Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Clearer Picture of the Boston Attacks

New details in the Boston attacks are emerging drip by drip on a daily basis. With that in mind, I thought I'd update my last post. Here's my preliminary working theory of what happened.

First, let's look at Tamerlan, the older brother. Yes, he was an ethnic Chechen, and, yes, he was a follower of Islam. But in my view, those characteristics--so heavily emphasized in post-9/11 America--are overshadowing other important factors. Notably, based on testimonials, he was an angry guy. A number of people have come forward stating that Tamerlan was often brusque, unfriendly, mean, even militant.

Furthermore, consider these things: Tamerlan was a boxer, someone who lived to beat people up for a living. Of course, by itself, the fact that he boxed isn't very significant; but it is, at least to me, when seen in a larger context of his other actions. He was arrested in 2009 for domestic assault and battery after he hit his then-girlfriend. Tamerlan was prone to angry public outbursts, which, on at least on occasion, forced leaders at a local mosque to kick him out of a sermon. His friends now suspect that he played a role in the unsolved gruesome murders of three mutual friends in 2011, something the police are now investigating. (He never attended the funerals.)

I suspect that he gravitated to extremist Islam because of his personality, not because he was extraordinarily devout or even particularly anti-American. Tamerlan was an angry Muslim; and that's what 21st century extremist Islam is all about. It's about anger, overcoming feelings of humiliation, retribution, violence. This form of Islam was likely an easy fit for him.

Now, how did he find his way to extremist Islam? We're not exactly sure yet, though an interesting AP story indicates that Tamerlan might have been steered toward it by a mysterious Armenian native named Misha, who allegedly met the older brother in 2008 or 2009. Regardless, once Tamerlan got caught up in extremist Islam, that seems to be when his anger was channeled into Jihadist talk and an extremist worldview. For at that point, he started to read Jihadist web sites and publications, including, al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine, post and comment on extremist Islamic videos, and even force his wife to dress in traditional Muslim clothes.

So how was (extremist) Islam important here? Extremist Islam gave meaning to and directed Tamerlan's anger. In particular, it informed him who to hate (America), how to engage with these folks (attack, kill), and how to attack them (improvised devices).

As for Dzhokhar, or Jahar as he's commonly known, the younger brother? I think Yohanes hit the nail on the head. It might eventually be revealed that he was a committed Islamic radical, a real true believer, but my guess is that he was guided, maybe even coaxed, into the bombings by his older brother.

By all accounts, Jahar was a relatively easy-going guy who mixed and mingled freely and happily with Americans. Yet at the same time, unfortunately, he was a follower by nature and looked up to Tamerlan as a role model. It just so happens that Tamerlan had a dominant personality and was a bad guy, all of which was a toxic combination for the brothers. For in the end, Tamerlan was likely able to manipulate his more impressionable, weaker younger brother, leading--maybe through persuasion, perhaps via coercion, or even some mixture of the two--Jahar into the darkness of extremist Islam. Whether to please Tamerlan, to create a bonding experience, or because of some other brotherly dynamic, Jahar was motivated enough to co-author the Boston bombings.

To be clear, I'm not absolving Jahar of his role in the bombings. That would be absurd. He's clearly filmed dropping his backpack near a crowd of onlookers at the Boston Marathon, at the precise spot one of the explosions took place. He is directly responsible for killing and maiming people. The point I am making, though, is that his role in the bombings is more complicated than how pundits, talking heads, and other commenters have characterized it.

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