Tag Archives: boston marathon bombings

The Symbolic Nature of Terrorist Beheadings

In recent days we have horrifically witnessed the murder of Lee Rigby, a UK British soldier who served in Afghanistan–with many reporting that his murderer either attempted to, or actually beheaded him. In that case the murderer who stood around with his bloodied hands and machete admitted to his act and stated, “I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan” and added that his motivations were revenge—“because Muslims are dying everyday.”

The same style of ritualized killing was attempted by Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch second generation Moroccan immigrant who murdered Theo van Gogh—the celebrated filmmaker who had participated in the film Submission critical of Islam’s treatment of women with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Bouyeri stabbed van Gogh eight times before cutting his throat, nearly decapitating him.  He then pinned a five-page letter to van Gogh’s chest with his knife. Bouyeri wanted revenge for van Gogh’s critical comments about radical Islamists who van Gogh had referred to as “goat-fuckers” and was outraged over the film “Submission”, in which a Muslim woman is shown half naked with Islamic verses written across her lash-marked back and under her breasts shown under a see-through veil. 

Weeks earlier, when Dzhokar Tsarnaev admitted that it was he and his brother Tamerlan who had set off the bombs killing and maiming many at the Boston Marathon, a brutal triple murder case was reopened to investigate if Tamerlan was involved.  In that case Brendan Mess, Tamerlan’s “best friend” and two of Brendan’s (Jewish) roommates—Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken had also been nearly beheaded.  Their murder took place on 9-11, 2011 and appears highly symbolic in that there was no forced entry, the date of the murder was the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and no money was taken and drugs were sprinkled across the nearly beheaded victims’ bodies. As the FBI tracked clues into the case and questioned Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan’s about his involvement in the murders, Ibragim lethally attacked the agents leading them to shoot their suspect before the truth could be revealed 

A spate of beheading videos also date back to the time of journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder, allegedly at the hands of al Qaeda’s mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Likewise Chechen groups had been conducting beheadings long before this.  Such practices also proliferated during the Iraq invasion with hostages dressed in Gitmo orange filmed as they were beheaded in a horrific manner with demands made to release the Guantanamo prisoners.  Likewise a Muslim man in Buffalo, New York was accused of beheading his wife in 2009 and other such murders have also been reported.

Is there a symbolism to beheading that runs across all of these incidents? 

Looking to history and religious writings one finds that two verses in the Quran refer to smiting at the necks of one’s enemies but these are both commonly understood as referring to using deadly force in war.  Historically both Arabs and Christians beheaded their dead enemies on the battlefield as a symbolic act of victory.  And decapitation, as a form of criminal punishment was also used by both—occurring as late as 1977 in France and is still used in Saudi Arabia.

Terrorists who behead, due so to strike terror into civilian populations and into any who might oppose them and hope to use terror to try to force the political process to move in their favor.  Parviz Kahn who planned to kidnap a British Muslim soldier on leave in 2007 savored the idea of making him “squeal like a pig” and planned to film the innocent soldier’s beheading to cause panic among the general population and inhibit military recruitment. 

When these revenge attacks are carried out, it seems the idea is to slaughter a person much in the manner of cutting the throat of a sacrificial animal—perhaps unconsciously representing a rite of purification for the alleged “sins” of the victim or the group the victim represents.  Terrorists often refer to their victim as killing a “pig” which is of course an unclean animal for Muslims.  In any case the practice does incite terror and appears to be a type of ritualized murder by those who believe that through acts of terror they can cleanse the world of the “sins” of western governments’ actions—including military actions—that do in fact at times harm innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But of course these beheadings are only adding to the killing of innocents and doing little to change the course of politics.

Is There Much More to the Tamerlan Tsarnaev Story than Meets the Eye? What is the Meaning of the Ritualized 9-11 Tenth Anniversary Murders of Three Young Men–One that Tamerlan Called his “Best Friend”?

Radicalized into an extremist form of Islam over the Internet and by perhaps also meeting with extremists in Dagestan and even in Boston it appears that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the main instigator behind the Boston marathon bombings–bringing his younger brother along with him into his murderous acts.

As the facts of the case are still being uncovered it looks like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a young man who came out of the Chechen conflict was perhaps carrying traumatic memories in his heart and was well aware of the civilian casualties and human rights atrocities there–even having lived through some of them. And perhaps feeling sympathy for Muslims in other parts of the world who also live under oppression, he fell prey to the al Qaeda militant jihadi ideology that claims Muslims are under attack by western powers and urges Muslims to do something about it.

From his Internet record it appears that on his road to extremism Tamerlan felt particular empathy for the rebel uprising in Syria that was being crushed with a high civilian death toll by Assad, as was the Chechen uprising crushed by Putin. We know that Tamerlan entered this country a vulnerable individual–an asylum seeker with likely sympathy for Muslims under attack and somewhere–either in his Internet browsing, trip to Dagestan or even in Boston–he encountered a virulent ideology espoused by a worldwide terrorist group as well as social support for buying into a sick narrative.

Tamerlan was also stymied in his pursuit of the American dream. His father, a former official in the Kyrgyz prosecutor’s office struggled to make it here–demoted to a car mechanic working outside in the cold. His parents divorced, his mother was arrested for shoplifting and they both left the country. Excelling as boxer, Tamerlan found his dreams dashed as well. In 2010 he was blocked from continuing to compete by his immigration status following a change in the boxing tournament rules. Once a flamboyant, cocky upstart known to enjoy partying, Tamerlan became dejected and retreated into a conservative form of Islam–rejecting those who had rejected him–and he then slipped somewhere along that path into extremism.

But is this the whole story in his case?

It appears not so, as the reopening of a triple homicide in Boston, occurring on 9-11-2011 is also raising some other troubling questions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The homocides involve the murder of three young men–two Jewish and the third, Brendan Mess–a young man who Tamerlan had formerly introduced at his boxing gym as his “best friend”. The men were murdered in their apartment on a highly symbolic date–the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 al Qaeda attacks. There was with no forced entry–it appears the young men opened their door to a familiar person. $5000 was left on the scene of the crime indicating it was not a robbery. And the men each had their throats slit–in the same manner in which Mohamed Boyeri of the Netherlands ritually murdered Theo van Gogh, a man who Boyeri viewed as an apostate. Some reports state that the three were nearly beheaded–a crime common among Chechen terrorists. And marijuana was sprinkled over their bodies. It seems the crime was meant to convey a message–about the corrupting power of the west, drugs and a militant jihadi answer–of annihilation and destruction.

Tellingly, after the murder of his “best friend” Tamerlan did not attend the funeral and self isolated–he stopped going to the gym. He was already at that time a “revert” for a couple of years to a more conservative form of Islam than is practiced in his home country–except by extremists–and he had backed off of drinking, changed his dress and lifestyle. He had also argued with some of his family members about his views of Islam, expressing extremist’s views, calling one uncle an infidel and telling them that Allah had a plan for him–that he no longer had a need to concern himself with work or studies. And within three months of the murders he disappeared to Dagestan only to reemerge in July 2012 apparently with an ugly plot forming in his mind.

Is there a connection between the 9-11 murders of Tamerlan’s “best friend” and his roommates? Was theirs a ritualized Takfiri murder similar to beheadings carried out by al Qaeda affiliated groups throughout the world, Chechen terrorists and others expressing their murderous rage at the west? Had Tamerlan–perhaps like many trauma survivors or those stressed by immigration–tried to calm his nerves by drinking or using drugs? But then after having lived outside of Islamic rules in the west later decided to clean up by “reverting” to a conservative form of Islam, fall into extremism and in doing so blamed the west for corrupting him–then seeking to destroy it? Or was he angry about his brother’s marijuana use and striking out at those who may have supplied him?

Certainly the April bombings point to a young man who was filled with a self righteous hatred that allowed him to strike out at innocent men, women and children–maiming and killing them with no sense of conscience. Did this hate have some of its origins in either his or his brother’s drug use and a wish to destroy those who he blamed for corrupting him?

These are questions that still remain unanswered but beg to be more thoroughly investigated by the authorities.

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.