How Does My Neighbor Become a Terrorist? The Chechen Boston Bombers – Delving into the Minds of Terrorists to Try to Understand their Motivations

The two Chechen brothers who are suspects in the Boston bombings—Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26—now dead, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19—who was captured and remains in serious condition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, raise important questions of how the terrorism in the Chechen conflict appears to have ended up being played out here as well.  Having interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members, close associates and even hostages worldwide—including those from Chechnya, I have some ideas as to how these young boys may have been radicalized.

Both boys, Chechen by ethnicity came to the U.S. a decade ago from Kyrgyzstan via Dagestan in 2002 and 2003, where they had lived in a Chechen enclave in the town of Tormok.   Tamerlan (who arrived at age 15) and his father especially appear to have been struggling to succeed as new immigrants in Boston.  While Tamerlan became a successful Golden Gloves boxer he never made a living from it, nor achieved his dream of making it to the Olympics, and when funds became a problem he was forced to drop out of community college.  His father a talented auto mechanic also never found steady work, reportedly got a brain tumor and separating from his wife, returned back to Dagestan. Dzhokhar (who arrived at age 9 or 10), appears well liked, charismatic but to have been struggling in university.  He also had been researching his Chechen roots—perhaps trying to understand where he came from.

Tamerlan’s mother reports that in 2008 he became more religious—probably referring to his turning to a conservative form of Islam, and his uncle reports that in 2009 that Tamerlan called the uncle an infidel and stated that that God had a plan for him—that he no longer needed to be concerned about work or studies.  During that same time period Tamerlan was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.  In 2010 he married and had a baby.  He had grown a beard, begun keeping the five Islamic prayer times and his wife also covered herself in manner not normal for mainstream Chechens—he was clearly deeply religious, but only the infidel comment give signs of extremism at that point. 

In January 2012, Tamerlan Tsarnaev travelled to Dagestan, a republic in the Russian Federation adjacent to Chechnya, where his father currently resides—and flew back to the United States in July, according to a U.S. official.  During his six months in Dagestan we don’t know what happened but after returning in 2012 Tameran put up a video of a Chechen militant calling for militant jihad as well as some other terrorist videos.  The Chechen militant featured in the video was later killed in a violent confrontation in Dagestan with Russians.

Tamerlan also put up videos of the Syrian regime’s brutal killing of civilians in response to their rebel movement.  Evidently Tamerlan became enamored of, and was drawn into glorifying what began as the Chechen secular independence movement—an insurgency that transitioned into the Chechen “jihad” and which then spread into a terrorist insurgent movement through out the region—via what in 2005 was announced by Chechen rebel leader Baseyev as the New Caucasus Front. 

And perhaps because of what he knew about the crushing of the Chechen rebel movement by the heavy handed Russians, Tamerlan easily identified, felt empathy for, and was enraged by what is now going on in Syria.  And from his empathy and identification with the traumas of others—alongside what must have been exposure to militant jihadis—either in Dagestan or over the Internet or elsewhere—Tamerlan it seems was drawn into the larger militant jihadi movement and was ultimately convinced (or convinced himself) that he should attack inside the U.S.

The insurgent group in the Caucasus is now led (after the death of Baseyev) by Doku (Abu Usman) Umarov. Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States its stated goal is to withdraw from Russia to establish the Caucasus Emirate in the region. Recently designated by the U.S. as terrorist organization and terrorist leader, Umarov responded by saying the U.S. move was a concession to the Russians and concluded, “I am the enemy of all of the enemies of Allah.”  However, the Chechen or wider Caucasus group have never specifically named the U.S. as a target, struck outside of Russia or plotted directly against the U.S. 

Indeed in an official statement in response to the Boston bombings the Dagestani militant group declared, “The command of the Vilayat Dagestan Mujahidin… declares that the Caucasus fighters are not waging any military activities against the United States of America. We are only fighting Russia,” This was stated via the website.

Chechens as individual militants however have long been involved in Al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan and throughout Europe—including some recent arrests in both Spain and France, and activity in Belgium. And the wider militant jihadi movement (al Qaeda and all it’s affiliates)—and the ideology propagated by Al Qaeda to which Chechens as individual fighters have adhered and been active individually in globally—does name the U.S. as an enemy.  It appears that this wider movement is what Tamerlan was drawn into—either in his trip to Dagestan or via the Internet.

Tamerlan’s methods also point in this direction, as the pressure cooker bombers that he and his brother allegedly used appear to have come straight out of the pages of the summer, 2010 issue of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine entitled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”. This is a handbook Tamerlan could easily have accessed via the Internet or a method he could have learned in Dagestan.

The Inspire magazine article describes the pressurized cooker as an effective method for bomb-making, instructing online followers to: “Glue the shrapnel to the inside of the pressurized cooker then fill in the cooker with the inflammable material.”  These instructions for multiple methods of attack—including starting fires, creating explosions, even causing road accidents—were also placed online again this year in the Lone Mujahid Pocketbook, a summary of tips for the do-it-yourself jihadist again. In both cases the call is for “lone wolf” terrorists to rise up from inside the U.S. and attack here using simple methods inflicting damage in a “thousand wounds strategy” and was put out by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.   

While many of the Chechen terrorists have used suicide operations—following the Chechen rallying cry of “Victory or Paradise”—believing that their death equates into Islamic “martyrdom”, these boys did not elect that path.  The fact that the brothers had additional explosives and even a third pressure cooker bomb leads one to believe that they wanted to live, to fight another day.  Or potentially, if they got caught—they planned to stage a standoff dying in an explosion while killing those who came to arrest them.  It’s the usual modus operandi among Chechen terrorists who have had such standoffs in Dagestan and Chechnya in the past, and we saw the same activity with the Madrid train bombers, the husband of Muriel Degauque and others involved in the militant jihadi movement.

While we still don’t know the exact path the radicalization of Tamerlan took, the Russians had identified him over two years ago to the FBI as a “follower of radical Islam and a strong believer,” and informed U.S. officials that Tsarnaev “had changed drastically” since 2010 and was preparing to leave the United States “to join unspecified underground groups,” (this according to the FBI unofficial statements). 

Yet when the FBI interrogated Tsarnaev and his family members in 2011, as well as scoured his Internet accounts they found no evidence of terrorist related activity and they evidently dropped their investigation asking the Russians to continue sharing information about him, which the Russians apparently did not do.

The young men by all accounts were not displaying to others any other type of extremist activity.  The head of their local Muslim center in Boston told news outlet RIA-Novosti, “The brothers were members of our community in Cambridge. They wouldn’t come very often and they had never expressed any radical views.”

And when questioned, their father Anzor Tsarnaev also seems amazed.  Although having conducted research interviews investigating how nearly half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers got on the terrorist trajectory, my collaborator (Khapta Ahkmedova) and I found the same disbelief among their Chechen parents who also had no idea of their family members involvement with local terrorist cells. 

Described as gentle, smart, peace-loving by their friends and family in Dagestan and also in the U.S. it appears that the boys, if indeed the perpetrators of the Boston attacks, held their hatred well hidden inside.  That these alleged terrorists had two sides to their personalities should not be a surprise.  First generation immigrants often feel that they have two selves—one identified to the cultural roots of their past who speaks the indigenous language at home and another that is the more assimilated self that takes on the host culture.  For many first generation immigrants these two selves can feel divided and pulled in differing directions.

In the UK some friends of the London metro bomber, Mohammed Siddiqui Khan were aware of his radicalization after he traveled back to Pakistan, while others felt completely astounded by the “killer” side to his personality.  I found the same interviewing family members of Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists—often complete shock to find their family member radicalized to that extent.  Yet when I dug deeper I often found the roots in those from conflict zones usually related to traumatic loss and a desire for revenge. And for those not from conflict zones the radicalization was often connected to exposure by terrorist recruiters to graphic imagery of traumas inside conflict zones—images that terror groups are adept at using to manipulate their potential recruits to create empathy, identification and a sense of duty to fight in behalf of other Muslim victims.  In the case of these boys they had one foot in both regions.

That a young Chechen traveling back to Dagestan and potentially exposed to extremists there or trolling the Internet and exposing himself to AQ type messaging could be manipulated to become sympathetic to the global militant jihadi narrative that Muslims worldwide are under attack coupled with the call to attack western powers, is also not exactly surprising.  It happens in Europe, Canada and has happened here also with others coming from war torn areas—although in other cases the domestic plots have been thwarted or the actors traveled to attack outside the U.S.—as for example, in the case of the Somalis who left to join al Shabbab.

We also have evidence that Tamerlan was alienated and felt alone in the U.S.  He reportedly said, “I don’t have a single American friend,” in a photo essay about his love of boxing, adding “I don’t understand them.”  Yet at his boxing club he is said to have introduced to the owner there, a young man as his best friend who later was brutally killed in a still unsolved murder case that appears drug related.  Perhaps Tamerlan was deeply affected by that murder as well?  His father leaving, his friend murdered could certainly leave him feeling even more alone and vulnerable.  We also know that he had problems curbing his temper and had been hauled up on a domestic violence charges for striking his girlfriend.

While we still need to learn exactly what their paths for radicalization were, we can see that in this Internet age, the traumas that occur in one part of the world quickly travel through and influence actors far from them—particularly if they have any relation to them by family, ethnicity or roots—and when terrorist groups and their perverted ideologies become part of the mix that can become dangerous indeed.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”. In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages.  She also conducted psychological autopsies with a Chechen colleague on over half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers investigating what put them on the terrorist trajectory and what motivated them to explode themselves.

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