Two amateur insurgents with no apparent formal military training assembled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from common household items. Whether they had access to live networks of Al-Qaeda or Chechen bomb makers is likely irrelevant. Designs for explosive devices are within the reach of anyone with an Internet connection and knowledge of household chemistry. A trip to the local mall yields pressure cookers, circuit boards, nails, and other implements. Preventing the assembly of hardware is impossible. Deterring human actors is the more fruitful route.
These two amateurs generated a police response that shut down the economy of a major American city for more than a day. The city of Boston was under siege from an internal threat. A transportation network shutdown of more than three days would have seriously affected the city's ability to sustain itself, based on my hip-pocket guess of the days' of supply available at most major grocery stores.
The incident received national-level attention. The federal government's strategic decision cycle was tied directly to a tactical response for about five full days. This focus probably accelerated the final resolution but left the nation vulnerable to strategic surprises in other domains. The damage to the U.S. economy and infrastructure from the attack was nowhere near the level of the 9/11 attacks yet the national response was significant.
Aspiring terrorists will learn a great deal about the asymmetric effects of attacking a high-profile public event. Two IEDs launched a major response from the national security apparatus. Terrorists planning future incidents now have clear incentive to launch multiple simultaneous attacks in different locations. American policymakers must now model scenarios for multiple attacks in multiple locations that are sustained over time. That is one worst-case scenario around which America must build a resilient and flexible security architecture.
The good news is that national policy makers have shown an open interest in learning from other nations' experiences with high-profile urban terrorism. Washington is reaching out to Moscow. This is very good news. Russia has decades of experience dealing with Islamic militancy in Chechnya. The Russians have lessons to share with us in counterinsurgency and law enforcement if we are willing to learn. The dialogue can be a basis for restoring trust in other areas of the American-Russian relationship that have deteriorated since 9/11.
Speaking of Chechnya, it is high time for the U.S. intelligence community to review the transit patterns of Chechen nationals as they enter and depart the U.S. The details are properly left to the operators and analysts. Throw in Dagestan and Ingushetia too, you know, just in case. This is how we can help Moscow in return for their help.
In the week after 9/11, I recall speculating to a few of my colleagues that the most likely follow-on attacks would look like the car bombs the IRA used in Northern Ireland. I was too early with that prediction. We can credit the sharp work of the intelligence and law enforcement communities since 9/11 for the fact that follow-on attacks by Islamic radicals have taken so long to manifest. The good guys rounded up the most obvious bad guys early on. The new crop of bad guys is less obvious but just as deadly.