Shadow Government

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Too soon for firm conclusions, not too soon for firm concerns

As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.

The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade's worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.

The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President's formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.  

As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.

The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade’s worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.

The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President’s formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.  

The president may have been skittish about calling it an act of terror in part because of uncertainties about who was responsible and perhaps also because of the unfortunate timing of the attack, which coincided with a rise in speculation, some of it fueled by still more SAO’s, about a belief that AQ has been strategically defeated. Ironically, I learned about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks while I was reading a spirited debate among academic security specialists over the putative "end of AQ."  

Of course, if the Boston Marathon attack does turn out to be the work of domestic anti-government terrorists, then the coincidence with the debate about AQ will seem prophetic. If, on the other hand, yesterday’s attack gets traced back to an AQ-inspired or AQ-linked source, then the debate takes on a somewhat different cast.

Regardless of source, the attack fit the profile of a certain kind of threat that those of us in the business have worried about for over a decade. From the beginning of the global war on terror, it was recognized that some attacks held the potential for greater political impact than others.  

  • First and foremost, we recognized that a mass casualty attack using weapons of mass destruction — especially one that threatened (let alone resulted in) casualties an order of magnitude greater than the 9/11 attacks — could be as much a game-changer all over again as the 9/11 attacks themselves were. That is why both the Bush and Obama administration have identified the WMD-terror nexus as the gravest near-term threat the country faces.
  • Second, we recognized that a terrorist attack that resembled in key features the 9/11 attacks could have outsized psychological effect in the sense of "how were they able to do this to us again?" Accordingly, both the Bush and Obama administration have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect against the threat to air traffic. Many critics, Republican and Democrat, claim that both administrations over-reacted in this regard, but from the White House perspective the precautions have been necessary and wise. This is also why the Obama administration was especially spooked by the so-called underwear bomber of Christmas Day 2009 — not only was it one of the earliest close-calls the President faced, it also was one that bore some marked similarities to the 9/11 attacks.
  • But third, we recognized that a terrorist attack on a very different scale — backpack bombs at soft-targets, especially if conducted in a series across the country — could pose a thorny challenge that would be exceptionally difficult to deal with from a political/psychological point of view. Especially if the perpetrators were willing to be suicide attackers (which, so far as is known at this point, may not have been the case in Boston), it would be near-impossible to prevent. How would the American public respond to a series of such attacks, especially if they were coupled with threats — credible or not-so-credible — by groups claiming to have follow-on attacks in the works? Will the public accept this as the price of civilization in these trying times or would they demand levels of security that the government might not be able to provide?

In the coming days and weeks, we may play out this third scenario and, in so doing, learn a lot more about the threats we face and about the strength of our society.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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