Trevor Aaronson was running errands when he heard about yesterday's bombings at the Boston Marathon. The news coming across the radio caught his attention, maybe more than the rest of us, and he soon found himself forgetting about his dry cleaning and going to Twitter for clues.
Aaronson has become an expert in terrorism in the past few years, so attacks like these get his attention. Aaronson is the author of the critically acclaimed book The Terror Factory. He's also co-founder and associate director of the Miami-based Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. We asked him for his thoughts on the bombings.
WLRN: When you first saw footage from the bombings in Boston, what did you think? Based on your experience with the subject, what was the first thing that occurred to you?
AARONSON: It’s Tax Day. It’s Patriots Day. It’s the Boston Marathon. This is a right-wing domestic terrorist. That was my initial thought. The investigation may prove my first thought wrong, but this attack didn’t strike me immediately as something from Al Qaeda, its affiliates, or some lone wolf with Al Qaeda sympathies.
It isn't clear yet who is responsible for the bombings, but does it fit in with a typical terrorism attack?
A coordinated, timed bombing like this involving shrapnel -- which is intended to inflict the greatest possible harm to people -- at a highly publicized event like the Boston Marathon certainly meets the definition of an act of terrorism. The unclear part is who did it and why -- what was the political motivation?
How has the media handled the aftermath? Have news outlets handled the possible terrorism angle appropriately?
I think the news media have reported this story well, given the challenges of covering a fast-moving story involving so many law enforcement agencies. But there has been one area of concern. CBS News’ and the New York Post’s reporting of an injured Saudi Arabian national “acting suspiciously” and being questioned by law enforcement in the hospital struck me as thinly sourced and irresponsible. The Atlantic wrote this morning: “The New York Post is either the most well-sourced newspaper in the country, the luckiest paper in the country, or an awful rag stirring up hate for Muslims.” I thought that summed up the concern pretty well.
Considering your research on the FBI's manufactured information on other attacks, is there any concern on your part of the agency handling the investigation in Boston?
In Boston, the FBI is doing now what it does very well -- investigating a crime after it occurs. In The Terror Factory, I question the FBI’s use of terrorism sting operations to catch would-be terrorists before they strike – a preemptive law enforcement tactic.
In its aggressive and expensive stings, the FBI finds someone who, for whatever reason, says he wants to launch a terrorist attack but has no means whatsoever and the FBI provides everything -- the transportation, the bomb, money, sometimes even the idea for the plot. These sting operations focus primarily on Muslim communities and draw out people on the fringes of those communities -- the economically desperate and mentally ill who, evidence shows, have little capacity for significant violence on their own.
As I argue in my book, the FBI’s sting operations are finding dupes rather than truly dangerous people. For example, Faishal Shahzad delivered a car bomb to Times Square in 2010 and the FBI didn’t know a thing about him until that very day. Fortunately, Shahzad’s bomb didn’t go off. But his case and others have shown that the FBI hasn’t been very successful in finding dangerous and capable terrorists before they strike.
To me, the big-picture questions from Boston are: Given the tremendous resources spent on counter-terrorism -- the FBI receives $3 billion annually for counter-terrorism -- is federal law enforcement looking in the right places? If this was an Islamic terrorist, why wasn’t he identified through informants and sting operations? If this was a right-wing domestic terrorist, is it now time for the FBI to focus more on right-wing threats and less on U.S. Muslim communities?
What do you think this attack and the aftermath since says about the times we live in?
That life in an age of terrorism and easy access to weapons comes with risk, and even the most aggressive attempts by law enforcement to preempt terrorism and violent crime will not mitigate that risk fully. The unfortunate truth is that, while terrorist attacks are rare in the United States, we all risk being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a terrorist or lone gunman chooses to strike. In a sense, we all risk one day being on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and because law enforcement can’t eliminate that risk entirely, we have to accept it as part of American life.