UNCW professor, terror expert discusses Boston bombings

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It began a week ago on Boylston Street in Boston, along the final stretch of the famed Boston Marathon.

At 2:49 p.m. Monday, April 15, runners were finishing one of the nation’s most storied 26.2-mile races when two bombs exploded on the north side of the street.

Three people were killed in the explosions and more than 200 people were injured, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

One week later, two more people are dead—an MIT police officer and one of the bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev—and a second suspect is in custody.

CBS News reports the officer, 26-year-old Sean Collier, was shot to death Thursday night by Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed early Friday after a gun battle with police.

After his brother was killed, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fled the scene, prompting officials to lock down Watertown, Mass., until they eventually captured the 19-year-old suspect Friday night.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, a federal offense punishable by death.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made his first court appearance Monday from a hospital room at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. A probable cause hearing has been scheduled for May 30 in Boston, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The two brothers, ethnic Chechens, were born in southern Russia.

Dr. Daniel Masters, a political science professor at UNCW who teaches and researches political violence and terrorism, has done research on Russian politics, and, in a merging of the two, has researched the Chechen conflicts extensively.

His research has focused on radicalization, recruitment and mobilization of different terrorist organizations.

“There’s no indication that either of these two are affiliated with any known terrorist organization, however, it seems like there may have been a radicalization,” specifically in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Masters said.

At this point, it’s not been documented when the radicalization may have begun, Masters said.

“Radicalization is always an ongoing process. It’s never something that is set in stone. At some point in time, he may have found himself being led into different kinds of explorations or conversations. We know he went to Russia in 2011, and may have had something going on even earlier than that.

“All of this is still evolving so fast. Basically, they think somewhere around 2009 something started to happen; something to indicate that he was moving in the direction of being more open and susceptible to [radicalization]. He became a little bit more religious—a religious perspective that tended to be more radical, more fundamentalist,” Masters said.

Masters said it appeared Tamerlan Tsarnaev began to fall in line with a more fundamentalist strain of Islam that typically coincides with a jihadist. “Traditionally, the Chechen population would be predominantly Muslim. However, they are classically very moderate,” Masters said.

Islam became more prevalent in Chechnya during the 1994-1996 conflict and again during the 1999 conflict, Masters said.

“Particularly in 1999, the more radical forms of Islam started making some headway. During 94-96, there was a dedicated effort to say, ‘This is nationalist,’” not religious–Muslim or otherwise, he said.

“The Chechens wanted a Chechen nation and there was a strident effort to keep religion out of it.”

But Chechens developed a reputation of being very fierce fighters, leading terrorist groups to seek them out for recruitment.

“There’s long been speculation that groups like al-Qaida were trying to weave into the conflict because the Chechens were known as fierce fighters—as people willing to do almost anything necessary to win,” Masters said.

Boston Marathon attack

The weapons and venue were likely chosen for “convenience and opportunity,” Masters said.

“The particular devices they used are common variations of the Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) that are now being used in war zones like Afghanistan. It’s a simple bomb. It’s the pressure cooker, throw in some additional shrapnel with nails and bolts, seal it up and turn it on and it becomes a very big shrapnel device.”

This type of IED is “relatively cheap and easy to make,” he said.

“When everybody looks at this, specialists are really torn. There’s nothing about this attack—no affiliation between what happened in Boston and the Chechens. It has a really eerie feeling like the Centennial Park bombing (1996 Atlanta Olympic Games), and other kinds of domestic attacks.

“It’s probably just an easy venue; a very large venue. Even though they do have security, it’s going to be a softer target. There’s no way to secure a 26-mile route. There’s just no way to make it impenetrable. If somebody is determined, they’re going to find a way to do it. There’s no way to secure yourself against it.”

Friday’s massive manhunt in Watertown was “unprecedented,” Masters said.

“That was definitely unprecedented. That would be unprecedented almost anywhere. We’ve seen different governments that have used processes like this where they have shut down and locked cities down. In the 1940s, the British went into a lockdown mode in Jerusalem because of the pro-Jewish groups that were trying to fight for Israel.

“It’s typically seen as an extreme issue,” Masters said.

Masters said the lockdown had some support because it was one day and there was the clear and present danger and public threat that people were of aware of, including the gun fight and grenades being thrown. Had it continued into a second day, people would likely be more opposed to it, Masters said.

“Terrorism always brings us back to looking at our fundamental civil liberties and political protections and processes.”

Caroline Curran is the managing editor of Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6336 or caroline.c@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter at @cgcurran.