United States

Terror in Boston

Print edition : May 17, 2013

Injured people and debris on the sidewalk near the finish line following the explosions on April 15. Photo: AP/MetroWest Daily News, Ken McGagh

An explosion goes off near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon on April 15. Photo: AP/The Boston Globe, David L. Ryan

Bill Iffrig, 78, a marathoner, lies on the ground as police officers react to a second explosion. Photo: AP/The Boston Globe, John Tlumacki

Carlos Arredondo, in the cowboy hat, push Jeff Bauman (in the wheelchair) after the explosions. Photo: Charles Krupa/AP

People congregate in Boston for a vigil for the victims on April 16. Photo: Julio Cortez/AP

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, 19, in this undated photograph. Photo: AP

The Boston blasts will only reinforce old fears and old narratives about Islam and terrorism though it remains unclear what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to resort to such extreme measures.

On April 15, as runners in the Boston Marathon came towards the finish line at around 2-30 p.m., two explosions went off. They killed three bystanders and injured almost 200 people. Emergency personnel and brave civilians rushed in to give succour to the injured. One of those civilians was Costa Rican immigrant Carlos Arredondo, aged 52. Arredondo was standing at the finish line to greet the National Guard runners and marathoners of a suicide support group. Both the groups had dedicated their marathon to Arredondo’s two sons: Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo, who was killed in Najaf, Iraq, in 2004, and Brian Arredondo, who committed suicide in 2011 after years of depression related to the death of his brother. Even Carlos Arredondo had attempted suicide. He survived and became an anti-war activist. When the bomb blast happened, Arredondo, a member of a Red Cross disaster team, leapt over the barricade, tore his clothes and grabbed towels to create tourniquets to stem the bleeding of a number of victims. He saved several lives.

The blast killed three—an eight-year-old boy, a 29-year-old woman and a Chinese graduate student. The boy’s sister lost her leg. Over 140 people were taken to eight local hospitals, including Mass General Hospital. Seventeen of the injured languished in critical condition for days. Doctors in the area said that many of the victims had come in with shrapnel-related injuries, which resulted in a number of amputations. Erika Brannock, aged 29, a preschool teacher from Maryland, was at the finish line to watch her mother finish the race. The blast from the explosions knocked her out. She was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess, where doctors had no choice but to amputate her left leg. Her sister, Nicole Gross, aged 31, of North Carolina was also taken to the hospital with traumatic injures to her legs. Jeff Bauman, aged 27, came to watch his girlfriend finish the race. He was the person, with bloodied legs, who was in the wheelchair being tended to by Arredondo. Bauman lost both his legs at the Boston Medical Center.

At the White House, shortly after the attack, President Barack Obama expressed grief and caution. “We still do not know who did this or why,” he said, “and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.” Not long after the bomb blasts, however, vigilante attacks and hasty police actions began to be reported. A Saudi exchange student was taken into custody, but was released later after it was learnt that he was simply an injured bystander. Heba Abolaban, a Palestinian doctor who works in Boston, was attacked by a man who yelled at her: “F--- you Muslims! You are involved in the Boston explosions.” She was unharmed, but shaken. New York Post ran a front-page photograph of two bystanders at the Marathon with the headline, “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” They were both men who had brown skin. The next day, the Post conceded: “Investigators have now cleared the two men whose pictures were circulated last night in an email among law enforcement officials, sources told the Post today. Authorities determined neither had any information or role in Monday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon.” The paper nonetheless defended its action.

Law enforcement has been more circumspect than the media and the vigilantes. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official told the Post: “It’s not like we’re going to have somebody in cuffs in five minutes. But it is still evolving.” The clearest leads were in the bombs and in the photographs of the people near the blasts. The bombs were simple: pressure cookers filled with nails, ball bearings and small bullets. Bauman, who lost his legs in the blast, told his brother that he made eye contact with one of the bombers before the blast. The man had dropped a bag and walked away. The bag might have contained the bomb.

The brothers Tsarnaev

Three days later, the FBI released photographs of the two men they suspected of the bombing. Bauman’s statement had helped them zone in on these two men. The FBI quickly learned that these men were Tamerlan Tsarnaev, aged 26, and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, aged 19. The Tsarnaev brothers possibly panicked, shot an Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police officer, Sean Collier, 26, as he sat in his car, hijacked a silver Mercedes SUV after making its owner get $800 from an ATM and fled towards Watertown, a small suburb of Boston. What the Tsarnaev brothers did not know was that the owner of the Mercedes had left his phone in the car, which allowed the police to track it. Trapped in Watertown, the brothers fired at the police until Tamerlan was shot and Dzokhar struck him with the SUV as he fled the scene. Dzokhar was later taken into custody with serious injuries.

The Tsarnaev brothers came to the United States as refugees from Dagestan, Russia, in 2002 along with their family. Anzor Tsarnaev, the father, made a living as an auto mechanic. The family is from Chechnya, a republic of Russia with unfulfilled national aspirations against the Great Russian nationalism. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the doors to the most recent bout of Chechen separatism, with the first Chechen war of independence running from 1994 to 1996. A collapsed economy and a failed political dialogue paved the way for criminality (with kidnapping as a major source of income) and eventually to the more severe strains of political Islam. The second Chechen war from 1999 to 2009 was marked by brutal violence from both the Russian Federal forces (as documented by the assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya) and from groups such as the Islamic International Brigade. An estimated 50,000 people perished in this conflict, which marked the lives of the Tsarnaev family—they left for neighbouring Dagestan and then Kyrgyzstan (where Dzokhar was born).

After a decade of struggle in the U.S., the parents returned to the Caucasus. They live in Dagestan, and refuse to believe that their children could have done this bombing. The mother, Zubeidat, told RT (a publicly funded TV news channel in Russia) that Tamerlan was in touch with the FBI on a regular basis, and could have been set up. Their sons had been as alienated from the U.S. as the parents, but they did not leave. The elder son, Tamerlan, ran a YouTube channel which featured sermons by a radical cleric from Malaysia, Feiz Muhammad, over which the younger son, Dzokhar, expressed his own dissatisfaction on his twitter feed. When Tamerlan was in Moscow during the first half of 2012, Dzokhar wrote on twitter: “A decade in America already, I want out.”

Cliches will abound about terrorism and Islam. In January, Dzokhar had written on twitter: “I don’t argue with fools who say Islam is terrorism. It’s not worth a thing. Let an idiot remain an idiot.” Unfortunately, the actions of mid-April will simply reinforce such views. In 2011, the Russian security service had told the FBI that Tamerlan might have been involved with some kind of radical outfit from Chechnya. The FBI claims that it interviewed Tamerlan, but did not find any evidence of terrorist activity. During Tamerlan’s six-month trip to the North Caucasus region in 2012, he might have made contact with the small extremist groups that remain intact in both Dagestan and Chechnya. Little has been made public of what the Russian secret police and the FBI knew of his trip (it is unlikely that the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) did not keep an eye on him, and even less likely that the FBI did not pursue their earlier leads). Whether the Tsarnaev brothers had any contact with Caucasian extremist groups or hatched the plot based on their own frustrations will only be known if Dzokhar recovers and talks. In the meanwhile, stories are being grafted onto this bombing, reinforcing old narratives and old fears.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor