Boston blasts won't be the last

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 27, 2013

LIKE many Singaporeans, I woke up on April 16 and was glued to television channels reporting the breaking news of two bomb blasts 13 seconds apart on April 15 near the finishing line of the Boston Marathon.

With three people killed and more than 200 injured, many with limbs blown off and injured by ball bearings and nails placed in pressure cooker improvised explosive devices, my immediate reaction was that it was an act of terrorism at an iconic event where maximum damage could be inflicted. But there was uncertainty about who did it, why and whether there was a foreign hand.

The FBI released video images and photos of two persons walking with backpacks on April 15 following strong public responses to requests for such images and CCTV footage.

The suspected bombers were Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who had migrated to the United States as refugees. The coordinated police manhunt led to a shootout killing Tamerlan and the subsequent arrest of the injured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

With today's instant satellite TV coverage, we in Singapore were as well informed as Americans watching the 24-hour saturation reporting of the dramatic chase and lockdown of Boston.

However, for those of us with an interest in terrorism issues, the bombings raised larger questions.

Were there aspects in the radicalisation of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar which were similar to trends among jihadist extremists in Singapore and South-east Asia? Could the methods they used be replicated elsewhere? Was the response of the Boston authorities commensurate with the threat posed by the brothers?

The Chechen link

WHILE the brothers did not come from a religious Chechen family, Tamerlan Tsarnaev appeared to have become increasingly religious and extremist in his political views. He followed the conflict in Chechnya closely and believed in conspiracy theories of efforts around the globe to suppress Muslims, including the belief that the 9/11 attacks were concocted by the American authorities.

Preliminary investigations indicate that in the absence of their parents who had returned to Russia, Tamerlan exercised considerable influence over his younger brother.

Although the Russian authorities drew the FBI's attention to Tamerlan's growing radical views, there was a lack of FBI follow-up after interviewing Tamerlan, screening his Internet usage and concluding that he was not engaged in terrorist activity. However, had similar information been provided by security services with closer ties to the FBI, it is likely continued surveillance of Tamerlan's activities would have occurred.

Although most reports highlight Tamerlan's self-radicalisation as he scoured the Internet in a "lone wolf" operation, greater attention should be paid to his visits to a mosque in his home town of Dagestan in 2011 and during the six months he spent there last year. The city has seen some of the worst violence in the ongoing conflict in the Caucasus region.

Self-radicalised extremists generally reach out to mentors available on the Internet or try to connect with groups operating in conflict zones.

Tamerlan's visits to Dagestan need further probing, especially as the Russian security services had noted he had become more radicalised since 2011.

While Tamerlan's website focused on theological issues, he accessed jihadi websites which equated Russia's role in Chechnya with the United States' in Afghanistan.

His brother's admission to his interrogators that they were motivated to carry out the bombings because of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that they saw these wars as similar to the Russian war against Muslim separatists in the Caucasus.

Lessons for Singapore?

LIKE the Tsarnaev brothers, self-radicalised Singaporeans and counterparts in South-east Asia have accessed online materials including videos of attacks, theological debates and operational tradecraft manuals.

In his written responses to FBI interrogators, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev claimed that they assembled the pressure cooker bombs and improvised grenades by following detailed instructions in English language Al-Qaeda online publication Inspire, which is also published in Indonesian, Bengali and other languages. Its first issue featured Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom by "The AQ Chef", with simple instructions on how to make pressure cooker bombs. Dynamic English-speaking preachers like Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni US citizen killed in a drone attack in 2011, and Sheikh Feiz Muhammad, who was born in Australia, have a following among young English-educated aspiring jihadi militants.

In Singapore, earlier cases of self-radicalisation such as Muhammad Zamri Abdullah and Maksham Mohd Shah in 2008 were influenced by online materials as well as books and CDs primarily in Indonesian and Arabic. English language materials have played an increasingly significant role, and in 2010, an unaccredited religious teacher Muhammad Anwar Jailani was arrested for distributing CDs containing extremist lectures, including al-Awlaki's sermons. His student, Muhammad Thahir Shaik Dawood, travelled to Yemen to enrol in an educational institution run by an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Tertiary-educated Singaporeans are not immune to such appeal. Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, a polytechnic student, surfed the Internet for jihadi materials, tried to contact al-Awlaki and accessed bomb-making manuals. More recently, a lawyer, Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, was rearrested and detained in October last year for planning to travel overseas to take up arms against foreign military in locations such as Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was arrested in 2007 when he was stopped by a foreign government from joining a militant group and deported to Singapore. After his release in 2010, he returned to surfing jihadi websites.

'Lone wolf' threats

EASY access to jihadi websites will result in the growing influence of online radicalisation, especially as the security agencies of South-east Asian countries now track the activities of radical preachers much more closely compared to before the 2002 Bali bombings.

While the "lone wolf" terrorist influenced by detailed online manuals will be seen more frequently, most self-radicalised jihadis are likely to seek opportunities to join militant groups and to influence their friends and companions.

Governments need to have the confidence of their citizens, who will have to report such activities if they are to prevent acts of terrorism. But this is a difficult challenge as the tendency of most people is to avoid reporting their friends and family members, hoping the fascination with online militancy will not result in bomb making and joining jihadi conflicts.

We must recognise that the terrorist attacks seen in recent years will not change governments nor lead to the imposition of a new caliphate. If an attack occurs, governments need to respond firmly and decisively. But they should not overreact.

In the Boston bombing's aftermath, the American government (as well as governments elsewhere) should evaluate whether lockdowns, curfews, restrictions over the airspace, closure of the airport, stoppage of mass rapid transit and the media's wild speculation undermine the people's sense of security in those cities facing similar terrorist attacks.

The writer is dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in Singapore and the region.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 27, 2013 

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