Blind Eye

Conciliatory FBI policies toward Islamism hampered probe into Boston bombers, experts say

crime scene in Watertown, Mass., Friday, April 19, 2013 / AP
April 23, 2013

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s failure to recognize political Islam as a driver of jihadist terrorism is partly to blame for the FBI not identifying one of the Boston Marathon bombers in 2011 as a security risk, according to U.S. officials and private counterterrorism analysts.

The FBI revealed last week that it was warned by a foreign government in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed Friday, was tied to "radical Islam" but the FBI was unable to confirm the links.

"The fact is religion has been expunged from counterterrorism training," said Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The FBI can’t talk about Islam and they can’t talk about jihad."

Added Patrick S. Poole, another counterterrorism specialist, about FBI policies on Islam: "I have zero doubt it affected their investigation of Tsarnaev."

A U.S. official said FBI policies of playing down Islamic links to terrorism resulted in the FBI not identifying Tsarnaev, 26, or his brother, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19, who was charged with last week’s bombing, as Islamist terrorists.

Instead, the FBI is limiting its description of the two men as ethnic Chechens who became "radicalized" prior to the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and more than 200 injured in the attack using two homemade bombs placed in pressure cookers and remotely detonated.

Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.), who until he retired in 2011 headed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said an investigation into the FBI’s questioning of Tamerlan Tsarnaev is needed.

"I think that is one of the things that we’re really going to have to take a closer look at," Hoekstra told the online intelligence newsletter Lignet.

"What kind of information did we get and why did we miss signals?" Hoekstra asked. He stopped short of calling the lapse an intelligence failure.

Dzhokar remained in a Boston hospital Monday suffering from multiple gunshot wounds following the dramatic police manhunt and shootout that ended Friday with his capture. He was found hiding inside a boat parked in the driveway of a suburban Boston home.

Critics said the FBI’s failure to properly investigate Tsarnaev was a repeat of the bureau’s lapse in missing advance signs of the Islamist radicalization of accused Fort Hood massacre shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan.

The FBI had emails linking Hasan to al Qaeda operative Anwar al Awlaki prior to the 2009 shooting at the Texas Army base that killed 13 people and wounded 30 others.

The Obama administration has labeled that Islamist attack "workplace violence" as part of an overall policy of seeking to dissociate Islam from terrorism, a policy critics say fails to properly identify the nature of an enemy engaged in waging religiously inspired war and insurgency against the United States and its allies.

"Again, the FBI has been aware of a future terrorist’s escalating religious radicalization and did nothing about it because bureau policies prohibited them from doing so," Poole said.

The FBI said in a statement Friday it was alerted by a foreign government—later identified as the Russian government—that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was "a follower of radical Islam."

The Russian FSB security service also told the FBI that Tsarnaev "had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups."

The FBI said it checked databases, telephone communications, and websites for signs of "possible radical activity" by Tsarnaev.

Interviews with the bomber and family members also did not turn up "any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign," the statement said.

The FBI then asked the Russians for more information but did not receive additional details.

U.S. officials familiar with the FBI’s counterterrorism training program and its controversial public outreach program to Muslim groups said FBI policy toward Islam—that it should not be used to describe those who seek to wage jihad or holy war against the United States and others they regard as infidels—has prevented both effective counterterrorism investigations and training.

The officials said the problem is that most field agents understand the nature of the threat but have been hamstrung by policies imposed by senior FBI leaders who are acting under orders of political appointees in the Obama administration, including Islamic advisers to the White House. The policies have prevented the FBI from conducting aggressive counterterrorism investigations of Islamic radicals or those who are in the process of being radicalized.

Two FBI spokesmen declined to address the apparent mishandling of the Tsarnaev inquiry in 2011 and whether it was the result of conciliatory policies toward Islamism.

FBI spokesman Christopher M. Allen said some material deemed "inappropriate" was cut out of the bureau’s counterterrorism training review beginning in late September 2011, several months after the review of foreign data on Tsarnaev.

The FBI did not expunge references to Islam and jihad from training, he said. A small number of training documents were removed after they were found to be "factually inaccurate information, imprecise information, or used stereotypes," Allen said.

"Although the review was launched in response to anti-Islamic training materials, the review was not Islam-centric," Allen said. "It applied to any characterization of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious affiliation."

Poole said FBI counterterrorism investigations were "cordoned off" in 2012 to block probes of terrorist links under a report called "FBI Guiding Principles: Touchstone Document on Training."

The report states that if a terror suspect is a member of a group that engages in both violent and constitutionally protected activities, there should not be a presumption that a person is engaged in the organization’s illicit terrorist activity.

Allen, the FBI spokesman, said the touchstone training document "outlines the standard by which all FBI training will be compared, and applies broadly to all racial, ethnic, and religious groups."

One U.S. government source said the FBI has canceled all but one of its counterterrorism-training courses as a result of the fiscal constraints imposed by the so-called sequestration budget cuts.

"I’m sure al Qaeda is not curtailing its training," the source said.

Several major news outlets and commentators covering the bombing have played down or ignored the jihadist links of the two Boston bombers by suggesting their motives are not known.

Islamism is the political ideology that calls for violent or nonviolent jihad, or holy war, in the advancement of the goal of world Islamic revolution and the creation of a caliphate or Islamic state controlled by Sharia law that critics say is a totalitarian, anti-democratic creed and the key driver for groups such as al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Investigators believe Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a jihadist sometime in the 2011 time period and after a visit to Russia last year. Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s radicalization path has yet to be revealed. However, his social network page listed his worldview as "Islam."

Meanwhile, insurgents in Russia’s North Caucasus issued a statement saying they were not connected to Tsarnaev or the Boston Marathon bombing.

"The command of Dagestan Vilayyat points out that Caucasus mujahideen are not fighting against the United States. We are at war with Russia, which is responsible not only for the occupation of the [North] Caucasus but also for monstrous crimes against Muslims," according to a statement by the Dagestani Vilayyat, as Islamist separatists are called.

Novosti in Moscow reported on Monday that Tamerlan visited the southern region of Dagestan in 2012 to apply for the replacement of a lost passport.

Republican leaders criticized the FBI for not pursuing early leads linking Tamerlan Tsarnaev to terror. Rep. Mike McCaul (R., Texas) said on CBS Face the Nation Sunday that the terrorists’ motivation in the Boston bombing is "the big question."

McCaul said he believes the brothers were radicalized in the 2009 and 2010.

"When you look at the foreign travel, particularly the older son who did travel to see his father in the Chechen region, January to July 2012, he spent six months over there and I think the real question investigators have right now is what was he doing over there for six months?" he said.

McCaul said his committee would seek to find out what happened and what may have gone wrong in the FBI’s handling of the case.

He said he has written to senior FBI and national security officials asking them to "give us answers as to what came out of that interview" with Tsarnaev in 2011.

"Why weren't Customs flags put on this individual when he traveled abroad?" McCaul asked.

Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) also criticized the FBI on Fox News Sunday, noting the 2011 interview with Tsarnaev is "the latest in a series of cases … where the FBI is given information about someone as being a potential terrorist."

"They look at them, and then they don't take action," King said. "Again, I’m wondering, again, is there something deficient here? What was wrong? ... I don't want to be a Monday morning quarterback. They did a great job of resolving the case. But as far as getting information in advance and not seeming to take proper action, this is the fifth case I’m aware of where the FBI has failed to stop someone who ultimately became a terrorist murderer."

The other cases included Awlaki and Hassan, he said.

President Barack Obama on Friday said in the age of instant communications that people should not "jump to conclusions" about the attacks. He called for further investigation of the attacks and the use of courts, stating "that's why we take care not to rush to judgment—not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people."

The White House said on Monday that Dzhokar Tsarnaev would be tried in civilian courts and not as an enemy combatant like the al Qaeda terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A federal complaint unsealed Monday revealed Tsarnaev is being charged with using a weapon of mass destruction and explosives resulting in deaths.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), the first Muslim member of Congress, said on MSNBC Monday that indications are that the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack was linked to the majority Muslim Russian enclave of Chechnya and its dispute with Russia. "It is not necessarily the case that anyone should jump to the conclusion that there was any religious motivation here," Ellison said.

A February 2011 Senate report by then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I., Conn.) and Sen. Susan M. Collins (R., Maine), on the lessons from the security failure in the Fort Hood shooting faulted the FBI for failing to properly understand violent Islamism and whether people are under its sway.

"The FBI and other intelligence agencies should ensure that they have sufficient guidance concerning the ideology of violent Islamist extremism and that ideological indicators or warning signs have been developed for use by agents," Lieberman and Collins said.

A 2008 FBI report called "Counterterrorism Analytical Lexicon" contains no mention of Islam or jihad. Instead, FBI analysts are required to state that jihad be called "violent extremism."

Violent extremism is defined as an ideology that "encourages, endorses, condones, justifies, or supports the commission of a violent act or crime against the United States, its government, citizens, or allies in order to achieve political, social, or economic changes, or against individuals or groups who hold contrary opinions."

Terrorism is defined as activity that is "the unlawful use or threat of violence in furtherance of political, religious, ideological, or social goals."