The fact that both Boston Marathon bombing suspects are now either dead or in custody does not mean that the reporting on the story will be sure to get the story right. The rate of error, unfortunately, remains too high. Those who are truly interested in following this story will have to be savvy consumers of media. Here’s how.
We now know some basic biographical information about the two Boston Marathon suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaevs’ Chechen origins are now widely known. So is the fact that, in the words of the Boston Globe, “counterterror officials believe the brothers were Islamic extremists.” We know that Russia requested information on Tamerlan in 2011, stating that “he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he 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.” We know that Tamerlan spent about six months in the region in 2012, though it is unclear if he actually did liaise with any “underground groups” during that period.
Beyond this, little is known for sure. As a result, three major types of reporting are particularly worthy of being treated with skepticism: thinly-sourced breaking news, inferential leaps, and insufficiently supported conclusions.
Thinly-sourced breaking news. This category is the easiest to identify, as it’s a pretty common media occurrence not confined to terrorism events. Take the rather remarkable report published Saturday in The Mirror, a British tabloid, which claimed that the FBI was “hunting a 12-strong terrorist ‘sleeper cell’ linked to the Boston marathon bomb brothers.” There was only a single source for this claim, described in the article as “a source close to the investigation.”
The problems with this article begin with the source itself. It is a single source, which is always a red flag. Then there is the twelve-person sleeper cell. That suggests that authorities have specific information about an actual cell, and possess a good idea of exactly how big it is. But the explanation given by the article’s anonymous source paints a different picture:
“We have no doubt the brothers were not acting alone. The devices used to detonate the two bombs were highly sophisticated and not the kind of thing people learn from Google. They were too advanced. Someone gave the brothers the skills and it is now our job to find out just who they were. Agents think the sleeper cell has up to a dozen members and has been waiting several years for their day to come.”
The analysis at the beginning of the explanation may or may not be correct, but the idea that the sophistication of the devices means the Tsarnaevs did not act alone is reasonable. Further, it follows naturally that if authorities are suspicious that they had accomplices, they are going to search for these potential accomplices. It is likely that authorities are in fact engaged in such a search, though it is not clear that they know there is anybody else to find.
But the last part of the claim, that there was a large sleeper cell, does not follow naturally from the source’s reasoning. Further, the source’s own words collapse the specificity of the information: if authorities are looking for “up to a dozen members,” it suggests that the source was speaking to the Mirror about mere possibilities.
Inferential leaps. I spoke to J.M. Berger, a contributor at Foreign Policy who has done truly excellent work helping the public to make sense of emerging information related to the Boston attack. He told me: “Throughout this thing, the speculation has been miles ahead of where the facts are. At this point, we have enough data that there are some reasonable conclusions we can draw. The problem is that many possibilities are being presented as facts.”
Further, even when inferential leaps are properly caveated, a reader who is not careful may think that the relationship to the attack is more established than it is. For example, a number of analyses have now been published concerning the conflict in Chechnya. A casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that they are being published because we know the Chechnya conflict was relevant to the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization. In fact, as the Boston Globe has stated, it is still too early to know this with certainty, as “the connection of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the long and bloody conflict in the southern Russian republic is unclear.”
Similarly, discussion of the various jihadist groups active in the Caucasus may illuminate possibilities related to the Boston attack, but should be interpreted with great caution, since it is not clear that Tamerlan liaised with any such groups during his recent time in the region.
Another, and sloppier, inferential leap is made by Robert Wright, who penned a piece for The Atlantic titled “Drone Strikes and the Boston Marathon Bombing.” In it, Mr. Wright notes that Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, contains an article lambasting the U.S.’s “cowardly” use of drones. “The drone-strike trope,” he writes, “has become a standard theme in jihadist propaganda channels.”
Mr. Wright continues: “We’ll never know for sure whether recurring news about civilians killed in drone strikes helped push Tamerlan over the edge or helped him rationalize atrocity. But I assume jihadist recruiters know their business, and know what kinds of things can incite people like the Tsarnaev brothers.”
In other words, the possible connection of drone strikes to the Tsarnaevs’ attack is entirely speculative. No actual evidence links their motivation to drones, other than the possibility that they might have read an anti-drones piece in the latest issue of Inspire (which, at any rate, was almost certainly published after they had been radicalized). Especially at this early stage of the investigation, when readers crave actual information on who the Tsarnaevs were and what motivated them, such raw speculation is at best unhelpful, and at worst either distracting or outright misleading.
Insufficiently supported conclusions. It is also worth being cautious of any conclusions that get too far ahead of the facts in situating the attacks’ relationship to established militant groups.
This includes not only analysts who are over-eager to connect the attacks to such groups, but also those who are too hasty in insisting that the attack was entirely domestic in its conception. Sometimes analysts simply miss the international dimensions of a plot until much later. A good cautionary tale is the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings of the mass transit system in London.
Two ofﬁcial British reports released in 2006 described the cell that executed that attack as autonomous and self-actuating rather than tied to al-Qaeda. But the idea that the London bombings were completely unrelated to al-Qaeda was deﬁnitively refuted by a commemorative video that the jihadist group released in July, 2006. That video included not only praise for the attacks from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but also footage of a martyrdom tape recorded by that plot’s ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership simply could not have obtained this footage had the plot proceeded completely independently of them, as the official 2006 reports erroneously concluded.
We may not understand this attack’s connection to established militant groups as quickly as we like. This is an extremely important question – but precisely because of its importance, we should be wary of making hasty judgments.
It is unfortunate that the onus is on members of the public to be skeptical of even established media companies’ reports, but that is the media world we inhabit.
The media needs to recognize that it has a credibility gap in reporting these issues, and take steps to address its problems. But until it does, being savvy media consumers will help us not to be misled by inaccuracies produced by the overwhelming rush to be the first to report or analyze.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a visiting research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).