Tag Archives: radicalization

The Difficulty of Predicting ISIS and al Qaeda “Stay and Act in Place” Attacks


In February of 2015 Omar el-Hussein was hunted for thirteen hours and ultimately shot dead by Danish police after killing fifty-five year old documentary filmmaker Finn Noergaard at a free speech event and a thirty-seven year old Jewish guard, Dan Uzan at a synagogue in Copenhagen. El-Hussein, the gunman was known to Danish police. He had a criminal history that included violence and weapons offenses. In fact he had only been released from prison fourteen days previously.

It appears now that he planned his event (which was a simpler copycat of the Charlie Hebdo shootings) in the days after his release, Googling “Krudttonden” the place of the first attack only one to two days before his attack. This was where Lars Vilks the infamous artist who had drawn the Prophet and others were participating in an event organized by Vilks entitled Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression. El-Hussein’s brother allegedly bought a bullet-proof vest for him as well during those days. After the first shooting, el-Hussein escaped in a taxi and hid out in an Internet café where he then began an Internet search for the synagogue where he carried out his second attack.

The speed by which today’s terrorists radicalize into extremist mindsets and take lethal action is mind-boggling and presents a nightmare for today’s security officials. The police chief in Denmark was fired in May, only months after the shootings—after being held responsible for not anticipating such action.

Sadly though, this type of attack is likely to continue in all Western countries and is very hard to predict. Thousands of disgruntled individuals log on to the Internet to find excuses to vent their anger. Youth in particular are searching for identity, purpose, significance and if they are angry about injustices—perceived or real—they gravitate to justifications and equipping to channel and express their rage.

Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are waiting and willing to provide for such individuals the other three elements of the four making up the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my four hundred interviews of terrorists and their family members and close associates (reported upon in Talking to Terrorists). These four elements are: 1) a group; 2) it’s ideology that wrongly tries to justify striking out at civilians in violence; 3) social support for joining and believing the ideology and this all combines with 4) the person’s own individual motivations and vulnerabilities.

El-Hussein had just been released from prison and had a violent background and access to weapons. He is also identified as being the son of Palestinian refugee parents, and may have already been exposed to violent ideologies promoting so-called “martyrdom” missions. These should have been red flags to police and if authorities were also aware of his radicalization–which there appeared to be clues too as well, these are all flags to his possibility of enacting terrorism.

Prison is a place where folks can easily be radicalized. Prisoners are generally bored and angered at being locked up, are surrounded by criminal thinkers and may be exposed to extremist thinkers and their ideologies. Many are vulnerable, long for belonging and may gravitate easily to a group that promises them some kind of future—even if it’s only in the afterlife—and even more so if it offers protection in the here and now.  A lot of extremist groups that work in prisons protect one another and if they are Muslim, pray regularly together, so there is a deep sense of belonging, sense of purpose and protection that may have been missing in childhood and adulthood.

We know now that terrorists are acting with less and less lead-time these days. Part of that is because troubled and lost people are getting radicalized over the Internet with the so-called “university of jihad” as my now deceased friend Reuven Paz liked to call it.  Over the Internet, the potential terrorists, i.e. person with vulnerabilities and motivations to strike out in hate can find all they need to radicalize, equip themselves, and strike out. But even before ISIS and groups like them became so adept at social media we saw individuals volunteering themselves to terrorist groups—among Palestinians and Chechens for instance and enacting terrorism very quickly. This is because the ideology of “martyrdom” and violent propaganda has seeped into the wider culture and there has been a wider acceptance of terrorist violence as means for powerless people to strike out in anger against so called oppressors or in the case of Muslim groups against those who insult Islam. We saw a similar attack in Texas only days ago in the U.S., although we still need to learn the radicalization profile there.

The facts are that many people are angry and hurt and can easily expose themselves to a terrorist group and ideology that attempts to justify violent responses to their problems and by glorifying such actions offers them a sense of meaning, significance and purpose along with belonging, perhaps some protection and friendship it can channel all their anger and concern over injustices done to them over their lifetime into a focused hatred and terrorist action. And this can happen fast.

For Muslims who join extremist groups and who have low ego strengths, the unnecessary baiting and provoking actions of drawing the Prophet as a pig, or a terrorist, can also be an overwhelming insult that can trigger him or her to activate quickly into violence if an extremist group is behind them with the “justification” for violent action and suggestions for how to enact violence. In most of our open democratic societies the exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies are readily available over the Internet and so are weapons that can be easily procured so they can move fast and act in a matter of days or weeks as el-Hussein did. Once a vulnerable person has taken on the extremist mindset and decided he doesn’t mind dying for it he can activate and become lethal nearly instantly. The Internet these days makes finding information so easy, and guns are sadly readily available in many of our societies.

Denmark has been leading the way on trying to de-radicalize and disengage those who take on the ISIS ideology but here we see a case that was not recognized until the actor became lethal. It’s horrible but just underlines the fact that we need to do much more on terrorist prevention—by delegitimizing the acceptance in all sectors of society, but particularly with youth, that using terrorist violence for any cause is ever justified and by identifying those who have taken on such ideologies and intervening in meaningful and effective ways before they act.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

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.

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.