Posted: 12:45 AM, April 24, 2013
The shutdown of Boston during the search for the Marathon bombers was symptomatic of a country that still has a lot to learn about dealing with terrorism. Shutting down an entire city to find two people is not only absurd and extraordinarily costly, it feeds right into the hands of terrorists, who study our responses and plan their next attacks accordingly.
Yes, to the casual observer, Boston’s reaction seemed to send a message to other would-be terrorists that we are vigilant and seriously committed to keeping America safe. Boston’s initial response to the bombing was excellent, saving countless lives. Then the terrorists were quickly ID’d — and once their pictures were broadcast, they were both caught within 24 hours.
Even here, things hardly went as the FBI had planned. It had hoped that tips from friends and family might quickly identify the two. Instead, the brothers’ inability to move freely once the photos were broadcast triggered a crime spree fatal to at least one policeman — but also to one terrorist, with the other captured within hours.
On the other hand, jihadis around the world must have noticed what can only be called a law-enforcement overreaction of gigantic proportions.
When the manhunt began in earnest, law-enforcement officers from all around the region descended on the scene in a massive show of support. They included an estimated 9,000 local, state and federal police, bomb-squad experts and SWAT marksmen, anti-terror specialists and security contractors — with several thousand vehicles of all kinds, from police cars, vans, mobile command buses, ambulances and fire engines to a visible array of heavy military vehicles including armored Humvees and tanks.
Ironically, the area of interest was essentially limited to an area of several blocks in the suburb of Watertown.
This concentration of force — the largest man-hunt in New England history — had the potential for tragedy. When you have so much uncoordinated firepower concentrated in a small area, chaos can quickly turn into catastrophe.
Moreover, the policy of police overreaction sends a very strong message to both large global terrorist organizations and small local terrorist cells that are planning their next strikes against us: In response to even a relatively small attack, we will shut down, lock our citizens in their homes, close down transportation and businesses and concentrate all our homeland-security assets in one place.
Then thousands of law enforcement, military, federal and private security forces will converge on the streets in ad hoc martial law to find a single teenage terrorist.
To a terrorist, it speaks of a colossal lack of basic knowledge about them. They’ll see opportunity — the chance to win an additional victory by shutting us down and denying our own citizens some of their basic civil liberties.
We still have a lot to learn about combating terrorism. It doesn’t require a show of force as much as a show of 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 can’t be combated by conventional means, because it isn’t conventional warfare; rather it requires a response that mirrors the enemy’s approach: not brute force, but tactics more closely aligned to special operations and appropriate to the threat.
In the end, despite the presence of thousands of law-enforcement and military personnel and a day-long, door-to-door search, it took only one homeowner to find the terrorist in his backyard, and a small SWAT team minutes to bring the terrorist in alive.
Let us hope America will learn something through the interrogation of the remaining terrorist that will help us understand the motivation for the bombings and the nature of the support system that made it possible. No less important, however, is that we learn how better to deal with a similar situation — with a scalpel, not a sledge hammer.
We were lucky this time. Next time, and there will be a next time, we may not be so lucky. So we’d better learn fast. We can’t afford to lose this war.
Ilana Freedman is a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with over 25 years of experience in the field.