After Boston Bombing, America Struggles to Make Sense of Its Homegrown Terrorists

The day after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Americans are riveted by the details of the lives of two young men who grew up alongside them, then one day embarked on a murderous rampage.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The day after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his now-killed older brother Tamerlan is the primary suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Americans are riveted by the details of the lives of two young men who grew up alongside them and one day embarked on a murderous rampage.

It's similar to what happened last year in France, once the identity of Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people (three soldiers and four Jews) became known, and eight years ago in Britain after it was revealed that the four 7/7 London suicide bombers where all British citizens who were born (with the exception of one who emigrated at the age of five from Jamaica) and raised in northern England. They all went through a process of personal, political and religious radicalization and reached the point where they were capable of murdering their own fellow citizens.

The Tsarnaev brothers were not U.S-born. They emigrated from Dagestan a decade ago. But they were educated in American schools and colleges and spent their formative years there. Dzhokhar was already naturalized. The media is putting a lot of focus on details such as their preferred sports, which in Dzhokhar's case were football and wrestling, while Tamerlan was a promising amateur boxer.

In Britain the fact that all four bombers had played cricket was repeatedly emphasized. There, too, the discussion focused on their conflicted identities, between the affluent American or European nation in which they grew up and an earlier and less settled heritage. Most were, at one stage or another, on the radars of intelligence and security agencies or were involved in petty crimes. They all had some connection with Jihadist groups, and some actually visited training camps or madrassas in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Others made do with online forums.

But taking a closer look, it is hard to find that much in common between the individuals. Even the two brothers seem different from each other. Tamerlan was a loner who find it hard to hold down a job and was even charged of violence toward an ex-girlfriend. In recent years, he had become an observant Muslim. Dzhokhar, on the other hand, seemed to be interested more in girls and money than in religion. He was little more than a casual Muslim.

But anyone who expects a terrorist to necessarily be a religious fanatic or even filled with burning hatred is in for a disappointment. Merah may have toyed with Jihad but he also liked to hang out and dance in nightclubs and tried at least twice to join the French Army. Some of the terrorists were considered success stories in their communities and others were misfits and dropouts. It is also difficult to compare the experiences of British-Pakistanis, who despite hardships have largely succeeded in integrating, with the exclusion felt by Algerians in France or the struggles facing Chechen immigrants to the U.S. Each minority group carries its unique mix of identities, loyalties and experiences, and each individual finds a different way to terror.

"There are many paths to radicalization," says Professor Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King's College in London. But he believes there are certain parallels. "Already now it seems that the younger Boston brother was less radical or interested in politics than his elder brother whom he admired and was dragged after. We saw the same dynamic between Mohammad Sidique Khan who lead the London bombers and 18-year-old Hasib Hussain (who suicide-bombed a bus) who saw in Khan a father-figure."

Another parallel is identity conflict. Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have lived in the U.S. for a decade but he said he had no American friends. "The conflict of identities opens people to radical views," says Neumann, who believes that while many young people in Europe and American have similar feelings, and many are radicalized, only a few actually become terrorists and these are not necessarily the most religious. "We can see that some of them smoked pot and liked rap. We expect them to be perfect but they are not. Not everyone who hangs out in jihadist online forums goes on to kill people. Usually, there is another major event that causes them to make the leap. We don't yet know that the missing link was for the Boston bombers." For the London suicide-bombers it was the American-British invasion of Iraq, but for others it was a personal event. For Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-American murderer of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, it was his mother's death that lead him to radical Islam.

Researchers of western Jihadist terror tend to divide its proponents into two types – activists, who are political conscientious and are usually the planners and leaders, and drifters, who tend to be younger men under the activists' influence. From what is known so far, the Tsarnaev brothers seem to confirm to these two patterns. And still, there are many sub-species and a wide range of individuals with various life-stories and experiences. Security agencies in the west have set out "risk factors" in an attempt to assess the likelihood of an individual taking part in terror activity and these factors can affect freedom of movement or employment in certain organizations. In some cases it impacts on an individual's civil rights.

Attempts to compile a profile of a suicide bomber come up with multiple possibilities. A study by Shaul Kimhi and Shmuel Even for the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel-Aviv University in 2003 which researched the cases of 259 Palestinian bombers in the preceding decade found no less than four distinct types. Those acting from fanatical religious beliefs, those acting upon radical political and nationalist ideology, and bombers motivated by a wish for personal or national vengeance.

It is difficult to compare Palestinian suicide bombers with Western civilians who turn to terror. The first grew up in a climate of occupation and struggle. The second live in relative affluence and calm and decided to give up on integration to murder their fellow citizens.

But the roads that lead a person to commit an act of terror, almost certainly giving up his life, are so varied as to make any attempt at predicting such an act nearly impossible.

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