Why would Tamerlan Tsarnaev have bombed the Boston marathon? Who would have inspired him, or what provoked him?
The prevailing explanation is that he was “self-radicalized,” as President Barack Obama said in White House press conference Tuesday. The New York Times suggests that Tamerlan’s exclusion from a Golden Gloves tournament on the grounds that he was not an American citizen impelled him to commit an act of horrific violence against the country that had taken in him and his family. In reaction, he apparently then began a process of “self-radicalization”—watching YouTube videos alone in his room in Cambridge, Mass., more a model of liberal, multicultural tolerance than most other places in America. He felt angry and alone.
And, according to the emerging picture, this angry, lonely self-radicalizer had help. It may have come in the form of the mysterious Armenian convert to Islam named Misha. It was he, said the brothers’ uncle Raslan, who sank his claws into Tamerlan and turned him into a violent extremist. This theory was complicated somewhat by an anodyne New York Review of Books interview with “Misha” in his elderly parents’ house in New England, which portrayed him as an immigrant who loves his new country and would never, ever dream of doing what he’s been accused of. “I wasn’t his teacher,” Misha, i.e., Mikhail Allakhverdov, said of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this.” The FBI has all but cleared him of having any connection to the bombings. “I’ve been cooperating entirely with the FBI,” said Allahkverdov. “I gave them my computer and my phone and everything, I wanted to show I haven’t done anything.” But no matter. If it wasn’t Misha, it was someone else. The FBI, says Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, seems convinced that the Tsarnaev brothers were trained. The pressure-cooker used as an improvised explosive device, says McCaul, points to Afghanistan.
The problem here is there’s a new mode of jihadist warfare, but Western reporters and politicians seem to have little understanding of it.
But a clue can be seen in the reported claim made by the surviving Tsarnaev brother, Dzhokhar, that the brothers were influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Awlaki in turn was significantly influenced by a man named Abu Musab al-Suri, who should be understood as the theoretician behind the new war of attrition being waged by jihadists against the West. Suri, a Syrian-born veteran of various jihadist campaigns of the 1980s and ’90s, described a model of terror very different from that of his late colleague, and intellectual adversary, Osama Bin Laden.
Suri thought that the spectacular attacks favored by Bin Laden were foolish, because they allowed the West to identify and kill large numbers of the jihadist elite. After watching Western armies and intelligence services dismantle al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Iraq, he urged jihadists to play against the West’s weaknesses rather than its strengths. Instead of elaborate plots that could be penetrated and disrupted, Suri believed that the future of Islamic terror lay in attacks by individuals and small groups who carried out their own plans. These budding jihadists would in turn be nurtured by online teachers, then further influenced and trained in jihadist-dominated areas like Waziristan and Dagestan. As their plots ripened, they would be supported materially, psychologically, and spiritually by shadowy facilitators and handlers, like Awlaki.
Western intelligence agencies and police forces believe that Suri was responsible in some part for the 2004 bombing of a Madrid train and London’s July 7, 2005, attacks. Released from a Syrian prison at the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Suri may have had a hand in dozens of subsequent attacks, or simply inspired them with his model of a leaderless jihad nurtured by a kind of jihadist clandestine service, whose agents would effectively function as malign therapists who would encourage their psychologically damaged and needy clients to commit acts of terror.
Which brings us back to Tamerlan. This Misha might be entirely innocent, or he might not be. Regardless, it’s unlikely that American law-enforcement officials are going to find any hard evidence incriminating him or anyone else who might have served as a facilitator, even if they planned the Boston Marathon attacks themselves. What the FBI and American police departments do well is gather and document evidence that that can be proven in court. But the help given by Suri’s new facilitators is not the kind of help that would produce evidence. It’s emotional and psychological. Which is why the New York Times’ armchair psychologizing about the importance of Tamerlan’s boxing failure is so misguided. If Tsarnaev had been serious about boxing, he could have responded to exclusion from an amateur boxing tournament by turning pro. The problem, as his trainer pointed out, was that he lacked discipline—just like large numbers of talented and undisciplined young fighters who channel their street skills and nerve into all forms of crime.
But Tsarnaev’s alleged turn to violent crime is hardly extraordinary—the particular form of crime he chose is worthy of closer and more nuanced attention than the press seems capable of giving it. No one becomes a jihadist terrorist in a vacuum, any more than one finds oneself in a U.S. Army uniform shooting at Taliban fighters in a vacuum; recruits may have all kinds of personal reasons for signing up, but there’s a pre-existing structure that then welcomes and shapes them and directs their actions toward a larger strategic purpose.
And so the big problem with the concept of “self-radicalization,” then, is that it suggests that these damaged men act either at the direct behest of an entity with an address or that they behave alone. but the case is increasingly neither. They are instead, horrifyingly, acting in deliberate concert with the beliefs of tens of millions of people, to whom they are heroes. These attacks are not accidents of individual psychology or humiliation. They are part of a larger plan shaped by some very smart sociopaths to use such people for horrific ends.
The problem then isn’t Islam, but the fact that the United States has an ample supply of drifters and losers who are ready to find meaning in even the most violent and sociopathic forms of madness. America has become a retail outlet of damaged human goods that are endlessly attractive to Suri’s facilitators—the new point men in an endless war of attrition against the West.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).