Tag Archives: Boston bombers

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.

Mocked by Rush Limbaugh I wait to hear his explanations of how worldwide terrorist networks radicalize asylum seekers who live among us…that is if he can think that deeply about the issue.

I heard today I was getting mocked by Rush Limbaugh for referring to the signs of PTSD in Tamerlan Tsaraev that his kindergarten teacher referenced in a Russian language newscast… Well Rush you need to wake up and start thinking about how these things happen, because they aren’t going away. 

 Terrorist groups, their ideologies and the degrees of social support for terrorism that individuals find on the Internet and in various parts of the world (Dagestan potentially) all play upon the individual vulnerabilities of potential recruits turning them into evil actors. 

 Some don’t want to hear about the vulnerabilities of terrorists retrospectively, feeling it extends sympathy for them, but if we don’t empathetically try to get into their heads and begin to understand the reasons why they could ever buy onto a terrorist ideology we will never defeat terrorism. 

And in the case of Tamerlan’s PTSD it could make him sympathetic to the terrorist narrative of Muslims under attack and also make it easy for him to dissociate from any normal emotions about doing violence to those he lived among and had decided are his enemies.

Regarding the ritualized murders he may be linked to, it would be much like what happened to Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands an evil act carried out by Mohammed Bouyeri, a second generation immigrant also vulnerable for other reasons to turning to a militant jihadi ideology.

 Only careful study including retrospective analysis of the cases we encounter will allow us to come up with thoughtful solutions that can actually work to defeat terrorism.  Mock away Rush, some of us are spending decades of our lives journeying into war torn areas and taking the risks necessary for such study.

 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.

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.

The Long Arm of the Chechen War – How Empathy and Identity can be Twisted to Devastating Results

The Internet mouthpiece of the Chechen rebel and later terrorist movement — the Kavkazcenter.com— has long linked the Chechen independence struggle to a wider militant jihadi struggle—naming, but not limiting—Russians as their legitimate enemies.  Indeed Western powers have also been named as legitimate targets, with the statement made that “everyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims” are common enemies. The global militant jihadi narrative that Muslims are under attack worldwide and the call for fighters to strike back may have  ensnared the two Chechen brothers in Boston despite the outward appearances of assimilation into American culture.

As I found in my work interviewing terrorists worldwide—including conducting psychological autopsies through interviews of friends and families of over half of the Chechen suicide operatives – the trajectory to becoming a terrorist nearly always included a group, an ideology, and social support.  These factors were active in playing upon the individual vulnerabilities of the potential terrorist recruit to cynically ensnare him (or her) into enacting terrorism. 

While we will need to wait for more information, in the Boston case, the identification of the young men with their traumatic Chechen past perhaps coupled with Internet radicalization or in person contact with actual fighters via Internet or on trips home to Dagestan — may have influenced them to accept the common militant jihadi narrative of Muslims worldwide being under attack—and its perverted justification for terrorist strikes, including against Western powers.  The goals of such attacks are of course to cause terror, suffering, and revenge for Muslim civilian deaths elsewhere, and to change the course of politics. “Victory or paradise” is the call of the Chechen terrorists meaning in their mindset, to die for the cause is to take on the glory of “martyrdom”.

Sadly the freedoms afforded to these young men in the United States were not enough to protect them from such cynical manipulation of whatever pain or insecurities that was going on inside of them.. The details of how this happened are yet to be revealed but my guess is it has its roots in their identification with the Chechen separatist movement and its unfortunate infiltration by militant jihadis from the middle east.

For those interested in the history of the recent Chechen struggle, it began as a secular bid for independence in 1991 as the former Soviet Union fell apart, but as events unfolded Chechen separatists at that time were sorely disappointed when Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia etc. were supported by the West in their moves for independence but Chechnya—being inside the Russian Federation was not. 

In spite of the lack of recognition, the Chechen rebels did not stop their struggle but continued their fight while Russia sent their military to quell them in two iron fist incursions, the first occurring from 1994-1996, and the second from 1999-2004. It involved the carpet bombing of Grozny the capital of Chechnya and a mass exodus of millions of fleeing Chechen refugees—some who like the alleged Boston bombers made their way even to the United States as asylum seekers. 

Between these two wars, what had started as a secular independence movement transitioned into a militant jihadi one.  Help for the Chechen rebels came not from the West, but from the Middle East and the former Afghan jihadis who were still euphoric over defeating the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The foreign fighters eager to declare jihad in Chechnya as well, brought with them funds and the militant jihadi ideology and introduced the up till then unknown “martyrdom” or suicide operations into the fight.  This completely changed the secular independence struggle into the Chechen “jihad” with the new goal of establishing an Islamic emirate—something the majority of Chechens never embraced despite their rebel movement transitioning from freedom fighters to terrorist militants. 

As a terrorist movement, from 2000 onward, the Chechens launched over thirty suicide attacks utilizing over one hundred suicide operatives—interestingly, including nearly as many female as male operatives.  These suicide bombers overtook the Moscow theater threatening to blow up the eight hundred hostages they held for three days.  Two years later, they held over one thousand hostages—mostly women and children—in the Beslan school, threatening to kill everyone.  Two Chechen females exploded themselves on two separate internal Russian flights bringing the planes down.  And Chechen terrorists also blew themselves up on the Moscow subway and elsewhere in Russia.

In 2005 the movement spread to the surrounding region—with rebel leader Basayev announcing the formation of the New Caucasus Front” to institute a regionally a group of fighters situated throughout the Caucasus to rise up against Russia to fight for independence and to institute a regionally based Islamic state in Dagestan, Ingushetia and the surrounding Muslim republics.

Caught in the middle of a warzone, with families shattered and atrocities common from all sides, Chechnya became a virtual hellhole, prompting widespread emigration, first to surrounding areas and then to the West.  As Chechen refugees spread across the world seeking asylum, the majority settled in foreign lands as peace loving and good people who valued education for their children and assimilated well. 

But a tiny minority of Chechens that spread out worldwide, carried the traumas of war inside and some also retained or later took on the militant jihadi ideology.  Chechens instigators have recently been arrested for allegedly recruiting for Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Europe—some recently arrested in France — as well as having been active as al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, instigators in Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Indeed when I made interviews in Belgium I ran across those who had been recruited into Al Qaeda affiliates by a Chechen actively recruiting in Antwerp.  

And now sadly, it looks like even inside the U.S., Chechen refugees—perhaps having had their ethnic connection to the Chechen struggle played upon by cynical manipulators of vulnerable young men—have been sadly convinced to strike against the very people who offered them safe harbor and a new life apart from a deeply troubled region.  Apparently in the case of these young men—despite being an entirely new generation, the struggle that their parents left behind found, or followed them here.

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.