Manhunts in the digital age : what we can learn from the Boston bombings

L’attentat de Boston et la réponse des autorités américaines posent de nouveau des questions de principe à l’âge numérique, explique Teun van Dongen, pour Aspenia, le site de l’Institut Aspen Italie.

After the horrors of the attack on the city’s famed marathon, five days of tension and media frenzy, and a manhunt on a scale that would put the Spanish Inquisition to shame, peace and quiet have finally returned to Boston. The jubilant crowds that took to the streets after the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose older brother Tamerlan was killed several hours earlier in a shootout with the police, signaled the Bostonians’ eagerness to return to their normal lives. The examination of what has happened, however, has only just begun. Some elements of this story are very familiar, but others raise questions about what lies ahead.

The attacks

If there is one thing that the Boston bombings and the police operation against the two suspects make clear, it is that terrorism is still a very effective way to disrupt a society. Two men, armed with rudimentary weaponry, were able to put one of the world’s superpowers in a state of alert. The attack was also familiar in the sense that it confirmed a clear trend towards terrorist attacks that are modest in scale and limited in sophistication. As a result of government repression after 9/11, it is difficult for large terrorist networks to operate in the West. Over the last decade, terrorism has gradually become a matter of small groups carrying out simple attacks. From the terrorist point of view, this way of working has the advantage that their activities are less visible to intelligence services and police, but it also limits the resources and manpower that can be mobilized for an attack. This trade-off is clearly visible in the Boston bombings, which escaped the attention of police and intelligence services but pales in comparison to, for instance, the Madrid bombings. So far, very little is new.

The perpetrators

At the time of writing, there are still many questions about the Tsarnaev brothers and their motives. Nevertheless, it is clear that they do not stand out among the crowd responsible for the post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the Western world. Like many terrorists, they were young males who did not draw much attention in the community where they lived. In the case of the older brother, Tamerlan, it appears that he was struggling to find his place in Western society - something that is far from unique to terrorists. Another familiar aspect is peer pressure, reportedly one of the factors that drove the youngest brother, Dzhokhar, to the dastardly act. Close examination of terrorist plots has often shown that an unwillingness to be outdone by other cell members is an important motivating factor behind terrorist attacks. Here, too, the picture is familiar. It is true that the training the elder brother is believed to have undergone in Chechnya would constitute a deviation from the pattern in the background of terrorists in the West in recent years. As yet, however, there is no evidence that anything of the sort really occurred.

The government response

While the US is certainly no stranger to televised police chases, the scale of the operation and the level of force that the police was prepared for, were unprecedented for a counterterrorism operation on American soil. A sizeable part of the city was effectively shut down to make sure that the only thing moving was the suspect. No post-9/11 terrorist attack in the West was followed by an operation of the kind we witnessed in Boston. This begs the question of whether similar cases should be handled similarly.

The operation will probably attract criticism for being heavy-handed and disproportionate, but the FBI’s show of force can easily be defended on strategic grounds. It showed both the government’s ability to protect its citizens as well as a “zero tolerance” approach that serves as a warning to potential copycat attackers. At the same time, it is unfortunate that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not read his rights, and it is to be hoped that he will recover to face a trial. This would greatly help the government avoid the impression that it is engaged in a campaign to liquidate US citizens suspected of acts of terrorism. President Obama has rightly been criticized over the unlawful killing of Anwar Al Awlaki, the radical preacher whose inflammatory sermons inspired several jihadist terrorists in the West. Another cold-blooded liquidation, or even an impression of one, would not do much for the country’s record regarding democracy and human rights.

Wisdom of the crowd ?

Undoubtedly the most salient novelty of the Boston bombings is the role played by the general public, more specifically that part of the public that knows how to use social media. As soon as the news of the attack came out, social media users started an online movement to identify and locate the suspects. Unfortunately, this initiative soon took a wrong turn. Confirming Obama’s concerns about the crowdsourcing of the investigative process, messages on sites like Reddit singled people out as suspects solely because of faint resemblances to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In other words, they were suspected because of their foreign appearances. But while the search for the Tsarnaev brothers in no way stands as evidence of the “wisdom of the crowd” in such matters, it did show the potential of the gigantic amount of easily transferrable data that the general public generates on a daily basis. The fact is that, assuming a willingness on the part of the population to cooperate, the police have more eyes and ears on the street than ever before. From this, it follows that the possibilities for using and processing such data should be explored further. For non-political crimes and crisis situations as well, the technology as well as the human skills to use the public’s photos, footage and information could well open up the possibility of a drastic improvement of the situational awareness of the police and other first responders. As for the imprudence of the social media users, one can do little more than hope that the manhunt for Tsarnaev was a learning experience, and that the public is now more aware of the damage they can do.

Overall, the Boston bombings in many ways confirmed the patterns we have seen in terrorist attacks in previous years. The attack as well as the background of the perpetrators should not surprise us. As for the government response, it showed us again that force can be effective, but also that it can make a government vulnerable to accusations of abandoning the principle of due process. The main question that the whole episode raises pertains to the way both the government and the general public use information. There are risks as well as opportunities in the vast amount of digital data, and we need to learn more about both. As the digital age is maturing, it is becoming increasingly clear that a swift and fair judicial process is in all of our hands. We have to live up to that responsibility.