Residents of Boston, pundits, and analysts were not the only ones confused by last month’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. In jihadist forums, as in the mainstream media, a debate has raged about the suspects’ motivations, allegiances, training, and possible other plans. As in the rest of the world, no one had good answers about whether the Tsarnaev brothers were operating directly under al Qaeda’s command or were lone wolves, whether they had trained in terrorist camps or found most of the know-how they put to deadly use online, or whether they were part of a larger cell planning further atrocities.

In the broadest sense, the online jihadist community celebrated the attacks. It is hardly surprising, of course, that an attack against the United States was welcomed by people committed to the nation’s destruction. Most users on two of the most popular forums, Ansar al-Mujahideen and Shamikh, expressed their simple approbation by posting “Alhamdulillah” (praise God) or “Allah Akbar” (God is great). For these users, the Boston bombings demonstrated both the enduring nature of jihad and the United States’ ongoing vulnerability to attack. As one forum member wrote, “America is on the way to destruction.” Another, who calls himself Fata Muslim Ghuwair, wrote, “I am crying tears of joy for these new strikes at the heart of America ... Our late Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, your soldiers and sons honour you even after your death.”

But the euphoria has not been universal in jihadist communities. The more temperate among the forums’ members expressed only qualified support. Yes, the bombers caused fear and panic, they wrote, but they also appeared to lack the ambition of al Qaeda at its most audacious. This view is well summarized by one participant, who wrote, “I don’t think al-Qaeda is behind [the attack on Boston] because al-Qaeda’s attacks are much better managed than what we have witnessed.” Some forum members even deemed the relatively small attack as counterproductive, since, a user called Nosra wrote, it will “harm the image of Jihad and will also make it harder for more ambitious attacks in the future because the authorities will now be more alert.” Presumably, Nosra thinks that an attack would have had to kill many more in order for the extra scrutiny to be worth it.

The more extreme version of Nosra’s position was that the attacks were not even the work of jihadists. Users speculated that the U.S. government perpetrated them both to demonize Muslims and to divert attention from the ongoing civil war in Syria. The relatively modest levels of damage caused by the bombs only fuelled this suspicion.

Those who put forward this view, though, were quickly hushed. Some members downplayed concerns over the number of fatalities by arguing the bombs had achieved an altogether different objective. Since the onset of the economic downturn, al Qaeda has at times argued that one of its tactics is to inflict significant economic damage on the United States. This new tactical imperative was first demonstrated in 2010, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) placed bombs on UPS and FedEx jets. The group claimed that the plot had only cost it $1,000 but caused millions in losses to the haulage industry. “That’s what we call leverage,” AQAP boasted. One forum user, Elias, reminded his counterparts of the economic tactic by declaring that “this attack has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars to America ... imagine if Muslims would commit similar acts in all the infidel cities, how quickly that would rid us of these infidels!” Views like these were among the more esoteric, but nonetheless gave supporters at least something to cheer.

All in all, the online reaction to the Boston bombing has been tepid. And that is unusual and borne of several reasons. The first is that al Qaeda attacks in the West are typically characterized by high casualty rates and widespread panic. The death of three civilians and the quick demise and arrest of the perpetrators is, for supporters, something of a comedown.

The second reason is that al Qaeda and the global jihad movement have become far less concerned with the West since the dawn of the Arab Spring. Jihadists are instead now looking back to the Muslim world, where the contours of power still are far from settled in Mali, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and, most dramatically, Syria. “Why should we waste our time on this?” Hamil al-Mask, a member of the Ansar forum, asked. “Lone wolves will always be part of our cause so let’s say Allah Akbar and move on.”

And that raises a third reason that the reaction has been muted. Outside of a few pockets of the Middle East and Africa, al Qaeda increasingly relies on lone wolves, because it is much harder to train prospective terrorists in training camps these days. In turn, the organization has widely disseminated bomb-making instructions in the English language, specifically aimed at sympathizers in the West. The Tsarnaevs achieved the realization of al Qaeda’s new strategy in this regard. But they also revealed its limits.

In the end, the lukewarm reaction to the Boston bombings is best viewed through the lens of a group that is divided between, on the one hand, a recognition that lone wolf operations are, in many places, the only feasible options left and, on the other hand, the hope that there is still more to do elsewhere -- not least in Syria, where the al Qaeda aligned fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra continue to make inroads. After all, as the Tsarnaev brothers were packing their pressure cookers, Jabhat al-Nusra was winning widespread support in large parts of Aleppo for its social welfare projects. And its prowess for organized fighting, most recently on display during the battle of Raqqa, has also won the group many plaudits. For those who still harbor ambitions of reviving the Caliphate in Damascus, the Boston bombings were simply a sideshow -- and an uncomfortable admission of the global jihadist movement’s limitations in the West.

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  • Shiraz Maher (@ShirazMaher) is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. Samar Batrawi is a research associate at ICSR.
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