brothers carried out such an attack indicates a trend towards growing Islamic indoctrination in the US too. This is simply an elongated battle.

In ascertaining the origin of perpetrators of the terror attack, the agencies dealing with counter-terrorism have shown unprejudiced, cautious and flexible approach. From President Obama to the security agencies, all have refrained and shown cautious approach in using the word 'terror' or 'terrorism'. This is unlike the post 9/11 response. The 9/11 attack and the Boston bombings are not comparable because of their magnitude, impact and the international response. But Boston bombings cannot be delinked from the post 9/11 response and the US led War on Terrorism.

Prior to 9/11, Washington viewed terrorism mainly as a threat to US interests abroad. This is not to deny the existence of domestic terrorist threats in America, but they were limited. Accordingly for the US, the main objective was to prevent any future terrorist attacks on its homeland and/or US interests in other parts of the world. After the 9/11 attack, tackling terrorism acquired a prominent place in the US national security agenda. The American strategist viewed it not just a domestic terrorist act but an act of external aggression. The US responded with military aggression on Afghanistan to liberate it from Taliban and dismantle Al-Qaeda network. The US's "Operation Enduring Freedom" also received international support. Later on, the US counter-terrorism policy was clubbed with the "Axis of Evils" in 2002 and suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, leading to 2003 "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (OIF) in March 2003. However, this invited international criticism.

The US preventive or pre-emptive military operations as counterterrorism approach deviated from the initial response to 9/11. Till recently, the US counter-terror strategists were focussed on the West Asia and ignored terrorist organisations operating in Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The fact that Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by US counter-terrorism forces in Abbottabad close to Pakistani military training base further questions the Pakistani commitment and seriousness in the fight against terrorism. As long as this deliberate opaqueness on the part of the US continues, it will be difficult to completely root out terrorism both from the region and from the world at large.

At the domestic level, the US has a sound legal framework to deal with terrorism with effective anti-terrorism laws and additional administrative and intelligence provisions. The US Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 made terrorism a federal offence, expanded the responsibility of the FBI in solving such crimes and imposed death penalty for terrorism. Other laws include the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) and the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001, and the modernisation and upgradation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) in 2008 further strengthened the counter-terrorism measures to deter and punish terrorist acts in the US. The USA PATRIOT Act provides far-reaching authority to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies. These acts widened the definition of terrorism and established that it may have religious or ideological as well as political motivation and would cover actions which might not be violent in themselves but which can, in a modern society, have a devastating impact.

The US counter-terrorism policy focussed on enhancing its intelligence and security agencies. Washington followed a combined, manifold and cohesive approach clenched by a counter-terrorism design in which the National Counter-terrorism Center (NCTC) sits on the top. These measures have institutionalised the counter-terrorism and homeland defence missions. After 9/11, the US government has been consistent in its counter-terrorism approach and has taken adequate legal, police and intelligence measures to avert any further attack on US homeland. The US realised that the counter-terrorist establishment had to be equipped and reoriented to handle the new task. The US government, therefore, strengthened its intelligence networks, spent huge sums of money to equip them, hired experts and strengthened coordination between the various agencies. These measures were successful and made US invincible for almost 12 years.

The US remains the top target of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Through its War on Terrorism, the US has achieved substantial success and Al- Qaeda's top ranks and files have been destroyed and their cadres have been demoralised. At the domestic level, they were able to prevent any terrorists attack in the US homeland. But last year's violent protests against America in West Asia and some of the Muslim dominated countries in the wake of the crude film 'Innocence of Islam' continues to pose challenge for the US abroad. And now the Boston bombings bring new challenge in the US homeland itself.

The challenges ahead for the US will be to enhance the preventive measures by intelligence sharing, beefing up its security measures and enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation with other like-minded democratic countries and continue with its democracy promotion and democratic institution building efforts in the West Asia and the war torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Given its counter-terrorism experience and security threat, it is in the interest of the US to come out of its earlier bureaucratic deadlock and view the threat of terrorism more objectively and work to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation with countries such as India, which have been facing such attacks for almost two decades. After the Boston bombings, the invincibility of the US in thwarting terrorist attacks on its soil in the post 9/11 world has been challenged. The US counter-terrorism mechanism and agencies will need better coordination to thwart further attacks by terrorists who continue to pose challenges to free and democratic world at the national, regional and global level.

(Dr. Ashok Sharma is a lecturer at the Political Studies Department, the University of Auckland, New Zealand)

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