Psychological Splitting and Hating the Freedom Afforded by the West—Thoughts on the Boston Bombers Possible Involvement in Murder and Terrorism

While news is still breaking over the Tsaraev brothers and their apparent vile hatred for the West, everyone is asking how did the Chechen conflict infect these young men so deeply that they struck out here against Americans who have nothing to do with the heavy handed Russian crushing of their independence movement?  The answers are still emerging, but the facts look like a profile we’ve seen before –including possibly that of the 9-11 bombers—of those Muslims who have come to the west from extremely conservative cultures, seeking its freedoms and later coming to hate the very things they at first embraced and profited from.

While we still don’t know the details of the Tsaraev brothers alleged radicalization and Tamerlan’s possible involvement in the ritualized murder of a young man he formerly introduced as a friend, it fits a pattern I’ve seen before. When a first or second generation Muslims from an extremely conservative society confronts the freedoms to drink, chase women and engage in activities that are forbidden to him in his home culture he may find that he has poorly built internal constraints to keep him within his moral comfort zone.  This is because in the society he came from these constraints are provided to him externally by a system of very strict rules requiring women to be covered, interactions across the gender divide to be strictly regulated and drugs and alcohol to be outlawed.  In the freedoms of the west—particularly if he came, like Tamerlan apparently did, from a war torn area rife with trauma, and if he has PTSD—he may turn to drugs and alcohol to self medicate his traumas or simply for the enjoyment of temporarily living a free and fast lifestyle.  But later the “fall” into the “evils” of the West may cause a deep crisis of guilt, grief and need to come to terms with what he regards as inner corruption.

Then if he engages in the psychological mechanism of splitting or disavowing the “bad” self, the “sinner” may project his anger outside of himself blaming and wanting to destroy others for his inner corruption. If this is what occurred with Tamerlan—which we have no way of knowing yet, although there is evidence that he had turned away from drinking and that his brother regularly smoked up—he would have failed to look inside himself for whatever caused him to turn to drugs and alcohol.  And he would have blamed western society for corrupting him—and in his disavowal of his “bad” self—wished to punish or destroy the community that he saw as responsible for his corruption.

This unfortunately is often the mechanism that militant jihadi ideologues take advantage of when preying upon lost young Muslims trying to make their way in western cultures they don’t understand. And we know Tamerlan felt alienated in our culture stating that he didn’t have friends and didn’t understand Americans.  We also know from an interview in Russian with his Kyrgyz teacher that he came out of Chechnya traumatized and sensitive to loud noises like firecrackers—that he appeared to have war trauma.  Indeed as a young child he may have had PTSD.

Now with the news of the friend he had being ritually murdered—having his throat slashed apparently on 9-11 with cash left in the murder site and drugs sprinkled all across his body it certainly looks like this splitting mechanism could be one of the motives if Tamerlan turns out to indeed be responsible for the murders. 

There are still so many questions to be answered but it’s clear that militant jihadi terrorist groups with their virulent ideology proclaiming that Muslims are under attack by Western powers and calling for and even providing instructions for Muslims in the west to rise up and attack, may find a resonant response in young men coming with traumas from war torn areas.  From the jihadi videos and uploads on Tamerlan’s Internet site we know that he felt sympathy for the Syrian rebel uprising and innocent civilians killed by Assad, and that he had been pulled into glorifying the militant jihadi movement.  

What we still don’t know is how the brothers if they are the perpetrators had their psychological vulnerabilities activated into taking part in terrorism and potentially murder as well—but the psychological splitting mechanism alongside a terrorist group and ideology urging such action is one potential explanation.

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.

4 thoughts on “Psychological Splitting and Hating the Freedom Afforded by the West—Thoughts on the Boston Bombers Possible Involvement in Murder and Terrorism

  1. Rhoads Stevens

    Everybody can claim to be disaffected by something. That is the nature of finding ones way in the world. It is no excuse for blowing up innocent people. It is not society’s job to psychoanalyze its citizens, but preventing them from violence and bringing them to justice is.

  2. Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. Post author

    Thanks Rhoads, the duty of society is indeed to stop such individuals. And to do so it is important to as much as we are able to delve into their minds and find out the vulnerabilities and the ways in which terrorist groups and ideologies cynically manipulate them. By doing so we will equip ourselves to get better at stopping them earlier on in the process. Indeed I just trained for the FBI yesterday and we discussed these very issues…

  3. Gjermund E. Jansen

    A very well written article on the psychology of terrorists and the need to come to terms with their own guilt and the projection of guilt on to the “others”. Very interesting and insightful, because you get a view into the psyche of the individual and not only the collective “will” of the organisation.


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