Boston bombings case underlines need for dialogue

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, May 5, 2013

Despite the fact that the dust has barely settled from the bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon last month, the power of communication and dialogue has never been more clear. Whether it was communications between international intelligence organisations prior to the events, or inter-agency cooperation during and after the manhunt for the perpetrators, the Boston bombing has proven that dialogue is more important than ever.

In high-pressure situations, effective communication can be the linchpin for success; but ineffective communication and poor dialogue can lead to failure. Both of these outcomes happened during the overall events that make up the terrorist attacks in Boston last month. The successes can nearly all be attributed to well-executed dialogue between groups or nations, and nearly all of the failures can be attributed to poor dialogue or a total lack of dialogue.

In 2011, two years before the attack took place, there was a pivotal moment that shaped the nature of the events that would take place at a time that seemed an eternity away. No one knew that Tamerlan Tsarnaev or his younger brother Dzhokhar were up to anything nefarious, and it is likely neither of them were actually engaged in planning their 2013 attack at that time.

However, there was one organisation which was on the lookout: the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB is essentially the current equivalent of the KGB, responsible for intelligence and threat tracking both at home and abroad. The main difference between the two organisations is that the FSB co-operates with the American intelligence agencies the CIA and FBI in a way that the KGB would never dream of doing.

It was the FSB who first took notice of the older Tsarnaev brother. In 2011, the FSB saw that Tamerlan had undergone a drastic change since 2010 – he was becoming more and more devout in his Islamic beliefs and increasingly radical in his world view. Fearing possible terrorism in relation to his connection with both radical Islam and Chechen separatists, the FSB decided to engage in a dialogue.

The FSB believed that Tamerlan – who was living in the US at the time – was planning a trip to Russia to join an underground group. They contacted the FBI in the United States to warn them of the possible threat. This is exactly the type of dialogue that should be encouraged, and at first it seemed as if this communication would lead to a positive outcome. Tamerlan was interviewed by the FBI and placed on a watchlist by the CIA, but the interview did not find any terrorist activity. This is where the dialogue broke down.

A request for further information from the FBI to the FSB was denied, and with the dialogue lines broken, there was no way for the FBI to further its investigation. This led to Tamerlan figuratively being let free – as he was never in direct custody of any government organisation – and being able to go about his business undisturbed.

Whether further FBI investigation would have led to an arrest prior to the bombings is impossible to know. However, one thing is clear: There were at least some people in the FSB, FBI and CIA who knew about the Tsarnaev brothers prior to their attack, but had to let their suspicions fall by the wayside because of the broken communication lines between the US and Russia. It is evident that moving into the future, keeping communication lines open between national intelligence agencies will be as critical as it ever has been in preventing terrorism.

Of course, dialogue did not totally fail us in the wake of the bombing. While beforehand, a breakdown in dialogue led to the perpetrators being unwatched as they planned their attack, afterwards, the dialogue between state, national and international organisations was unprecedented and surely helped to not only capture those responsible, but save the lives of some victims.

Police agencies ranging from university and local to state and federal were in constant communication, and engaging in further dialogue with the FBI and the CIA to track the brother’s movements, uncover their past transgressions and find their whereabouts to make an arrest. This brilliant coordination led to the assailants being either killed or captured within just a week of the attack.

When executed properly, dialogue can be the key to success in almost any scenario. Whether it be criminal investigations, international relations or simply communication between two individuals, without dialogue we are simply lost at sea.

The Boston bombings have shown that dialogue is a double edged sword, powerful and swift when there are proper lines of communications open, but in the event that communications break down, the prognosis is frighteningly bleak. Looking ahead, we must not overlook the events leading up the bombings; we must learn the lesson that important information must be kept at the forefront of all parties which need it, and to do that you must engage in dialogu

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community