Do the Boston bombers reveal a new power of internet psychology to radicalise?
Dr Anne Speckhard and Dr Raj Persaud
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.
This brings up questions of if the two were indeed “self” radicalized as the 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.
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 AS (one of the authors of this article) found in her 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 AS definitely found individuals who were radicalized via the Internet, in all her 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.
If this is the case the Boston Bombings may mark a key turning point in the development and future of terrorism.
When it comes to individual vulnerabilities these two young men came on asylum visas out of the war-torn Chechen area—similar to the Somali boys from Minnesota who also joined the militant jihadi movement after seeking asylum in the U.S.
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—AS found in her interviews with terrorists around the world—offers a psychological first aid for troubled Muslim youth.
It’s an emotional salve for trauma and loss, 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 AS 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. Dzhokhar states that the two brothers were 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 have found their way out of addiction 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?
Dr Anne Speckhard is Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in the Psychiatry Department, and author of the book ‘Talking to Terrorists’. She is the author of three books and many scientific articles and chapters pertaining to psychological trauma and has lectured internationally to government officials, and in universities and hospitals around the world. Dr Speckhard is an expert on terrorism. She has interviewed over 400 terrorists, extremists, their supporters, hostages, family members and their close associates in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, North Ossetia, Morocco, Belgium, UK, the Netherlands and France.