To avoid capture, terrorists going small

Weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, the attention of intelligence agencies is still focused on answering two pertinent questions: What motivated the Tsarnaev brothers, and were they part of a larger group?

There are as many reasons for young people to join fundamentalist groups as there are terrorists: lack of economic opportunities, cultural clashes involving immigrants and, sometimes, pure hatred based on religious or political convictions. For example, there is evidence in the social media accounts of Tamarlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who was killed in a shootout with police, that he had found sanctuary in the jihadi movement after growing disillusioned with life in the United States.

Similar circumstances drove dozens of youths of Somali origin from the United States to the lawless land of their forefathers a couple of years ago to join forces with al Shabab, a Somali-based insurgency group that has since merged with al-Qaida. Many of those young men were born in this country and spoke little or no Somali at all, according to a colleague of mine who accompanied them from Nairobi, Kenya, to Kismayo, Somalia, in their fateful journey to the world of international terrorism.

As to whether the Tsarnaevs were part of a larger group, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, has told authorities that they were working alone. No doubt the authorities will be looking closely into that claim. But at face value, the claim that they were working alone tells how the face of the enemy and, even more importantly, his tactics have changed over the past decade since 9/11.

In trying to understand the evolution of the global jihadi movement, a book by two former U.S. counterterrorism officials, “The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right,” offers useful insights. Its authors, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who both served as directors for counterterrorism at the National Security Council at different times in the mid and late 1990s, argue that, as a survival tactic, the enemy has gone small rather than big over the years.

Al-Qaida, the prominent member in the constellation of jihadi groups, has been on a retreat. The concerted world efforts against it has severely restricted its operations, movements and cash flows. Its leadership has scattered and gone underground.

In place of the one large, monolithic terror organization that al-Qaida once aspired to be, we now have hundreds of small cells throughout the world. Some are not even directly associated with al-Qaida, but draw their inspiration from its violent ideology.

This has given rise to self-starter groups, such as the ones that have carried out similar attacks in Kenya over the past two years. The East African country has suffered more than 10 Boston-like attacks at the hands of small, shadowy groups loosely associated with al-Qaida. A similar, small group was responsible for the commuter train attacks in Madrid, Spain, in 2004.

Although investigations into the Boston bombings are yet to be completed, the evidence collected so far seems to suggest it was the work of a similar self-starter group. Such groups move terrorism in to a new sphere that will prove a challenge for intelligence services. These cells are hard to track down because they are made up of a few individuals or lone wolves. In addition, members of these cells do not necessarily have to travel to training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan for indoctrination purposes, which would make it easier for intelligence services to track them down.

Al-Qaida has been urging its followers to take up its cause wherever they are. On jihadi websites, spiritual leaders reinforce the faith of would-be-terrorists through lectures, and technicians offer them instructions on how to make simple explosive devices.

The fracturing of the global jihadi movement is a positive development in the fight against it. Deprived of its organizational ability, we might never see another attack on the scale of 9/11 from al-Qaida or its associates in the near future.

But as the United States fights the enemy yonder in the caves and mountains of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere, it might be wise to keep a keener eye on the activities of the small enemy at home.

Kipchumba Soma is a visiting journalist from Nairobi, Kenya. He will work out of the Review-Journal newsroom through Tuesday. He can be reached at

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