The terrorism that began at the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, and continued as the suspects, who were considered armed and dangerous, remained at large until tonight, is now over. The first suspect, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnayevs, was killed behind a Watertown, MA house by police after a late night crime spree.
His brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnayevs, escaped on foot, but was found on Friday evening by a resident, who saw a trail of blood leading to a covered boat in the back yard. After several hours, the police were able to remove Dzhokhar, who was said to be unresponsive, from the boat, and he was taken away by ambulance to an area hospital.
It’s over, or at least this part of the story is over. But the after action discussion should take a serious look at how the operation this evening was handled. It was a circus.
To be fair, it should be said that the immediate response following the bombings was outstanding, and saved many lives. It was what preparedness exercises , carried out in Boston during the years since 9/11, were all about and they paid off.
The next stage was identifying the bombers and this was accomplished in three days, through determined and tireless scanning and analyzing of huge volumes of photographs and videos from before and after the bombings. Thursday’s announcement by the FBI that the bombers had been identified and the release of their photographs changed the pace of the investigation. The best thing that they did was to enlist the help of the people of Boston and surrounding towns and cities. They needed to be empowered and they responded enthusiastically. Within hours, the two men had been identified and the search was on, but it was only the actions of the two men themselves that triggered the resolution.
As we have detailed earlier, a crime spree on Thursday night that began in Cambridge, MA, included a robbery, a murder, and a high speed car chase, that included live fire from the suspects’ car and explosive thrown out their window at the pursuing police. This was the beginning of the circus.
The situation drew a huge number of police from all the surrounding cities and the police scanner was crackling with comments, commands, and reports as well as such statements as “I need directions”. By the time the suspects had been cornered in the backyard of a Watertown house, the street was full of police, fire, and EMS vehicles. Over a hundred rounds were fired, not only at the suspects (and from them), but also into the private homes in this residential neighborhood. That no one was killed is, in itself, a small miracle.
In spite of the heavy traffic, the chase that led the suspects and the police to the city of Watertown, ended with the the killing of Tamerlan. Under the cover of darkness, police report that Dzhokhar escaped on foot, although some reports claimed that he jumped into a car and ran over his brother first.
On Friday, the hunt was on for Dzhokhar. The cities of Boston, Cambridge, Brighton, and Watertown were put in lockdown. A perimeter was established around the Watertown neighborhood and almost every house within it was searched. This required a large contingent of police officers to carry out this painstaking but necessary job.
Then they caught a break after some 70% of the homes had been checked. A homeowner noticed a trail of blood leading to a covered boat in the back yard and called the police. Then the circus began in earnest. The word ‘overkill’ comes to mind. On steroids.
Cities and towns throughout the area and from the neighboring states of Connecticut and New Hampshire, sent their police officers in their official vehicles. Over 1,000 officers showed up, at least ten armored Humvees and other armored command vehicles were there, as were emergency vehicles of all types, a host of black clad security contractors and their own black SUVs, three helicopters, and, of course, the press. The streets were full, traffic was a nightmare, and the area around the house was blue with uniforms. As a show of support for Boston, it was a raging success. Tactically, it could have been a disaster.
And it was unnecessary. They were seeking one nineteen year old boy. Albeit a terrorist, he was still only one person, and probably one with limited experience and quite possibly already wounded. All that manpower, all that fire power was ridiculous and worse, it could have resulted in a very different and self-defeating ending.
While I was glued to the television watching this unfold, I asked a colleague of mine, a former Special Operations officer, “How many men would you need to apprehend one teenage terrorist once you knew where he was?”
He thought for a moment, and then said, “Eight to ten,” and explained how he would deploy them. It made sense. Yet Boston deployed over 1,000 men and countless vehicles to arrest one teenager. It was ridiculous.
The presence of the helicopters was useful. At least the one with the infrared camera, which identified Dzhokhar’s presence in the boat. But the huge convergance of men and equipment was superfluous and could have been catastrophic.
Lessons Learned. Despite the excellence of the immediate response to the bombings, we still have a lot to learn about combating terrorism. It doesn’t require a show of force as much as it needs to show strength of purpose, using men and women who are specifically trained for the job. It isn’t the number of troops that you bring to the battle, but their training and their ability to fight the enemy’s war.
Terrorism cannot be combated by conventional means, because it is not conventional warfare. Make no mistake, it is a war, and one that requires the guerrilla tactics that the enemy employs — not brute force, but tactics that are smart and appropriate to the threat.
We were lucky this time. They got him alive. Hopefully they will learn something from him that will help them understand the motivation for the bombings and the nature of the support system that made it possible. Next time, and there will be a next time, we may not be so lucky. So we’d better learn fast. We cannot afford to lose this war.
Ilana Freedman is Editor of GerardDirect.com. For more than twenty-five years, she has been a practicing, private sector intelligence analyst, providing corporate clients with intelligence-led counter-terrorism security solutions. She can be reached directly at ilana