Boston Poses Biggest Challenge Yet for Obama’s Seasoned Counterterrorism Team

How will Obama's counterterrorism team respond to the Boston Marathon tragedy?

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Pete Souza / The White House

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with FBI Director Robert Mueller on the explosions that occurred in Boston, in the Oval Office, April 15, 2013. Seated with the President are Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

Barack Obama‘s counterterrorism team has been tested repeatedly the past several years, from the Nigerian man who nearly downed a passenger jet on Christmas day 2009 to the failed May 2010 attempt to detonate an SUV bomb in Times Square. But yesterday’s bombings in Boston pose an unprecedented challenge for a team of terrorist hunters now scrambling for answers—and signs of any follow-up attacks.

In each of the major terror scares of Obama’s tenure, suspects were quickly identified and arrested. The underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was hauled off the plane after his bomb failed to detonate. Faisal Shahzad was arrested at New York’s JFK airport soon after his bomb fizzled. The would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi was nabbed while still planning his attack. Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan (whom the Pentagon has not labeled a terrorist) was apprehended at the scene of his November 2009 massacre. And after cargo bombs headed for the U.S. from Yemen were intercepted in October 2010, the U.S. quickly traced them to al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, whose members it has been steadily killing.

In this case, there is no suspect, and by most accounts few solid leads. In his brief statement at the White House this morning, President Obama conceded that authorities remain unsure whether the Boston bombing was an attack of foreign or domestic origin. His top law enforcement, counterterrorism and homeland security officials are already working frantically to get answers, motivated by the fear that whoever struck in Boston could already be planning a next act.

Taking the lead on the investigation is the FBI, headed by Robert Mueller, sworn in as director just one week before September 11, 2001 With his ten-year term set to expire in 2011, Obama convinced Mueller to stay on for two more years, in part, the president said, due to “the ongoing threat to the United States” from terrorists. Mueller has now overseen dozens of terrorism cases of varying severity and runs an FBI whose counterterrorism capabilities are light years beyond their pre-9/11 levels, when the bureau focused overwhelmingly on more traditional crime. In May 2011, Mueller explained to TIME’s Bart Gellman that law enforcement is a valuable tool for combating terrorism. “Because of the cooperation we get in just about every case, because of plea bargains, we get a substantial amount of intelligence,” he said. Hardened terrorists, he added, “are like everybody else. There are very few that have not in some way cooperated for some period of time.”

Also central to the federal response is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who joined Mueller in a telephone briefing for Obama just after the Boston attack. Napolitano will assist the hunt for clues but will concentrate especially on identifying and preventing possible follow-up attacks. It was Napolitano’s department that controversially warned of a rise in “rightwing extremist activity” in 2009, a report that could draw new attention amid speculation that the bomber or bombers might be domestic anti-government radicals. (Just last week, however, Napolitano told reporters that her top security concerns are cyber and aviation threats.)

Until recently, Obama’s point person inside the White House would have been John Brennan, an extremely trusted aide who served as counterterrorism and homeland security advisor to the president through his first term. Brennan left that job last month  to take over the CIA. The plot lines of Homeland notwithstanding, the CIA is barred from conducting domestic operations, though it does maintain a close relationship with New York’s police department, and Brennan is almost certainly giving Obama counsel on how to manage the Boston aftermath. Meanwhile, Brennan’s agents and analysts will be scouring their foreign intelligence sources for relevant chatter from both before and after the attack.

Brennan’s replacement at the White House, Lisa Monaco, is about to undergo a trial by fire. Monaco arrived in Brennan’s windowless West Wing basement office last month from the Justice Department, where she was a prosecutor in the department’s national security division. She met immediately with Obama after yesterday’s bombings, and has regularly briefed him since. Monaco should work easily with the FBI’s Mueller, to whom she was a former top aide. (Monaco is also reportedly among the candidates to replace Mueller when he steps down in September.)

Attorney General Eric Holder would also play an important role should one or more suspects be arrested and brought into the criminal justice system. Holder was stymied in his 2009 attempt to bring 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trail in a New York federal court. But he touted his agency’s federal indictment of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law last month, an act criticized by conservatives who said the man should be treated as an enemy combatant.

A similar debate could ensue if a Boston suspect with al Qaeda ties is captured, although Shazad, Abdulmutallab, Zazi and Hasan were all indicted in federal court. It’s also possible that yesterday’s horror in Boston will be avenged not in the U.S. legal system, but with drone-launched Hellfire missiles in a foreign land.

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