Sometime in the not-to0-distant future there will be meetings of the various law enforcement agencies involved in the hunt for the Boston terrorists. They will look at what worked and what didn’t, and what the terrorists did and how they might have been stopped earlier. And sometime later down the pike, there will be an after action report, a written product of these discussions that will enable the shared experiences to serve as a learning module for future counterterrorism operations.
Somewhere in the Islamic world, terrorists will be undergoing the same exercise, but for different reasons: to obstruct and defeat the kind of operation they saw in Boston. Terrorists of all varieties study and learn from operations precisely as do law enforcement agencies. Terrorists have been known to study not only methods and operations but also the key personalities likely to be involved in counterterrorism.
There are numerous examples of this, but the most memorable, at least from my personal experiences, comes from a conversation I had some years ago in Evian, France, with Dick Mulder, who at the time was the chief hostage negotiator for the Dutch government. A psychiatrist by training, Mulder had developed a series of procedures that resulted in a high rate of terrorist capitulation by immersing them in a ritualized psychodrama, not entirely unlike procedures developed in the U.S. by the NYPD. Like most hostage negotiators, Mulder’s goal was for everyone, including the terrorists, to walk out alive.
During the opening of one of these negotiations with South Moluccan terrorists, Mulder repeated his introductory line, “I am the negotiator for the Dutch government.” To his shock and dismay, the hostage taker on the other end of the field telephone came back with, “Oh, Dr. Mulder, you have been expected.” Mulder’s identity was practically a state secret, but the terrorists knew who he was. And that, of course, meant that they knew his methods.
This situation did not lead to the usual capitulation but to an assault by Dutch marines and a loss of life. By doing their homework, terrorists had neutralized Mulder’s methods, leaving military engagement as the government’s only option.
Terrorists are too often mistakenly seen as imitative, but terrorists are pragmatic, flexible, and highly innovative. Part of that innovation comes from studying the methods of our law enforcement the same way law enforcement examines its own operations and the methods terrorists use.
One of the most obvious components of the Boston operation was the way in which the police mobilized ordinary citizens as an extension of the eyes and ears of the police. The British used this technique in hunting IRA bombers and keeping mass events safe. “Adopt a Bobby,” British subjects were told at major events. And that is precisely what the British did; and by so doing, they extended the reach of the police.
But recently, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition and organizations at the City University of New York Law School warned American Muslims not to cooperate with law enforcement. This sentiment has been affirmed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has made an issue of police surveillance of radical mosques and Muslim neighborhoods, surveillance that is both legal and imperative in light of the attacks by radical Muslims against Americans since 9/11.
What if Dzhokar Tsarnaev had followed the tactic long used by both guerrilla fighters and terrorists and swam in the sea of the people, his people? What if he had hidden in a Muslim neighborhood or a college neighborhood inhabited by sympathetic leftists, the kind who find convicted bomber and Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin an intellectual asset worthy of holding a faculty position at Columbia? Would one of these terrorist sympathizers have picked up the phone to call police and tell them that the object of their manhunt was hiding in his boat? And who among the brothers’ family and roommates picked up the phone and identified them? That’s right, not one of them.