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Average Terrorists
The desire to read one’s politics into acts of violence is unfortunate and, unfortunately, bipartisan.


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Daniel Foster

The Tsarnaevs weren’t just any terrorists, they were all of them. In the days between the Boston Marathon bombings and the identification of Chechen-American brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the alleged masterminds, the political media have been practicing the time-honored art of armchair terrorist-profiling. While I tried to be restrained in my speculation, I wasn’t immune to this urge myself.

On Tuesday, when all we really knew about the attackers was that they used pressure-cooker IEDs, I noted that such devices have been favorites of terrorists and guerrillas for over a decade, and that jihadists in particular had exploited the design. But I also suggested that both the tools and the knowledge needed to build such devices are so widely available (especially on the dark fringes of the Internet) that, at best, the nature of the bomb made it ever so slightly likelier that the attackers were jihadists than not.

On the other hand, I also argued that the closest recent parallel to the marathon attack, in terms of pure m.o., was the bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta — similar devices, a similar method of concealment, similar placement (and, as we now have strong reason to believe, a similar desire to “get away” so as to carry on future attacks). The Olympics bomber, Eric Rudolph, was of course a “lone wolf” and a white American, so if one were to go purely on the attack profile, Boston suggested either someone like Rudolph, operating domestically and alone, or perhaps someone like Faisal Shahzad, who had only the most indirect of support from foreign jihadist networks. This sort of scenario seemed all the more likely given that no foreign groups had taken credit for the attack.

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In short, I suggested that the culprits in Boston were one thing or another — jihadists or fringe nut jobs, homegrown or linked only weakly to foreign groups. If you replace the “or”s with “and”s, I was right. From the admittedly incomplete picture we have now, it looks like the Tsarnaev brothers were all those things. Indeed, I’m not sure there has ever been a terrorist conspiracy that exhibited so many different tropes at once. The Tsarnaevs are a kind of quantum superposition of evildoing.

Are the Tsarnaevs lone wolves or part of something bigger, all the way up to the diffuse global jihadist network? From what we know now, we can say they are both. Reports on Friday of an “accomplice” on a New York–bound train fizzled out. It now appears the attack was plotted and carried out entirely by just two people. But it is also possible that the older Tsarnaev, who we know traveled to Russia for an extended period of time just before associates saw indications of his increased religiosity, could have been intellectually radicalized and materially trained while abroad. At the very least, there is strong early evidence from the pair’s social-media footprints that Islam was central to their worldview; this included aspects of Islam, such as the end-times prophecies of the Madhists, which are exploited by violent jihadists. In this way, we see Faisal Shahzad and Nidal Hasan in the Tsarnaevs.

But should we think of the Tsarnaevs as a threat that was “homegrown”? Or “foreign”? Again, they are both. Both spent significant chunks of their youths in the United States. Especially in the case of Dzhokhar, who became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012, they seem to know little of their country of extraction. Both at least partially assimilated in the U.S. Some sources report that they were registered voters. Yet in their digital lives and their own words, they both identified themselves as Russians or Chechens first, displayed ambivalence or downright animosity to America, and seemed to feel that they could not adapt to or thrive in this country — a sense of being, in their uncle’s memorable phrase, “losers.” It would not be surprising to see evidence in the coming days and weeks that this alienation was causally wrapped up in the brothers’ radicalization. In that regard, we see Hasan again, but also Coloradan Anwar al-Awlaki and Sulayman al-Faris (formerly known as John Walker Lindh).

Were the Tsarnaevs “suicide bombers”? Yes and no. Getting into shooting matches with police while wearing IEDs would seem to suggest the brothers knew they were dead. But after they murdered a child and two young women and maimed scores more on Monday, the brothers appear to have gone back to business as usual. Dzhokhar tweeted. He might have gone back to his college campus at UMass Dartmouth. They did not want to get caught. They had more pressure-cooker bombs, and perhaps plans to carry out future attacks, and apparently they didn’t panic until they saw their faces on television last night. Here we see Eric Rudolph, and even the Unabomber — terrorists in it for the long haul.

Lastly, were the Tsarnaevs ideologues, evil, or “just nuts”? This might be the most complicated question. As with all the others, the best answer again is “all of the above.” This is speculative, but if early reports are borne out, we’ll see a portrait emerge of a dominant, pathological, and increasingly ideological older man who was the lead plotter and who had enlisted younger men as his accomplices and then wielded considerable psychological power over them. Here we see the murderous and perverted father-son dynamic of John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, who in the fall of 2002 terrorized Washington, D.C., with a sniper rifle. That duo was a putrid mix of ideology, psychopathy, evil, and manipulation, and it would hardly be surprising if the full facts in the Tsarnaevs’ case reveal something much the same.

The desire to read one’s political biases into acts of violence is unfortunate and, unfortunately, bipartisan. But if there is any little thing to be thankful for about the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, it’s that it defies easy classification. Those who try to tell a simple story about who they were or why they resorted to terrorism will end up like the six blind men and the elephant: each partially in the right, and all in the wrong.

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.



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