- - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

While many questions remain unanswered about the murderous Boston Marathon bombing, we cannot gloss over the Chechen origins of the terrorism suspects. With one of the Tsarnaev brothers dead and the other in police custody, it is hardly certain that any significant information will come from the suspects themselves.

The first critical decision was whether to treat the surviving suspect as a criminal defendant or an enemy combatant. Although law-enforcement sources have confirmed that they have invoked the “public-safety exception” to postpone advising Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of his Fifth Amendment rights, the exception is limited in both time and scope of inquiry. It is manifestly insufficient to sustain the time-consuming interrogation that could reveal significant information about international terrorism. Moreover, since President Obama has consistently viewed terrorism against America as a law-enforcement matter rather than an ongoing war, it’s no surprise he quickly reverted to his default position of trial in federal courts. Undoubtedly, a court-appointed attorney will soon advise Mr. Tsarnaev to clam up and reveal nothing more.

The better course was to hold Mr. Tsarnaev at least initially as an enemy combatant, in order to gain as much useful intelligence as possible. There will be ample time later to try him (and potentially others) as a criminal defendant, since there is overwhelming and indisputably admissible evidence to convict him in a subsequent criminal proceeding, whether Miranda rights are read to him now or later.

A second critical decision must also be made immediately: How vigorously to require that U.S. intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies focus on the possibility the Tsarnaev brothers are part of, or were materially assisted by, international terrorist groups. Their Chechen homeland has been the source of innumerable terrorist attacks against Russia in the past two decades: bombings of subways and apartment buildings in major cities; the 2002 hostage-taking at a major Moscow theater that left more than 175 dead, including 30 to 40 Chechen terrorists; and the 2004 bloody school hostage-taking in Beslan (in the Russian Caucasus near Chechnya), with nearly 400 dead and 700 injured or wounded, including many young children and all 40 terrorists.

Moscow’s authorities countered Chechen terrorism against Russia through brutal military responses against the hostage seizures, and in Chechnya, Moscow’s tactics themselves are responsible for much loss of innocent life. Obviously, Chechen separatism played no role in the Boston Marathon bombing. Increasingly in recent years, though, those Chechens prone to terrorism, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, have turned to radical Islamists for assistance. As Chechen separatists were radicalized, they became part of broader international terrorist activities in places as diverse as Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, completely unrelated to grievances against Russia.

We can only speculate now as to whether the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized in the United States because they disdained our free society, or whether they came here as child soldiers already in the terrorist war. However, the key question for protecting America against future acts of terrorism is whether the brothers were controlled and directed by foreign operatives, and whether they received training in bomb-making, terrorist tactics, weapons-handling and the like. Ascertaining these facts could tell us whether the brothers were self-activated, or whether al Qaeda and its loose, growing band of affiliates is planning even more extensive terrorism within America.

There is no doubt that our information is currently woefully incomplete, and the issue of foreign terrorist connections must remain simply a working hypothesis, subject to further refinement or refutation. By definition in these early days, hard, definitive answers will not emerge immediately, or even for a protracted period.

Unfortunately, however, evident even in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy, many commentators and Obama administration officials are displaying a willful blindness, declining even to acknowledge the crucial issues raised by potential foreign involvement. This freely professed unwillingness to consider the possibility of international connections is troubling. It may be unpleasant for the ideologically motivated, as with the Sept. 11, 2012, killings in Benghazi, Libya, to admit that the global war on terrorism is far from over. That is the reality, and the negative consequences for America will be far more unpleasant in coming years if we ignore inconvenient facts.

The potential implications are enormous. Before we engage in a contentious debate about privacy versus security, or embark on expensive programs of increased precautions and domestic defenses, we need to know more. The far better approach may well be to take the fight to the terrorists overseas, rather than adhering to a Maginot Line approach here at home. In the iconic phrase, if we play only defense, we have to be right every time, whereas the terrorists only have to be right once. Our future safety and critical aspects of our way of life depend on thoroughly investigating the Boston bombing’s international implications.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).