While the Boston Police Department responded effectively to last week’s marathon bombing, terrorism experts say that the attack, which killed three and injured more than 200, might well have been prevented had the perpetrators lived in New York City. It’s not just a question of numbers and resources. Yes, the NYPD has a vastly larger force—roughly 35,000 uniformed officers versus Boston’s 2,000—and a far larger budget. The NYPD spent $330 million of its $4.6 billion annual budget in 2011 combating terrorism, a staggering sum that dwarfs Boston’s police budget.
But the 1,000 cops and analysts who work in the NYPD’s intelligence and counterterrorism divisions, terrorism analysts say, would have been far more likely than their Boston counterparts to have flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev for surveillance, given police commissioner Ray Kelly’s insistence on aggressively monitoring groups and individuals suspected of undergoing radicalization. New York cops almost surely would have monitored Tsarnaev, for example, if they had known that Russia had warned the FBI in 2011 that he was an Islamic radical, that he was potentially dangerous, and that he had spent six months in Dagestan last year. “We would have been very reluctant to shut down an investigation if we knew all that it seems the Bureau knew or could have known, especially once he had traveled to a region of concern,” said Mitchell Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD, who now works at K2, a New York–based private security firm. “Dropping coverage on someone who came back to kill New Yorkers was one of my top fears.”
In August 2007, Silber and Arvin Bhatt, another NYPD analyst, wrote what was then considered a controversial report arguing that with the decimation of al-Qaida’s “core” and the group’s metastasis into far-flung clusters, the primary threat to the city would come from “homegrown” Muslims under the age of 35 who had become Islamists in the West. Based on an analysis of some 11 plots, their report, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, concluded that the plotters were “unremarkable” citizens who had undergone often rapid radicalization, nine out of ten of them in the West. The analysts identified a pattern of radicalization and listed common characteristics of each stage of the process prior to committing a terrorist act. Since then, the NYPD has looked for such warning signs among New York’s diverse Muslim population of 600,000 to 750,000 people—about 40 percent of whom are foreign-born—as homegrown terrorist plots increase. In 2005, there was just one homegrown terrorist plot in the country; by 2010, there were 12.
Tim Connors, who served as an army officer in Afghanistan and now trains police officers for CAAS LLC, a New York–based consulting company, said that the elder Tsarnaev fit the department’s radicalization profile perfectly. “His behavioral changes alone—never mind his overseas trip and Russia’s warning to the FBI that he was a radical—would have been more than enough to trigger NYPD scrutiny,” said Connor. For instance, the elder Tsarnaev experienced a “family crisis” when his father left his mother to return home to Dagestan. The NYPD report warns that such incidents often trigger radicalization. He also began exhibiting what the report calls “self-identification,” when a person begins exploring radical ideas and dramatically changing his behavior—for instance, “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes” in favor of “traditional Islamic clothing” and “growing a beard.”
Another red flag would have been Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s ejection from his local mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, as initially reported by the Los Angeles Times. The paper disclosed last week that the elder brother was thrown out of the mosque after a shouting match with the imam during a Friday prayer service. The paper quoted several worshippers as saying that Tsarnaev had yelled at the imam for having pointed to Martin Luther King as a role model for Muslims. Tsarnaev protested that King could not be a model because he was “not a Muslim.” The NYPD’s model cites “withdrawal from the mosque” as an indication of the onset of the “indoctrination” phase of radicalization, when a believer rejects traditional Islamic mentors in favor of “Salafist,” or more radical, fundamentalist preachers and friends.
In New York, Tsarnaev’s mosque quarrel and his sudden behavioral changes might well have been reported by concerned worshippers, the imam himself, or other fellow Muslims, given the NYPD’s close ties to Muslim preachers and community leaders, as well as its network of tipsters and undercover operatives. Once it had Tsarnaev under surveillance, the NYPD, through its sophisticated cyber-unit, might have detected his suspicious online viewing choices and social-media postings. Other detectives might have picked up his purchase of a weapon, gunpowder, and even a pressure cooker—an item featured in an article, “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” in the online al-Qaida magazine Inspire. Even if the NYPD hadn’t been watching Tsarnaev, it might have been tipped off to such suspicious purchases thanks to its Nexus program, launched in 2002, under which the department has visited more than 40,000 businesses in the metropolitan area, encouraging business owners and managers to report suspicious purchases or other activities potentially related to terrorism.
If Tsarnaev and his brother had still managed to evade police scrutiny, it’s possible, though not likely, that the NYPD’s “Ring of Steel”—its network of 4,000 sophisticated security cameras, which feed information into a central monitoring system to detect questionable or unlawful activity—might have enabled officials to notice the pressure-cooker bombs before they exploded. Though the department has focused its camera network so far on the Financial District in Lower Manhattan and on such iconic sites as the Empire State Building and Grand Central Terminal, at least 220 cameras have been installed with views of Central Park, where the New York Marathon reaches its finish line.
Finally, the NYPD’s early effort to understand Muslim communities and follow tips and leads by sending plainclothes officers to mosques, restaurants, and other public venues where Muslims congregate—in keeping with court-ordered guidelines governing such surveillance—might have secured information preventing last week’s bombings. Reporters for the Associated Press won a Pulitzer last year for a series of deeply flawed articles critical of the NYPD’s surveillance program, which the NYPD credits with helping thwart as many as 16 terrorist attacks on the city since 9/11. Max Boot, a military analyst who writes about terrorism, complained in an online essay in Commentary that while it has become “fashionable” to criticize the NYPD for its intelligence-gathering in the Muslim community as an infringement on civil liberties, there is “scant evidence” that anyone’s civil rights have been violated and “considerable evidence” that such targeted surveillance has “kept the city safe.” Boot is right to conclude that Boston, among other cities, “would do well to learn from the NYPD’s example.”