Lone Wolf Terrorist Attacks–are they Really Lonely? The Boston bombers and how they may have radicalized over the Internet

Writing answers from his hospital bed, 19-year-old accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that he and his older brother Tamerlan acted alone – that they received no training or support from outside terrorist groups and planned their attack following instructions from the al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s online magazine Inspire – according to official remarks from government officials Tuesday.

This brings up questions of if the two were indeed “self” radicalized as Dzhokhar claims – explaining that his slain older brother, Tamerlan, was “upset” by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus angrily justified attacking Americans as a result. It also brings up questions of how “lonely” these lone wolves actually were. 

Nowadays with terrorist groups present on the Internet it is entirely possible to bring all four elements of the lethal cocktail of terrorism together simply sitting in front of a computer monitor. These four elements – that I found in my interviews of over 400 terrorists, terrorist supporters, suicide bombers, their family members, close associates and even their hostages are: the group, the ideology, social support for terrorism and the individual vulnerabilities inside the potential terrorist recruit. 

And while I definitely found individuals who were radicalized via the Internet, in all my interviews with terrorists it took more than just exposure to a terrorist group and its virulent ideology via the Internet.  There was always a handler, some small cell at a minimum that provided social support, as well as planners, senders and equippers. Now however Al Qaeda may have made that all obsolete – if what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is saying is true – we may indeed learn that the group, the ideology and the social support may all be supplied via the Internet. 

However with breaking news now reporting Dzhokhar as speaking about a man named “Misha” who may have been instigating in Tamerlan’s case – at least moving him down the terrorist trajectory – we may see again the warm hands of a real human combined with what exists in the virtual “University of Jihad” available via the Internet.  

When it comes to individual vulnerabilities these two young men came on asylum visa out of the war-torn Chechen area – similar to the Somali boys from Minnesota who also joined the militant jihadi movement after coming for asylum here in the U.S. – although their paths to radicalization differed in they chose to leave our country, albeit to join al Shabaab which does name the U.S. as its enemy. 

Tamerlan – according to his kindergarten teacher (speaking in Russian to reporters in Kyrghizstan) had lived through the first Chechen war of independence and as a young boy showed reactivity to loud noises like firecrackers.  And being connected to a Chechen clan–he and his brother surely heard many stories, if not actually lived through the many human rights violations and killings of Chechen civilians in the decade of conflicts.

Having direct knowledge of the Chechen sufferings likely made Tamerlan and his brother highly responsive to civilian Muslim victims in other parts of the world and potentially increased their vulnerability to be drawn into extremist explanations and narratives about ‘Muslims under attack’ and the need for militant jihad. Tamerlan displayed his sympathy and anger over the heavy handed crushing by Assad of the Syrian rebel movement and of the killing of civilians there–he had uploaded a video showing the Syrian atrocities–events similar to the civilian deaths and human rights violations that occurred under Putin’s iron fisted response to the Chechen uprisings.

As an immigrant from a conservative Muslim culture Tamerlan also underwent the stressors of multiple moves, entering a completely new culture as a teenager and this with many temptations for coping–drugs and alcohol at the ready.  His father failed to make a living here, his parents quarreled and split up, his father developed a brain tumor and both parents returned to Dagestan leaving the two boys alone in a foreign country with an extended family that apparently rejected them.  Tamerlan had dreams of going to the Olympics for boxing but didn’t make it, he went to community college but dropped out and he was unemployed relying on his wife to support the family at the time of the attacks. 

If Tamerlan was having trouble settling here, as his uncle claims, and especially if he had a drug or alcohol problem he might have been deeply vulnerable to an extremist group and ideology offering him a way to clean up his act – even if it meant taking him down the road toward terrorism.  The militant jihad I found in my interviews with terrorists around the world offers a psychological first aid for troubled Muslim youth.  It offers an emotional salve for PTSD, along with a set of strict rules to step out of chaos, and if that proves too difficult an easy exit from life’s pain as a “martyr”.  And for those who chose the “martyrdom” path I found that can be accompanied by such a deep sense of euphoria – delivering a high that can be as strong as any narcotic drug for a would be “martyr” – that it sustains him to the point where he pulls the cord ending his life as he takes others with him. 

Tamerlan was clearly enamored of the militant jihadi ideology.  He had uploaded a video on his site in which Dagestani “Emir Abu Dudzhana” warns that he will kill anyone who willingly works for the Dagestani republican government or Russian federal government.  And Dzhokhar states that the two brothers radicalized by watching extremist websites and videos and that they drew their bomb plans from Inspire magazine put out by al Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula.

But was the Internet the whole story? Tamerlan’s mother says she encouraged her son to take on a more conservative form of Islam.  Why?  And both she and his wife wore a form of hidjab much more conservative than is what is indigenous to Chechen culture.  Why did she urge her son to become more religious?  Was he struggling with drugs and alcohol and needed a way out?  Many persons have found their way out by turning to religion.  But perhaps, if this was his path with all his other vulnerabilities and easy access to extremist ideologies at the click of a mouse he got pulled too far – way beyond conservative Islam – into violent extremism. 

In asking how and why, we still have this issue of the unsolved triple murders that occurred on 9/11 murders of three young men whose parents are now asking for the case to be reopened in light of Tamerlan’s alleged involvement in terrorism. Tamerlan once introduced one of the murdered young men as his best friend.  Later that youth turned up with his throat slit and marijuana sprinkled over his body.  Was this a ritualized militant jihadi murder – similar to how Mohammed Boyeri in the Netherlands killed Theo van Gogh for what Boyeri believed were Gogh’s apostate ways? 

In my interviews with extremists I have found cases where young first and second generation immigrant Muslims who have gotten into drugs, womanizing, homosexual relationships or anything else forbidden to them and later enter extremist groups as a way to cleanse themselves.  However, instead of coming to terms with their own behaviors they are encouraged into the psychological defense of splitting – in which they project their hatred outward and seek to destroy the host culture that they blame for having corrupted them.  Was this also part of the picture in Tamerlan’s case?  Did this play any role in the murders if Tamerlan is shown to be involved in them?  Could this be one of the reasons he left for Dagestan in the first place?  And while there, did he also find social support for solidifying his already forming extremists views?

While investigators work hard to piece the story together we already know that the ideology and the equipping that terrorist recruiters usually offer in person is now available virtually, as is the social support for terrorist attacks upon the west.  So even if they turn out to be two lone wolf attackers – we also know that they weren’t necessarily that lonely. 

They were perhaps lonely – as new immigrants missing their parents who had divorced and moved back to Dagestan – and they perhaps felt alone. But they were hardly alone once they decided to adopt an extremist ideology and join the global militant jihad.  Even if all the companionship they found, including the instructions and perverted virulent ideology to justify their attacks was only virtual – it seems that was enough to move them into action.

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.

2 thoughts on “Lone Wolf Terrorist Attacks–are they Really Lonely? The Boston bombers and how they may have radicalized over the Internet

  1. YeOldOakTree

    I would say that the Loneliness pertaining to terrorism is not just a loneliness of having no sexual or friend companion. There is a loneliness of the lack of a shared identity. That is, a radical personality has need of a similar confirming agreement, of hatred views, from another human being who is also a radical, and this from personal contact, however brief. Internet contact is not really enough. The internet furnishes information and avatar personalities only. There is no substitute for a persuasion into radical actions than by having a catalytic meeting with a similar Radical who is preaching an attack doctrine; it is that that triggers eventually a cataclysmic event where enemies and innocents are destroyed without mercy. The ‘guilt’ of the killing act, which is an act against social norms, is overruled by the consent given by a personal meeting with a dedicated radical teacher/ preacher. A terrorist newbie does not have to join a cell, does not have to meet with a cell, but only be radicalized into action by the inspiration given by a terrorist alpha wandering by. Conversion from being tapped by another who is deemed to be a staff of authority.

    A mind can live in dreams and the unsettling thoughts ever stay there, but it is in events such as a physical meeting, human to human, that allows a bridge from thought to radical affirmation. A tormented mind can willingly and readily surrender its Will to the more confident and dominant Will of another. But that exchange is most potent in the presence of the other, whether in group or one-on-one meeting. Possession of another’s mind is not a Medieval evil thing; it does not change the body into grotesque shapes. Only the mind is cooked in poison, only the mind needs to be overcome, and result in a demon still guised in human form, but no longer with humane sensibilities. Now a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to walk among sheep and when ready, to slaughter them. Men can be inspired by words, but more so by contact with personalities where much more in persuasion is projected than just by language. Men are more visual than verbal. They need to see their brother-in-arms to make final determinations and, fortified, raise their sword. Minds can take over other minds, otherwise there would be no politics and no riots.


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