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Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from Chechnya. | Photo: Associated Press | Boston, Bomber, Terrorist, Tamerlan, Dzhokhar, Tsarnaev, Chechnya,

Why Didn't Russia Arrest Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

People are squabbling over whether the FBI and CIA let the Tsarnaev brothers slip through their fingers.

To that we'd add: If Tamerlan Tsarnaev was such a terrorist threat, why didn't the Russians arrest him? Or take away his passport? After all, Chechan Islamists are far more a threat to Moscow than the United States, even counting their soldierly duty with al Qaeda in South Asia.

Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of both the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and the FBI National Security Branch, offered a heated defense of the intelligence agencies' performance in the Tsarnaev case on the Charlie Rose show Tuesday night.

The Tsarnaevs had no known involvement with terrorist groups, as far as we know more than 10 days out from the Patriots Day attack. Even "if they had an operational linkage back home," Mudd said, "I can't figure out what kind of capabilities that operational linkage offered them."

At least one of the Tsarnaevs did frequent Islamist Web sites, though, and reportedly learned how to make their crude bombs from the online English-language al Qaeda magazine "Inspire."

Otherwise, investigators say now, they had no help.

Honing in on people who merely visit radical Web sites would be a fool's errand, Mudd suggested, far beyond the capabilities of the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies, which are busy enough tracking real threats.

Even if it were possible to follow them around, he noted, doing so would set civil libertarians' hair on fire.

You're dealing with several thousand people of interest," Mudd told Rose. "If somebody says, 'Yeah, I look at Web sites and I'm unhappy,' being rabid in the U.S. is not against a federal law. And furthermore, I can't watch that person indefinitely.

But the Boston massacre, which killed three persons and wounded about 200, showed what damage "lone wolves" can wreak, armed only with high motivation and low-tech explosives. Without a lucky break, police find such attacks impossible to predict.

They create "challenges of finding vulnerability'" Mudd said. "Where am I supposed to find an edge that allows me to identify them?"

If radicalized Muslims fully embraced a twisted version of the 1960s antiwar and environmentalist slogan, "Think globally, act locally," the West could be in deep trouble. Fortunately, 20 years after the first World Trade Center bombing, the idea hasn't attracted more than a handful of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.

Not that al Qaeda has given up. The concept of "leaderless resistance," popularized by the anti-abortion group Army of God, is designed to get unhappy people off the couch and into the street. It worked with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly an avid "Inspire" fan. His surviving brother told investigators that they were pissed off about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mudd calls such head cases "emotionally driven kids, with just a flavor of ideology." Professional militants aren't too keen on them.

Indeed, one such lone wolf was rejected by an organized resistance group because he was too radical.

Timothy McVeigh tried to join the so-called Michigan Militia before the Oklahoma City bombing, but was kicked out for his violent tastes. (He maintained he left because they were too passive.)

In any event, he was off on his own, just a tiny dot on law enforcement's radar screen.

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Updated May 10, 2017 12:30 PM EDT | More details

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