The April 15 Boston Marathon terror attack stunned and saddened the nation. But it may not have been too surprising to one group of former U.S. college students. After all, they had planned just such an attack.
In 2008, a group of undergraduates taking a course on terrorism at Tufts University, in the Boston suburb of Medford, planned an attack on the Boston Marathon as part of a class exercise. Their hypothetical plan was eerily similar to the attack which actually took place. The course instructor, Brigadier General (ret.) Russell D. Howard, now a Professor at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies, routinely divides his classes into groups of five or six and asks them to “red team” attacks as though they were actual terrorist cells. “If 20-24 year old students can do it,” he told Rare, “then terrorists can do it.”
The Boston Marathon operation Gen. Howard’s students planned was almost identical to the actual attack. “It was backpacks, quick-in/quick-out, and right at the same location,” he said. The main differences were that they used pipe bombs instead of pressure cookers, and their assumed ideology was right-wing rather than jihadist. The reason they chose the Boston Marathon was that is was a soft target, virtually impossible to defend, and highly symbolic. Plus being an internationally known sporting event it would be guaranteed to have massive press coverage.
Such exercises have practical counter-terrorism applications. “A good counter-terrorist needs to be able to think and act like a terrorist,” Gen. Howard said. That same year a group of graduate students at the Fletcher School planned an attack at Harvard Stadium that would take place during the Harvard-Yale game that they later briefed to Boston police and other agencies. Red teaming is a standard practice among counter terrorism professionals, whether in the military, the intelligence community, or law enforcement.
None of the students involved in the 2008 exercise agreed to be interviewed for this piece, though they did reconnect via email after the tragic events of April 15 to share their thoughts and concerns. One can only imagine how they felt, seeing the same type of deadly project they put together as a classroom exercise unfolding with deadly consequences on live television.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare and author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins