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By Rob Harris

Horrific scene of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)


With news that the April 15th terrorist assault on the Boston Marathon killed three, including an eight year old boy, and caused over one hundred and eighty to be injured (some critically), those touched by the tragedy and horror of this bloodthirsty indiscriminate attack on innocent civilians will of course be speculating a great deal on the source of the terrorism.

Definitive assertions would of course be unjustified at this stage but it is reasonably certain that the terrorist attack came from one of arguably three politically distinctive categories of terrorism.

An ethical conundrum!

Jeffrey Goldberg, a popular American journalist of genuine repute, wrote three hours after the Boston attack that it was improper for journalists to speculate on the source of the attack. Goldberg explained thus:

Shortly after the 2011 shootings in Norway, I asked publicly whether a Mumbai-type attack had visited Europe, the implication being that Muslim terrorists were behind the atrocity. It was perfectly plausible to suggest that Muslim terrorists were to blame — except that they weren’t. I learned my lesson.

Goldberg, like many others within the media, suggested prematurely that the 2011 Norway massacre by Anders Behring Breivik was likely an Islamic terrorist attack. The irony that an individual opposing Islamism actually committed the Norwegian slaughter generated a particularly smug form of the left-wing carping, and widespread use of the Islamophobia charge, despite the mainstream media’s traditional reluctance to refer to religion, particularly when it comes to Islamist terrorism.

One can easily envisage a scenario where idle speculation can incite violence against a specific religious group within a highly emotivised society after such a traumatic event. However, there is an opposing ethical credo within journalism, namely providing the truth. Speculation based on well-informed guesswork may not qualify as absolute truth on what occurred. However, it is still innately truthful, and an essential element within everyday journalism.

There is also a slightly patronising quality to the “no speculation” argument because it suggests an educated public does not have sufficient maturity to conduct itself with an appropriate sense of rectitude. Although it is wise at this stage to avoid making any firm judgement on the origins of the attack, speculation still has a place for a public that relies on the media for basic information on all manner of events. It can be done responsibly by stressing the provisional nature of such assertions, and especially by presenting the matter in a non-sensationalistic fashion.

The fact that the massacre has been welcomed by individual Muslims and various Islamic factions ought to be deemed a greater source of concern, if reprisals against the Islamic community are truly a possibility.

Domestic terrorism

Numerous journalists have speculated that American right-wing extremists are responsible because the assault occurred on Tax Day, tax being an issue politicised in American politics perhaps to a greater extent than that of most other nations, partly due to being a traditionally low-tax economy that focused on a philosophy of small governance. A more European scale of governance, funded by the taxpayer is seen as impacting on liberty on a number of levels.

The attack also coincides with Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the anniversary of the earliest battles for the American War of Independence, giving further credence to the right-wing extremists claim. However, prima facie, it seems that such a historic date would be more likely the cause of celebration for patriot groups, rather than a time to generate such widespread infamy in America.

On the other hand, some individuals or groups may of course see the date as a symbolic starting-point for further conflict with what they deem to be a State that has turned tyrannical, and in breach of the values espoused in the US Constitution. However, such groups tend to favour very symbolic targets, such as government institutions as well as certain organisations (e.g. abortion clinics) and related events that have a distinctive political character that they deem to be objectionable.

The prospect of an Islamist attack

There is some reason to tentatively suspect that the attack is originated from an Islamic source, be it a group, or an American citizen/convert:

A Middle East counter-terrorism official based in Jordan said the blasts “carry the hallmark of an organised terrorist group, like al-Qaeda”. He did not give actual evidence linking al-Qaeda to the bombing.

“From the little information available, one can say it was a well-coordinated, well-targeted and near-simultaneous attack,” he said.

The counter-terrorism official highlighted the fact that the massacre featured the dual-assault hallmarks of an Islamist attack. This strategy of maximising casualties has become near ubiquitous for such groups. However, it should be noted that this same technique has also been used by other terrorist groups in the past, including the IRA.

It has been reported that the authorities investigating the case may suspect al Qaeda or an affiliated group although evidence is lacking at this early stage, and the search for a specific motivation remains open. Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in command of the investigation, stated that fragments recovered from the bombsite suggest the bombs were a specific pressure cooker based design that was recommended in al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire because they are easy to construct, can make use of widely available materials, and avoid detection from sniffer dogs. Such bombs have been used in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It has also been noted that Abdallah Dhu-al-Bajadin, a senior al Qaeda weapons specialist, made threats against the US last month. This coincided with a rash of threats from other al Qaeda affiliated sources.

The Inspire connection also rears its head with an article attributed to Abu Musab al-Suri, a well known Syrian terrorist, which described sports events as being one of “the most important enemy targets” in the US.

Islamists have shown a tendency to target the city of New York since the 1993 World Trade Centre attack. It took on a symbolic dimension, being the most successful Islamic attack on non-ambassadorial US soil until 9/11. This fact would make Boston a less likely target for Islamists, although it could perhaps become more attractive from a terrorist perspective since the city clearly possessed a lower rank of security, and numerous plots to attack New York since 9/11 were prevented.

The prospect of state-sanctioned terrorism

It tends to be the case that terrorist groups rapidly claim responsibility after an attack takes place. The objective for any terrorist group is to maximise gain in terms of political capital, and to bolster a fearsome reputation. Making the claim soon after a horrified public response, to what is typically a most callous act of murder, will inevitably burn the identity of the terrorist group into the collective consciousness of a society. The fact that no group or individual has claimed responsibility is puzzling, and leaves open the possibility that the attack might involve a foreign nation.

Iran has not been mentioned to a significant extent in the media as a possible source for the assault. This is peculiar since it is a fact that their attacks on foreign soil, involving their elite Quds Force (part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), and closely allied Hizbullah, have greatly increased in the last number of years. Indeed an attack in 2011 on the Saudi Ambassador to the United States is likely to have had Iranian/Quds origins.

It is thought the United States has been involved in extensive efforts to prevent Iran developing nuclear weaponry. In parallel, it has introduced increasing rounds of sanctions against the Islamic State, which have been taking an ever-increasing toll on its economy since 2012.

One would speculate that such an attack would have a degree of sophistication but the terrorists having used relatively crude technology, suggesting that an inexperienced individual or individuals constructed the bombs, works against the theory. However, some security experts have speculated in the media that the use of inexperienced bomb makers could be intentional, with the aim of enhancing the possibility of escaping detection by Homeland Security.


Regardless of the source of this attack, the Boston Massacre is a tragic reminder of what terrorism truly constitutes.

Terrorism is the act of assaulting what are so often purely civilian events. In this instance it was a marathon in Boston, where competitors and bystanders were the sole target. It cannot even be said by apologists that this is an attack simply on Americans, over some sort of domestic or foreign policy, for the event attracts many international visitors. It is terrorism designed to maximise the carnage of innocents, be they men, women, children or infants.

The harm visited on the city will no doubt scar the victims, their families, and the greater community of Boston for years to come, giving rise to fear where there was once implicit trust. Yet it’s a community that has long possessed a strong individual identity, one that will surely survive the malign purpose of the instigators, whosoever they may be.

Update (19/4)

A dramatic sequence of events in the search for the Boston Marathon bombers has claimed the life of one police officer, and led to areas of Boston being placed in lockdown. The older of the suspects has been killed in a shootout with police. The younger second suspect continues to evade police despite a vast manhunt, which some speculate is due in part to the impact of social media.

The suspects were identified as brothers Tamerlan (26) and Dzhokhar (19) Tsarnaev, from Dagestan, a federal republic within the Russian Federation, which neighbours Chechnya. The brothers lived in the US for nearly a decade.

Dagestan is a principally Muslim region that has had substantive issues with Islamic insurgency and terrorism in recent decades, spilling over from chechnya, where there has been protracted conflict in an effort to gain independence. Whilst the conflict there has not threatened the US, regional Chechen fighters constitute part of the membership of certain groups fighting against the US presence in Afghanistan, with some believing Chechen rebels have links with al Qaeda.

The belief in an Islamist motive behind the attack has been strengthened, with an aunt of the brothers stating that Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a devout Muslim two years ago, while US government officials state that he travelled to Russia last year and returned to the US six months later. Similarly strong expressions of faith were made by the bothers on the Internet, with the suspects also expressing pride in their ethnic Chechen origins, and a desire to see independence from Russia.

Rob Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He blogs at eirael.blogspot.com. He lives in Ireland. For all the exclusive blog entries by Rob Harris, go here.

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Quotes and Sayings

About the Region, Islam and cultural totalitarianism...

    The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

    — John F. Kennedy, Commencement address, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; June 11, 1962

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