Last week’s attack at the Boston Marathon, like the attempted car bombing of Times Square almost three years ago, shows that the line between local conflicts and global ones has become thinner. Faisal Shahzad, the would-be terrorist in 2010, had legally lived in the United States for seven years and had earned citizenship the year before hatching his plot. He would later say that he was inspired to carry out the attack by the radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but the United States discovered that the plot had, in fact, been organized and possibly financed by an extremist group called the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which usually targets the Pakistani state and military. The organization’s attempt to strike in the United States showed that its own distinction between the near and far enemy had become increasingly blurred.

Like Shahzad, the Boston suspects were in the United States legally. In some accounts, the older of the two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, developed radical ideas in the United States before traveling to Dagestan to visit family. In other accounts, he got his training abroad. None of the stories has a definitive answer for whether his underlying complaint was religious, political, or ethnic. It might, in fact, have been a combination of all three. There is no shortage of grievances that a young Chechen might have, nor of groups willing to exploit them. Organizations of Chechen separatists, which are largely Muslim, have fought against the Russian Federation since the end of the Cold War. The Caucasus Emirate, the largest group, denied any involvement in the bombing. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has often referenced Central Asia as an important theater for jihad. By most accounts, moreover, there were Chechens training in al Qaeda camps during the 1990s.

The United States has mostly focused on the terrorism challenge as it relates to al Qaeda, but that group is only one in a world marked by increasing sectarianism and in which diaspora communities can develop much closer connections to their home countries than they did in the past. Sympathetic populations abroad can easily get real-time information on conflicts in the remotest corners of the world. And that only increases the possibility that a small threat somewhere else can quickly become a global one with little warning.

What does this mean for U.S. policymakers and the military? Intelligence collection abroad remains critical, but another challenge may prove equally crucial: intelligence sharing. Foreign partners still usually have the best information on their own citizens -- possibly even those who live in the United States.

If current reports are correct, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was made aware of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, based on a tip from an unidentified foreign intelligence service. He was investigated prior to his travel abroad, but no further action was deemed appropriate. This begs the question of whether the foreign agency had other information -- or perhaps tracked his activities while he was abroad -- and why the United States didn’t know about it.

In situations like this, it is hard to overstate the importance of improving international intelligence cooperation. It is nearly impossible for the United States, acting alone, to track the behavior of a two-person cell across continents and into remote territories. It needs partners. The political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has compounded the problem. Some counterterrorism intelligence relationships are now so strained as to be almost nonexistent. Officials in post–Arab Spring countries fear that the United States would potentially manipulate young governments by co-opting security services or politicians should they be granted access to the intelligence community. A second concern is that the public, if it found out about the cooperation, would be furious. Despite statements to the contrary, U.S. counterterrorism relationships in that region are not what they once were. And the trend may continue as the United States focuses on other priorities around the world.

The United States overhauled domestic information sharing after the September 11 attacks, and it should strive to make comparable improvements in international information sharing now. Of course, there are differences: in domestic intelligence sharing, disputes over legal authorities and jurisdictions stovepiped intelligence gathering and complicated dealings between departments. International intelligence sharing, by contrast, is constrained because foreign countries -- even allies -- often find themselves in competition, mistrusting one another. Still, taking some basic steps would be a useful start. Establishing technological platforms to issue warnings without having cloak-and-dagger meetings or diplomatic démarches is now feasible, thanks to anonymizing software and cloud computing. The development of information-sharing tools along those lines might help build confidence among foreign intelligence partners; the process of doing so would help foster a common operational picture as well as create standards for sharing. In the world’s most tumultuous places, however, the most significant step to encouraging intelligence cooperation might be as simple as sending meaningful signals of continued U.S. engagement.

Even improved international intelligence sharing will be no panacea for terrorism. For starters, as the old intelligence adage goes, there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service. Intelligence agencies are tasked with gathering secrets on national security threats, which pits the agencies of even friendly countries against one another. Shared terrorist threats have helped alleviate some of this pressure and opened up channels for sharing, but it remains a difficult exercise as agencies try to protect their sources and methods.

That doesn’t mean that cooperation isn’t a goal worth shooting for. It is true that many new terrorist outfits, including small al Qaeda cells being formed worldwide, will never present a direct threat to the United States. But it is also true that small threats may develop in unexpected places and become big ones. Meanwhile, ideological and historical ties to global jihadist movements only increase the likelihood that local conflicts will become global or homeland security threats. A policy aimed at keeping remote conflicts at arm’s length may have worked in the past -- but it is quickly becoming obsolete.

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  • SCOTT HELFSTEIN is the director of research for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The views expressed here are his own.
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