Faculty Post: The Boston Tragedy Reveals the Need for Community-Based Counterterrorism Strategies

This blog post was written by Northeastern University School of Law Professor Deborah Ramirez, who founded the Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Intitiative (PfP), and her colleague, Tara Lai Quinlan, for the Huffington Post.

As part of the Boston community, we share the sadness of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings. Thanks to excellent police work and public cooperation, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev were identified as the perpetrators and are reportedly unaffiliated with any larger terrorist network. But going forward, how can law enforcement increase its ability to identify would-be terrorists operating below the radar?

Experts point out that many terrorist groups like al Qaeda are increasingly decentralized, making them difficult to monitor and infiltrate. Experts also highlight the limited ability of the federal counterterrorism infrastructure to identify independent terrorist cells and lone wolf terrorists; the difficulty of identifying readers of extremist propaganda; and, most importantly, the challenges determining which individuals will turn to violent action. In this case, the FBI questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, possibly about his interest in extremist Internet propaganda or ties to Chechnya, but apparently lacked sufficient information to detain him further. With this in mind, how can law enforcement gain the intelligence necessarily to stop potential terrorists before they act?

Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, has one proposal: he has renewed calls for increased surveillance of all Muslim communities. King asserts that this is the same practice used against Irish and Italian gangsters involved in organized crime. But that is simply not the case. Monitoring individuals suspected of involvement in organized crime is readily distinguishable from surveilling millions of American Muslims absent any reasonable suspicion criminal wrongdoing.

Moreover, there is now significant consensus among most intelligence experts that profiling based on religious affiliation is ineffective because it is too widely shared a characteristic to be a shortcut for identifying those who might engage in violence. Furthermore, as civil liberties experts have long argued, profiling based on religion unnecessarily alienates communities that could potentially serve as important partners for law enforcement in countering terrorism.

Rather than support Congressman King’s approach, we believe the Boston tragedy offers lessons to improve our national security infrastructure but remain more consistent with our democratic values of justice, fairness, and human decency.

In this case, it is now emerging from friends and associates of the Tsarnaevs that, upon reflection, they sensed something might have been amiss before the attacks. For example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly twice disrupted services at a local mosque. And there may be an additional trail of unusual speech or behavior — refusing to see friends or family, posting violent messages on the Internet, contemplating death — that would have alerted family, friends or community members to something being out of place. But whom could they have alerted to these concerns? Could they have confidence that information shared with law enforcement would be discreetly and professionally handled? Could they be assured that police would not overreact, but would instead rationally determine if there were genuine issues requiring further investigation? For law enforcement to benefit from voluntary community intelligence they must create trust relationships allowing community members to articulate concerns that may or may not indicate an intention to engage in violence. This also means incorporating collaborative, long-term community-police partnerships into the national counterterrorism strategy.

But partnerships are not easy to build. Partnerships are not achieved through coercion, force, or infiltration. They require voluntary engagement with communities through mutual trust and cooperation. This means winning the hearts and minds of communities so they become real partners in counterterrorism efforts and work collaboratively to address problems of common concern.

Partnerships have already been piloted in domestic counterterrorism efforts, and have been used for years in cities like Dearborn, Los Angeles, and London. And beyond the counterterrorism context, partnerships have achieved success in reducing gang violence in cities like Boston and Glasgow, and drugs sales in places like High Point, North Carolina. It is by relying on common sense that the national security infrastructure can be expanded to address some of its current limitations.

It is true that not all terrorist acts in the United States can be avoided, and unfortunately more will succeed. But by incorporating voluntary, partnership-based community intelligence gathering practices into our national security infrastructure, we can improve our chances of preventing some attacks.

(Reprinted with permission from Professor Ramirez. You can find original post here.)