PARIS -- The details revealed so far in the Boston Marathon bombing case are strikingly similar to those of a high-profile case in France last year. Both exemplify the modus operandi of today's young jihadist.
Naturally, it all starts with an immersion in Islamic extremism. The North Caucasus region where the Boston suspects spent their childhood -- a region where there has been a great deal of separatist violence since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- ended up being dominated by a radical Saudi Islamic warlord, Ibn al-Khattab, who waged a relentless terrorist war against Russia until the FSB (a successor agency to the KGB) was able to liquidate him in 2002 when a courier delivered him a letter coated with a deadly substance. And before these Islamists were fighting Russians, they were fighting each other, tribe against tribe.
Not only did the Tsarnaev brothers hail from this jihadist nest, but the FBI now admits it had been warned by the Russian government in 2011 about the danger that the older one, Tamerlan, presented. According to the FBI's recent statement, the Russians were worried that he was about to leave America to join up with terrorist groups in the Caucasus. He spent six months in Russia in 2012 and apparently didn't strike U.S. authorities as a problem until now.
The case is similar to one in France in March 2012 involving 23-year old Mohammed Merah, who terrorized the Toulouse region over a number of days, killing seven people -- French military personnel, Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi -- in a series of attacks that paralyzed the area until he was taken out in a hail of bullets following a lengthy police standoff at his residence.
The French public wondered how Merah had the opportunity to go full-blown jihad even though he was known to French authorities and intelligence services and was known to have made trips to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, known for its terrorist training camps. According to reports, Afghan forces had detained Merah and tried to turn him over to U.S. officials, but they instructed the Afghans to turn him over to the French military, which then returned him to France.
Some of the intelligence documents related to the Merah case have been declassified and provide valuable insight into the mentality of these young jihadists. The similarities to the Boston case -- and the related intelligence failures -- are stunning. Here are a few:
--Merah's brother, Abdelkader, is still being held in prison more than a year after the deadly attacks on charges of complicity. He refuses to identify a person of interest in the case. Another brotherly duo.
--In conversations with authorities during the standoff, Merah mocked their inability to figure everything out despite ample evidence of his involvement with terrorist groups: "I got myself arrested by the Jews in Israel, by Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, by Algerian soldiers in the mountains of Boumerdes or mountains next to the Kabylia region where all our brothers operate. I got myself arrested in Afghanistan." Merah suggested that authorities should have "called the cyber-police," since he even sent his mother an email from the terrorist mecca of Waziristan. What did the Boston suspects' e-trail reveal beyond a YouTube account possibly opened by Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2012 that included a subcategory of deleted videos that had been labeled "terrorists"?
--French intelligence had been following Merah since 2006 and was ultimately misled into thinking he was just a harmless punk because he acted like a typical delinquent -- with the exception of all the terrorist theme-park trips, of course. Similarly, Dzhokar Tsarnaev's Twitter account reflected little more than what his friends described as an interest in girls and parties. It's a strategy, not a coincidence. Around 2009, Merah had deliberately begun the Islamic practice of "taqiyya," a jihadist tactic that involves hiding one's Islamism by partying, avoiding mosques, and otherwise blending in with the prevailing culture to muddy the waters of suspicion. It seemed to work brilliantly, because at one point, French intelligence even considered using Merah as an asset in light of all the trips he was making to Terrorist Disneyland (but ultimately decided against it, according to a statement by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls last month). All this despite the fact that French authorities had written in 2007: "Mohamed Merah could be considered a 'radical jihadist.'"
And what about the possibility of a terrorist sleeper cell near Boston that authorities have been investigating in connection with the bombings, according to Britain's Daily Mirror? A sleeper cell was busted in France last October, and its stash included the same pressure-cooker-bomb materials popularized in a 2010 issue of al-Qaeda's online magazine, "Inspire," and used in the Boston bombings.
There's no mystery here. It's just the same old jihad.