WASHINGTON — Within hours of the Boston Marathon blasts, government officials and Boston Muslims called each other to offer assistance, calls that were the fruits of years of cultivating such relationships in an effort to ultimately prevent the very type of attack Boston experienced April 15.
But the calls following the explosions were not about the unfolding investigation. Representatives from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security offered support to Muslim communities in case they suffered backlash or threats, even days before law enforcement connected the suspected bombers to a violent interpretation of Islam.
This type of outreach has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. The goal is to prevent homegrown terrorist attacks by forming trusting relationships among law enforcement, government agencies and Muslim Americans.
“The best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community — which has consistently rejected terrorism — to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting toward violence,” President Barack Obama said Thursday in his counterterrorism speech at National Defense University.
In Boston, the Muslim community handled the situation just as the Obama administration has asked them to. Yet the city suffered a terror attack from two of its own that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.
The Obama administration has asked communities to notify law enforcement if it suspects someone is becoming radicalized toward terrorist activity. And the administration has asked religious leaders to talk to members of their communities about views that may be outside the mainstream or raise red flags.
In the case of Boston, an imam and other members of the mosque where one of the bombing suspects had outbursts during services spoke with him after each incident.
In one instance, the lecturing imam spoke to suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev after the service about his views on Muslims celebrating American holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Tsnarnaev believed that celebrating these holidays was not allowed in the Muslim faith. In the other instance, Tsarnaev disagreed with comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Martin Luther King Jr.
None of that suggested Tsarnaev would go out and kill people, said Yusufi Vali, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge, Mass., where Tsarnaev worshipped. Tsarnaev was killed in a police shootout four days after the bombings, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, has been charged with carrying out the attack.
“Just because people have views out of the mainstream, in our country, where we have freedom of religion, we don’t call law enforcement for that,” Vali said.
And if someone from the mosque had called the police after the outbursts, it’s not likely it would have led to further inquiries about terrorism, said Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas. The outbursts most likely would have been treated as disturbances, Haas said.
But as the intelligence community goes back over every thread of detail the government possessed about the Tsarnaev brothers before the deadly April 15 attack, these outbursts continue to raise questions about what else could have been done to prevent it.
“Are there more things that we can do, whether it’s engaging with communities where there’s a potential for self-radicalization of this sort,” Obama said on April 30.
Through outreach and relationship building, the administration’s hope is that members of the nation’s Islamic communities should know to call the government when they suffer civil rights violations like hate crimes or bullying. And if they trust the government to protect their constitutional rights, they will trust the government enough to call when they see suspicious activity that could be an indication of terrorism.
“If communities are assured that the government will protect their rights, it is likely that those communities will come to trust government institutions and will cooperate with government actions,” according to an April 18 federal task force document on the best practices for community engagement.
Some cities have stronger outreach programs than others. In Boston, the U.S. attorney and local FBI office have regular meetings with Muslim communities. FBI agents there have helped young Somali-Americans write resumes and provided self-defense lessons to Somali-American women. Since 2008, the Homeland Security Department’s office of civil rights and civil liberties has had regular meetings with Boston Muslims, including meetings on violent radicalization. State and local law enforcement also participate in this outreach.
Within hours of the bombings, representatives from the Justice Department’s community relations service reached out to local mosques in the Boston area, said Lou Ruffino, a Justice Department spokesman. The representatives, known as conciliation specialists, spoke with imams they knew and offered support in case the Muslim communities experienced any backlash, Ruffino said.
This is an improvement over the outreach 15 years ago, said former FBI agent Michael Rolince. Rolince said when he worked as an agent in Boston, he couldn’t even get a phone call returned from someone in the Arab American and Muslim communities.
There is no question that the way the Cambridge mosque handled Tsarnaev’s outbursts followed the Obama administration’s guidance, said Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a Muslim American think tank that focuses on preventing radicalization.
But this outreach was not enough to stop the Boston Marathon attack.
“I think all of us, in the aftermath, wish that there was something that could have been done about this situation,” Vali said. “If there had been some way of getting to know this guy better, if the Cambridge mosque had had the institutional capacity to have gotten to know this guy better, maybe we would have recognized something.”
But that type of interaction goes beyond the basic engagement outlined in the Obama administration’s strategy on countering violent extremism, Khan said.
“There’s without a doubt, the need for intervention,” said Khan, who works regularly with the government on outreach programs and received the FBI’s 2012 community leadership award.
“If you leave it up to the community to do, there will be places where it will slip. People will fall through the cracks,” she said. But the question is, what the government can do in this role, she said. “Does it involve religion? Can they talk religion?”
The answer, currently, is no — the government cannot advocate one interpretation of Islam over another. And that places the responsibility on the communities.
Tsnarnaev’s first outburst at the Cambridge mosque was in November 2012, just before Thanksgiving, the mosque said. At a weekly prayer, a preacher gave a sermon saying it was appropriate for Muslims to celebrate American holidays. Tsarnaev stood up and argued that “celebration of any holiday was not allowed in the faith.” The preacher met with Tsarnaev and discussed the issue after the service. In January, the mosque said Tsarnaev had a similar outburst. This time, the sermon included praise for Martin Luther King Jr., and this time Tsarnaev shouted, calling the preacher a “nonbeliever” and “hypocrite” who was “contaminating people’s minds.” Congregants shouted back at him, telling him to leave, and he did.
While leaders at the Cambridge mosque say Tsnaraev’s outbursts didn’t inspire them to call law enforcement, some are questioning whether that threshold should be lowered.
“I think the events that happened in Boston have lowered the bar,” said police strategist Bob Wasserman, head of the Boston-based Strategic Policy Partnership, who has consulted many of the nation’s biggest cities on policing. Wasserman said reaching out to law enforcement should not always be a notification of a possible threat.
“It should be in a discussion saying, ‘We had this incident,”‘ Wasserman said. “You have to do it in a manner in which you can express concern with the person in the police department you had the relationship with.”
And this is where trust comes in, Wasserman said. The community member needs to trust that sharing this concern with law enforcement is taken in the context of a concern and not a report of potential terror activity.
“We are right now tasked very seriously with working together within our communities to really figure that out,” said Paul Goldenberg, the vice chair of the Homeland Security secretary’s advisory community on faith-based organizations and communications. “At the end of the day it’s about building capacity and trust between the community and the police that are responsible for their safety. We still have challenges, and we’ve really got to address those challenges.”