The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Brief Notes on 4/15

April 19, 2013

Boston on lockdown. One suspect dead. One–apparently a CRLS graduate–still at large. The fact is that we still don’t have adequate information for much in the way of meaningful speculation. But I do think it useful to call attention to three related issues:

  1. One of the major memes developing among the online national-security community is a welcome one: dread about the inevitable emergence of self-styled regional experts and terrorism-analyst “usual suspects” in the media. There simply aren’t that many specialists on the North Caucuses around; we need to be on guard for the blather of pseudo-experts who know about as much, or even less, than, say, I do about the politics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and the rest of the region. Most of the terrorism-analyst “usual suspects” are, at best, do-no-harm conveyors of conventional wisdom. At worst, expect claims and speculation that leave us less informed than we were before.
  2. Most commentators assume that the Tsarnaev bothers were motivated–in one way or another–by the two decades of death, human-rights abuses, and terrorism of their region of origin. It remains possible that this is completely wrong, but if that is the case, then there are some obvious questions about their motivation. In essence, did they see their efforts as regionally-focused: an attempt to “widen” the ongoing (if now low-level) conflict in the region, to punish the US for perceived complicity in Russian policy after September 11, 2001, or to boomerang around Moscow — where intermittent terrorism hasn’t been terribly successful at bringing about favorable policy change? Or did they see themselves as part of a transnational jihadist movement, i.e., less concerned about the specific politics of the region than the global struggle?
  3. But the answers to such questions are likely to do, at best, incomplete work for those concerned about causation and explanation. I’m not saying that they don’t matter. In fact, if these attacks are the start of a trend then we want to know the ideological impetus behind them. Rather, I am claiming that the specific motivations will likely turn out to be secondary to the processes that culminated in a decision by the two brothers — and whatever network they might be linked to — to attack targets in the United States. Indeed, it is almost certainly the case that the rationale for the attacks include totally unrealistic assumptions about the consequences of a Boston-based terror wave, which limits their explanatory utility. Instead, if we want to understand the causes of the attacks we will need to look to social processes, life histories, and other factors that are, on the one hand, tied to the last twenty years of regional history and, on the other hand, independent of such questions as whether the framework for the attack was “pursue global jihad” or “respond to Russian policies in the North Caucuses.”

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.