President's Counterterrorism Advisor Calls for Muslim Community to Police Its Own

President's Counterterrorism Advisor Calls for Muslim Community to Police Its Own

Ignoring government failures, Monaco places responsibility for detecting terrorists in the community

Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, came to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on the anniversary of the Marathon bombing not to explain how the government failed to prevent the tragedy. Instead, she came to explain how preventing "domestic radicalization to violence" is the responsibility of the Muslim community.

The government, Monaco said, is rarely in a position to observe the early indicators of violent radicalization. These could include, according to Monaco:

[P]arents might see sudden personality changes in their children at home—becoming confrontational. Religious leaders might notice unexpected clashes over ideological differences. Teachers might hear a student expressing an interest in traveling to a conflict zone overseas. Or friends might notice a new interest in watching or sharing violent material.

Monaco did not elaborate on how one might distinguish these behaviors from normal teenage rebelliousness.

Once a community detects these signs of "radicalization to violence", Monaco called for:

a comprehensive prevention model that allows us to work with communities and intervene with at-risk individuals before violent extremism takes root. And we need to meet the evolving challenge, including terrorists’ use of the internet to recruit those who are most vulnerable to violent extremist ideologies, whether it be from neo-Nazis or groups like al-Qaeda.

According to the New America Foundation, since 9/11, domestic right wing extremists have killed 34 people. Jihadist-motivated groups, such as al-Qaeda, have killed 21.

Monaco did not specify what form such intervention might take but, during questioning, indicated that "arrest was not enough." Seen nodding in vigorously in the audience was US Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

Ortiz spearheaded the arrest, trial and conviction of Tarek Mahenna, a Pittsburgh-born Sudbury pharmacist on charges of "providing material support to terrorists" by means of watching videos about "jihad", discussing views about suicide bombings, translating texts available on the Internet, and looking for information about the 9/11 attacker. Mehanna is serving a 17 year sentence for what amounts to thoughtcrime.

Monaco never once uttered the names of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the accused Boston marathon bombers. She couldn't, as Dzhokhar awaits trial in Federal court. But, as recent reporting and a report by the Inspectors General of the Intelligence Community reveal, indicators of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's radicalization occurred in full view of the law enforcement and intelligence communities. These indicators included:

  • A March 2011 tip to the FBI from the Russian FSB.
    Stating the Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, were radical Islamists, the Russian Federal Security Service warned the FBI that they intended to travel to Russia to join "underground bandit groups." The FBI opened an investigation, interviewed the Tsarnaevs, found no "nexus to terrorism", and closed the investigation in June.
  • A September 2011 tip to the CIA from the Russian FSB.
    Apparently unsatisfied with the FBI's response to its original tip, the FSB provided the CIA with substantially similar information. This tip resulted in the CIA having Tsarnaev listed in the Terrorist Screening Database, more commonly known as the terrorist watchlist.
  • The September 11, 2011 murders of Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Raphael Teken in Mess's apartment.
    Mess's best friend was Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As extensive reporting by Susan Zalkind for Boston Magazine has established, police barely investigated the case, focused on family members and never investigated Mess's friend, Tsarnaev. After a few weeks, police stopped investigating altogether and simply waited for someone needing a plea bargain to tip them off to the perpetrators. The FBI asserts that, in May 2013, Ibragim Todashev was in the process of implicating Tamerlan Tsarnaev for these murders. Todashev was shot by FBI agents before he could complete his statement.
  • January 2012 travel to Russia.
    In January 2012, Tsarnaev travelled to Russia, departing from JFK airport in New York. Despite being on the terrorist watch list and specific concerns about travel to Russia, he was of "low priority relative to other passengers of potential concern." The Inspectors General report also concludes that Customs officials notified the FBI of Tsarnaev's travel, though it was considered so insignificant that no one had any recollection of it. What Tsarnaev did in Russia is clouded by conflicting reports, but Time Magazine reports that, according to his mother, Tsarnaev became "very close" with a distant cousin who leads the "Union of the Just, whose members campaign for Shari‘a and pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan, often speaking out against U.S. policies across the Muslim world."
  • July 2012 return from Russia.
    On Tsarnaev's return from Russia, a change in coding of Tsarnaev's record in TECS, another database of terrorists, prevented its display to the Customs agent who processed Tsarnaev for return. Had it been displayed, Tsarnaev would have received "secondary screening", which could have included review of the content of his phone and other electronic devices.

In case it isn't self-evident, the Inspectors General report quotes an FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force as saying that, had the counter-terrorism agent in Boston who first interviewed Tsarnaev known of his travels, it would have "changed everything." Similarly, it's hard to imagine that, had Waltham police had done simple background checks on Brendan Mess's friends, they'd have discovered that the best friend of someone murdered on 9/11 was an apparent Islamic extremist.

Rather than calling on the Muslim community to police its own, Monaco should be calling on the US intelligence community to exercise its own kind of accountability. In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the system worked: a dangerous person was identified and warnings issued. But when it came time to actually act on those warning, Customs agents, drowning in too many warnings, weren't able to act.

And if Monaco can succeed in garnering the trust of the Muslim community and can find a way to distinguish between "being a teenager" and "radicalization to violence", what will happen to a warning from a community that one of its own is headed down a possible dangerous path? The Russian FSB might have a thing or two to say about that.

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