Terrorism: The Threat That Refuses To Go Away


BMI View: The Boston marathon bombing and the foiled plot against Canada's VIA Rail network demonstrate that North America will remain at risk of terrorism for the foreseeable future. The implications of these apparently unrelated incidents are three-fold: there will be increased security measures in the near term; more attention paid to the conflicts in Russia's North Caucasus; and further debate over immigration rules.

Terrorism is once again at the forefront of many North Americans' minds following the Boston marathon bombing of April 15, and reports on April 22 that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had foiled an attack on VIA Rail, Canada's national rail network. Although the two incidents do not appear to be connected, they nevertheless demonstrate that individuals of radical Islamist leaning s - whether of foreign or domestic origin - are still targeting the US and Canada for terrorist attacks.

Why Are The US And Canada Being Targeted ?

Although the US has withdrawn its troops from Iraq and is in the process of extricating itself from Afghanistan by 2015, the legacy of its policies in the greater Middle East lingers. Radical Islamists continue to hold grievances against the US due to its long-standing support for authoritarian Arab rulers and Israel; the substantial American military presence in the Persian Gulf and other parts of the Muslim world; the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and the ongoing US drone campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, which has caused substantial civilian casualties. There is also a perception that the US-led world order has led to the spread of American culture into the Muslim world, undermining 'traditional' values. Islamist attacks against the US generally have a two-fold purpose: 1) to punish Americans for the actions of their governments; and 2) to force the US government to adjust its policies.

At first glance, the fact that Canada was also targeted is somewhat puzzling. Canada, unlike the US, UK, and France, is not a traditional 'great power' with a history of military involvement in Muslim countries, and it generally has a better track record of integrating immigrants into its society than European countries . However, Canada does in fact have a fairly active foreign policy, currently deploying 950 troops in Afghanistan and having participated in NATO's war against Libya in 2011 . Beyond th ese considerations , attacks by radical Islamists in Canada would serve two purposes: 1) to punish a major US ally and thus seek to drive a wedge between the two countries; and 2) to make a psychological impact on the US due to their proximity and similarities.

The Chechen ' Connection ' To The Boston Bombing

A few days after the Boston bombing, it emerged that t he two suspects were brothers of Chechen origin, who had moved to the US a decade earlier. Although Chechens and other individuals from Russia's North Caucasus region have orchestrated many terrorist attacks against Russia since the 1990s, the Boston bombing appears to be the first time that Chechens have been directly linked to an attack or plot in the US.

The Chechen war for independence from the Russian Federation began as a nationalist struggle in the early 1990s, but because Chechens and many other ethnicities in the North Caucasus are Muslim, the movement gradually attracted the support of radical Islamists from the greater Middle East. Russia lost the first Chechen war (1994-1996), and after it withdrew from the republic, Chechnya became completely lawless. The second Chechen war began in 1999 after Chechnya was infiltrated by militants from neighbouring Dagestan, and a series of apartment bomb blasts in Moscow blamed on Chechen rebels prompted Russia to redeploy troops to the republic. As the Russian onslaught on Chechnya intensified and the Chechens became more desperate, many became radicalised. The presence of foreign Islamist fighters facilitated this process. Furthermore, after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the US, which was previously sympathetic to the Chechen cause, largely dropped its criticism of Russia's handling of the conflict, because the Bush administration needed the Kremlin's support in the 'war on terror'.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration was eventually able to subdue Chechnya, mainly by co-opting Chechen rebel fighters who had become disgruntled with the Islamisation of their struggle, and by rebuilding the shattered republic, the Kremlin never really managed to restore peace in the North Caucasus. In fact, other republics in the region such as Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria have succumbed to a low-level Islamist insurgency in recent years ( see our online service, September 29, 2009 'North Caucasus Insurgency: Major Risks And Implications' for a full background to the region). The ambitions of the region's militants have meanwhile grown. What began as a struggle for Chechen independence has now become a quest to build an Islamist state incorporating all the republics of the North Caucasus, under the rule of the 'Caucasus Emirate' group and its leader Doku Umarov, who remains at large. Nevertheless, the Caucasus Emirate on April 22 denied being behind the Boston attack, and instead blamed the Russian security services.

The Personal Motivations Of The Attackers

Based on reports in the international media, the alleged perpetrators of the Boston bombing, the Tsarnaev brothers, seem to match a well-established pattern (i.e., shared with previous young men who carried out or attempted to carry out terrorist attacks elsewhere in the Western world) of being immigrants who turned against their adoptive country through a combination of social alienation, and radicalisation as adults either by online propaganda or through visits to their parental homeland. The elder brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a police shoot-out, but we will probably get a clearer explanation of the Tsarnaevs' motivations once the surviving brother, Dzhokar, has been questioned.

US law enforcement agencies and their Russian counterparts will be particularly keen to determine whether the Tsarnaevs were acting alone or were part of a wider network. On the one hand, if the brothers acted alone, then the US could hardly afford to feel relieved, for such solo attacks are arguably harder to detect and pre-empt. On the other hand, if the brothers were part of a larger network, then this would demonstrate that terrorist groups are capable of establishing a foothold in the US and recruiting American citizens or residents to their cause.

At this stage, we know too little about the two individuals accused of plotting attacks on Canada's rail network, but initial reports say that one of them is from Tunisia, and that neither is a Canadian citizen. The RCMP linked the suspected terrorists to al-Qaeda elements in Iran while stopping short of accusing the Iranian state, but Tehran has vigorously denied any connection to the VIA Rail plot. Indeed, it would seem unlikely that Iran would want to attract greater foreign ire by attacking Canada, given that this would serve no purpose for the Islamic Republic, which is currently preparing for a potentially destabilising presidential election in mid-June.

Implications Of Latest Terror Incidents

There are three key implications of the latest terror incidents in North America:

Tighter security: The American and Canadian governments will make a concerted effort to tighten security. The Boston marathon was a major public event in a major US city, making it a high-value target. Meanwhile, Canada's VIA Rail forms a crucial part of its infrastructure. Overall, public events, airliners, underground and surface trains, and possibly boats and ferries will continue to be targeted by terrorists, due to the fact that a successful strike would result in mass casualties, and thus high media coverage and political impact. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has meanwhile come under criticism for potentially failing to detect the plot after interviewing the elder Tsarnaev brother Tamerlan in 2011. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the surviving Boston suspect was caught so quickly, and that the VIA Rail plot was foiled in its early stages.

North Caucasus to receive greater attention: The Tsarnaev brothers' ties with Chechnya and Dagestan will draw greater attention to the North Caucasus, whose insurgencies have largely been unreported by the mainstream media. For Russia, this will be an unwelcome development, for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates that the region's conflict is not over, and that it could affect other countries too. On the one hand the US could find greater common ground with Russia in combating the Islamist threat, but on the other hand Washington could criticise Moscow's repressive policies and human rights abuses in the region, thus straining bilateral ties. Any Russian perception of US interference in the North Caucasus region would be extremely unwelcome, as the Kremlin has long suspected the US of covertly supporting local militants and the anti-Putin opposition. Secondly, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games will be held in Sochi, which is in the North Caucasus, next February. Given that this will be Russia's most prestigious public event in many years and is a pet project of President Putin, it is virtually certain that Islamist militants will seek to disrupt it, most probably by targeting competitors, spectators, visitors, or venues.

Immigration policies under more scrutiny: The fact that the Tsarnaev brothers were immigrants will probably place the US's - and possibly Canada's - immigration policies under greater scrutiny. The US is keen to attract the 'best and the brightest' as well as low-cost labour from abroad, but the specifics of these policies may be more fiercely debated, if immigration is perceived to jeopardise the country's security.

Conclusion: The Terror Threat Will Linger For Many Years

Overall, we believe that the terror threat to the US and its allies will linger for many years to come. Although the Obama administration dropped the phrase 'war on terror' some years ago, the conflict is still very much alive, as evidenced by the NATO presence in Afghanistan, ongoing US drone strikes in South West Asia, counter-terrorism operations by governments such as Indonesia's, the war in Mali, and the rising power of radical Islamists in Syria, not to mention the fact that many terrorist attacks against Western countries (and non-Western states, for that matter) have been foiled since 9/11.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: North America, North America

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