19 April 2013

WTF? (Boston Manhunt)

The Boston Marathon bombing has come to made for television end, and left us in the Greek chorus asking, "what the fuck?"


The bombers appear to have been 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the man in police photos seen wearing a black hat), a boxer and Bunker Hill Community College student (in the Boston area) hoping to become an engineer, and 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is apparently a registered student at the U.Mass Dartmouth campus in New Bedford, Massachusetts sixty miles south of Boston and was a honor student in high school.

A posting on a social media site in the name of the older brother included the comments: "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them." They are brothers and ethnically Chechen. 

According to Ruslan Tsarni, identified as the suspects' uncle, who says of his nephew Tamerlan's death, "he deserved his." Tsarni added that "they do not deserve to live on this earth."  According to the uncle, the young men were born in Kyrgyzstan.
Reached by telephone in the Russian city of Makhachkala, Anzor Tsarnaev has told The Associated Press that his younger son, Dzhokhar, is "a true angel.""He is such an intelligent boy. We expected him to come on holidays here," the father also said. 
It appears that they moved to the United States around 2001.  The younger said he has lived in the U.S. since he was five years old in one pre-incident snatch of information about him.  Social media of the men suggest Chechen nationalist and Islamist ties.

It appears that the men were at least legal immigrants.  It isn't clear if they had acquired U.S. citizenship, or what other family or ties they had in the United States.  Per NPR:
If anyone says that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's "character, attitude ... or activities that he did daily" would have indicated he was likely to bomb the marathon or engage in shootouts with police, "they're absolutely lying," says a friend of the fugitive. Zolan Young, nephew of WBUR's Robin Young, spoke with Morning Edition moments ago. He's known Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since they were both in high school.
"I can't emphasize how much a courteous guy he was," Zolan Young said. "This was someone that I could always count on." The last time Young heard from Tsarnaev was during this year's Super Bowl, when Tsarnaev texted him to ask if Young was having a party.
"I'm shocked," said Zolan Young. "This is one of my friends."
"It's stunning," WBUR host Robin Young says of hearing that 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the fugitive who's suspected of being one of the young men who planted the bombs at the Boston Marathon and now of being involved in deadly gun battles with police. "I had the prom party for that class in my back yard," she says of Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School students, who included Tsarnaev and Young's nephew Zolan.
The fugitive, she says, was "the light of the party ... a beautiful, beautiful boy." But when she saw the photo released early Friday of a suspect robbing a convenience story, she could tell it was him. Young's family has known Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since he was a young high school student and she saw "no sign of this ... no sign." 
We don't know if these men were acting alone or part of a larger conspiracy, although the former seems more likely at this point.

The men appear to have been heavily armed with multiple firearms and explosives in their long running crime spree and flight last night and into this morning.

Another man arrested and stripped naked while questioned at the scene of the flight was determined to be a mere bystander and not related to the plot. He has been released and is not a suspect.

But, "CNN reports it has been told by law enforcement sources that the latest area of Watertown where police have brought in heavy forces and have asked the media to move back is where a possible accomplice of the suspects is located — not fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev."


The motives for the attack remain opaque.

The incident does appear to have been a terrorist incident.  This particular incident seems to blur the line between domestic and international terrorism.  They were 1.5 generation long time U.S. residents.  They would have been fluent in English in the New England regional dialect.  The younger brother, at least, went to a well known Boston high school.  But, they hailed from abroad, the older brother, at least, never really fit into American society, they may have had internationally related motives.  But, then again, maybe they were torqued about gun control, they had enough firearms themselves and could have identified with the issue given the revolutionary legacy of the Chechen kin.

No cause they were fighting for has been announced and no demands have been made by them.  While at least one of young men appeared to support independence for Chechnya and may have had Islamist sentiments, it is hard to fathom any connection between either of these causes and the Boston Marathon. 

They ended up being rebels without a cause, whether they had planned it that way or not.

Their moves after the attack are also mysterious.  With the FBI and law enforcement closing in around them, something that they surely knew from the moment their bombs exploded, why stick around Boston?  Why rob a convenience store when their faces were on the TV news, instead of hiding?  Did they have no place to go?  Could they not have the money to take flight?  Did they only decide to flee after encountering and killing the MIT policeman, perhaps while they were in the course of leaving bombs for another attack?  They did have explosives with them, in addition to multiple firearms, at that point.

The surveillance video from the April 15 bombing and the thin accounts of the older and younger brother we are learning about now seem to cast the younger brother as something of a follower than the older brother as the leader.  Perhaps the older brother, who would have been about twelve when he came to the U.S. in contrast to his brother who would have been just five, and who apparently lacked the American friends of his younger brother, was the man with the ax to grind and the primary motive, while the younger brother may have been more motivated by loyalty to his older sibling.

Perhaps we will learn more in time.

The Wild, Violent End

In events starting after 10 p.m. last night, they robbed a 7-11 in Cambridge, killed an MIT policeman, shot a transit cop, jacked a Mercedes (the passenger was released unharmed at a gas station), and got into a running gun battle with police in which they also apparently released explosives.  The older brother was wounded in the gun battle and removed to a hospital where he died while the younger brother (wearing a white hat in security footage) fled on foot and from their possibly in a brief run in another car in Watertown.  The older brother, of course, was also killed in this course of criminal conduct.  Five people are dead and more who are still in hospitals could die.

Of course, while there is every reason to believe that these men were the Boston Marathon bombers (the older brother was also ID's by a bombing victim who saw him put down the backpack that exploded minutes later), even if they weren't, their crime spree of last night would be enough to tie them to extremely culpable crimes.

If police are right, this pair of young men has killed four people including a child and a cop, critically injured more than a dozen more and injured more than one hundred and seventy people in all (including a law enforcement office they shot) with explosives, robbed a convenience store, carjacked a car while kidnapping a bystander, engaged in gun battles with police and of course, resisted arrest.

The manhunt continues.

Punishment prospects

This case could easily end with the second brother dying, at his own hand or those of law enforcement, or in a flight motivated accident.

If the younger brother is captured alive, there is no doubt that he will be convicted of multiple crimes serious enough to shut him away for the rest of his life.  Massachusetts doesn't have a state death penalty.  A federal death penalty does exist and could surely be applied to this incident in some way, but getting a federal jury in this state to impose it, even in such a heinous case generating national outrage, is not at all a sure thing.  No one would grudge the immense expense of bringing death penalty charges in this case where the law enforcement resources involved have already been immense and the downside for prosecutors of pressing that are few.  Surely, an indictment would start with a death penalty charge whether or not it was ever imposed.

It would be hard to a federal prosecutor in such a high profile case to agree to a plea bargain taking the death penalty off the table, although it might be possible to justify if the younger brother cooperated in letting the world know what happened and why from the insider perspective, particularly if co-conspirators or terrorist affiliates could be identified, making the nation more safe.

Lessons learned?

None of these incidents offer any obvious policy responses.  Whatever cause these men sought to advance, they failed, leaving their cause neither advanced, nor impaired by association.  The CIA and FBI can investigate and try to shut down international and domestic conspiracies, but no one can ever hope to shut down every pair of brothers acting autonomously and without warning signs making deadly weapons with ordinary things that have on obvious weapons purpose.  Even gun powder can be made from easily available more benign components with easily available recipes.  There will always be limits to prevention.  So long as there is no international organized conspiracy to hunt down, we have done all we can on the prevention front. 

Perhaps there is some lesson to be learned about how to investigate and respond to an incident like this, in terms of management of survellience video and cell phone record processing, but basically, the system has worked.  We can't all live in a constant state of paranoia all of the time at ever public event over every forgotten package as if we were in an airport on high security alert.  There are way too many false positives for that to ever work.

I'm not sure that we want to routinize incidents like this by curtailing the probably overkill response of authorities in shutting down all of Boston in this one off city defining event at a time when its scope and seriousness is uncertain.  Good leaders fear underreactions more than overreactions to emergencies.  This touches everyone in the city.  These steps make them all tangibly personally affected, and a lot of Bostonians emotionally, probably need that so that they can legitimately claim that they really were affected by what would otherwise be a mere intangible insecurity and discontent.

We simply need to be tough, move on, and recognize that crazy things happen, once the fugitive and any accomplices are caught.


andrew said...

More background on them here. There are more questions than answer in the account.

According to another story, the community college, the older brother studied accounting part time for three semesters: fall 2006, spring 2007 and fall 2008.

andrew said...

More on "who?":

"Maret Tsarnaev, an aunt of the suspects who lives in Toronto, tells NPR's Joseph Shapiro that:

— While the family is Chechnyan, it lived in Chechnya for just one year, in 1994. Like many Chechnyans, members of the family were forced to flee during World War II and spent decades in Kyrgyzstan.

— Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older suspect who was died early Friday, became a more devout Muslim in recent years. But she does not believe he carried a hatred toward other religions and says he fathered a child by a Christian woman.

NPR's Liz Halloran reports that:

— Dzhokhar Tsarnaev graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where in 2011 his wrestling prowess earned him a citation as one of the "Greater Boston League Winter All Stars." A former teacher at the school described him to The Boston Globe as having a "heart of gold."

On Vkontakte — described as the Russian equivalent of Facebook — he lists his personal priority as "Career and money," and his world view as "Islam."

— Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a boxer and participated in a 2009 New England Golden Gloves tournament, where he was described as being from Lowell, Mass. The Lowell Sun newspaper reported that he won his first fight in 2004, and was quoted as saying: "I like the USA. America has a lot of jobs. That's something Russia doesn't have.""

It seems as if they lived in the U.S. with a parent or parents until the father returned to Russia just within the last year or two. In the early 2000s the older brother wanted to become a naturalized citizen. An NPR account from a Russian speaker of his social media page describes the younger brother as very aware of the varied ethnicities of the Caucususes and the stereotypes about them but in a genuinely funny way. He was apparently a second year pre-med student.

The NPR account of the social media page (from a year ago) is also neither really Islamist or revolutionary. It shows a clear Chechen identity that carriers a bit of political message with it and the men were observant Muslims. But, there is no sign of a strong political agenda other than the aunt's comment above. A focus on career, money, and jobs are quintessentially antipolitical statements for people who have such politically charged backgrounds.

These are kids who grew up in the heart of middle class Cambridge institutions, for whom Havard, Radcliff and MIT were just part of their larger neighborhood, rather than being mere myths.

Gentrified terrorism suspects aren't too surprising. But, why rob a 7-11?

andrew said...

Boston and Cambridge are totally deserted, in compliance with official's requests.

andrew said...

Corrections and additions here.

andrew said...

More on them. The younger brother was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012.

andrew said...

You have to give props to a nineteen year old kid who can evade the most massive manhunt in U.S. history with an entire metropolitan area locked down for more than twelve hours, even if he's a terrorist.