Counterterrorism efforts shift in 5 years since Boston Marathon bombing

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Five years ago, more than 23,000 athletes poured into a small New England town called Hopkinton, prepared for one of the most grueling of human endeavors - the Boston Marathon. What those runners were unprepared for turned out to be one of the most shocking terrorist attacks since September 11th.

Twin bombs exploded at the finish line on Boylston Street, 26.2 miles from Hopkinton, and a world away from what American intelligence officials thought they knew about terrorists. Backpacks containing homemade pressure-cooker bombs, planted by young-adult brothers of Chechen descent, killed 3 people and injured nearly 300 more, including 17 who lost at least one arm or leg.

"On April 15, 2013, he [the bomber] really didn't fit the profile of what the FBI was focusing on at the time in terms of violent Islamic extremism targeting the U.S.," according to Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr., who leads the FBI's Birmingham Division.

Sharp says in the years since Boston, the FBI and other agencies have evaluated their performance and while there was a successful prosecution in the case, lessons were learned from the mistakes made. Perhaps law enforcement's biggest error in the case was placing the older brother on a terrorist watch list but failing to monitor him close enough to prevent the attack.

"Post 9/11, the Saudi [Arabian Peninsula] and Sunni extremism has been a big focus of the United States in preventing terrorist attacks but that has changed and that threat has evolved," said Sharp.

The bombers immigrated to the United States around 2003 when their parents sought asylum from persecution in the Caucasus region of Russia. Both graduated from a public high school in Cambridge, Mass., and became permanent legal residents of the United States. The younger brother even became a U.S. citizen a little over 6 months prior to the bombings, when he was 19-years-old. Federal authorities concluded the two were self-radicalized, at least in part, by accessing extremist propaganda online.

"That is very difficult to police," said Sharp. "We try to evolve with technology but [contrary to popular notions] we are not trolling everyone's internet traffic.  Reviewing that has to be predicated upon a threat or perceived threat to public safety."

Sharp says the FBI and their partner agencies are increasingly focused on lone-wolf attacks on "soft targets" such as the ones perpetrated on Boston's marathon, a public health department in San Bernardino and a nightclub in Orlando.

"We do what we can to harden those targets. It's an evolving process, we can always improve on it and get better," said Sharp. "Unfortunately, as human beings, there will be times when things are going to slip through the cracks."

Following the explosions in Boston, sports leagues and event venues across the country began implementing more stringent screening procedures, including requiring attendees carry their belongings in clear bags. The University of Alabama, Jacksonville State University, Legacy Arena and the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater are just some of the many local sites that now ban large bags at popular events.

"I think it made everybody that manages events look at things differently," the race director for BHM 26.2, Jeremy Walker, told WBRC

BHM 26.2 will hold its inaugural race this Sunday, on the 5-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon attack. Two years of planning went into preparing a new course through Birmingham that can accommodate not only a marathon but also a half marathon, 5K, relay and one-mile fun run. The logistical challenges of coordinating an event for 2,000 runners are tremendous but a safe race day is paramount for Walker and his staff. About 500 people will be working along the route, including some 250 officers from Birmingham, Mt. Brook and Homewood Police Departments.

"We are leveraging technology in a unique way," said Walker, whose team developed an app for the BHM 26.2 marathon. Staff will help participants download and install the app on mobile devices during race registration, allowing organizers to send push notifications should anything come up during the run. "One of the biggest things is 'how fast can you get information to everyone involved?' I think information is key in keeping runners and spectators safe."

Safety isn't cheap either. Walker says event sponsors will cover six-digit production expenses so that every dollar of runner registration fees benefits Magic Moments and Children's of Alabama.

"Since Boston, every event I do, risk management is typically the very first thing we talk about what we need to build into the budget at the front side," said Walker. "It takes a lot of partnerships, a lot of communication and a lot of training," said Walker.

The largest expense will be those paid officers along the course but fortunately for event planners, the price of safety-enhancing technologies has dropped in the years since Boston. During the manhunt for the bombers, a thermal camera affixed to a State Police helicopter helped law enforcement close in on the younger brother's hiding spot. In 2013, that technology sold for several hundred thousand dollars.

This month, the Pelham Police Department debuted a drone equipped with a 4K resolution camera and FLIR (forward-looking infrared) lens capabilities.  This is their second drone and it was purchased with a $4,000 donation from the Cahaba Valley Elks Lodge. Pelham is just one of several law enforcement agencies in the state with such technology in 2018.

"This will up our game for many years in Pelham," Police Chief Larry Palmer tells WBRC. "In the Boston Marathon case, with suspects trying to elude officers, the man-to-man search of building to building is so time-consuming. They put a helicopter up and we can put a drone up and cover so much more territory in locating those potential suspects. It's just a wonderful tool for law enforcement to have."

One thing the FBI is still working to refine five years later is its process for quickly receiving and analyzing massive quantities of photos and videos from public tipsters.

"By and large, the American public is all carrying a camera in their back pockets through smartphones," said SAC Sharp. "We have taken a number of steps to improve on those processes that, God forbid, we have another event like Boston, we are better prepared to ingest that type of data."

Still no matter how advanced and accessible technology become, SAC Sharp stresses the importance of human intelligence and situational awareness. Ultimately the FBI was able to find photos of the bombers among the crowds because a victim, Jeff Bauman, noticed something was off with one of the suspects and later, from his hospital bed, described the man he saw to investigators. Sharp implores the public to remain vigilant in calling law enforcement if they see or hear something.

"Give us a chance because if you don't say anything, there's never really any chance for us to act on it and maybe prevent something from happening," Sharp said.

Click here to submit a tip to the FBI.

Click here for more information on BHM 26.2.

Copyright 2018 WBRC. All rights reserved.