Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told interrogators from his hospital bed that he and his brother Tamerlan were driven to bomb the Boston Marathon by hardline Islamist views and anger over the United States wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also allegedly said they were self-trained and self-indoctrinated.
If that’s true, then the Tsarnaev brothers are part of a very small group of terrorists who have become radicalized to the point of violence solely through the Internet. In almost all recent terrorist cases, the perpetrator has had face-to-face contact with someone who has shared and encouraged his radical views before he took action. (It’s possible Tamerlan was that person for his brother, which would mean Dzhokhar fell into this category.)
In the 15 years that I have been dealing with terrorism, first with the British government and then with the United Nations, I can think of only four examples of individuals who committed or tried to commit a terrorist act without significant real-life contact with another extremist. Two of them were in the United Kingdom. Nicky Reilly tried to blow up a restaurant in May 2008, after being inspired by Islamist radicals in Pakistan, and Roshonara Choudhry attempted to murder a member of Parliament in May 2010 after listening to the online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam and senior al Qaeda official who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. In the U.S., Nidal Hasan, charged with the murder or attempted murder of 45 people at Fort Hood in November 2009, was also an al-Awlaki fan and had contacted him by email. And in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, who set off a bomb in Oslo before killing another 69 people in a shooting spree in July 2011, was inspired by a mishmash of right-wing, anti-Islam Internet postings which he cut and pasted into his own 1,500-page manifesto.
In all other terrorist cases, even those supposedly carried out by a “lone wolf,” such as Mohamed Merah, who killed or seriously injured 12 people in France in March 2012, subsequent investigation has revealed actual contact with individuals or groups who provided motivation, training or both. This was true with terrorist cells like the 7/7 bombers in London, who seemed at first to be “homegrown,” but soon turned out to have had significant contact with extremists in Pakistan.
There are several reasons for this. First, from a practical point of view, it is more difficult to “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” than Inspire, the online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, would have you believe. The killing effectiveness of the homemade pressure-cooker bombs made by the Tsarnaev brothers was unusual; even terrorists with training have more often than not found it difficult to replicate what they have been taught, especially if they cannot acquire precisely the same ingredients. This was the case with Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, and of Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested before he could bomb the New York subway system in 2009.
Beyond the difficulty of making and exploding a lethal device is the whole issue of wanting to do so in the first place, of getting to the point where you believe the world would be a better place if you managed to kill random people in a public place. This extreme radicalization almost always requires the typical accelerant that emerges from dialogue between people who share extremist views. They wind each other up. This is not to say that people cannot become radicalized on the Internet, but the overwhelming majority of Internet radicals do not move from talking in the virtual world to acting in the real one. Online activity is not therefore a portent of offline activity.
Clearly Tamerlan was different, but his path to extremism appears to have followed a common enough route. It is a feature of the Internet that even someone with the most bizarre interest can find someone else online who shares it. And for Tamerlan, his interest in finding an identity that would provide a better sense of belonging and purpose than the society around him was hardly bizarre, particularly as he seems to have latched onto his religion and ethnicity as the two pillars he could build on. There are many thousands of websites that offer meaning to those who seek it, most of them benign. But there are also many thousands that promote an extremist, conspiracy-driven view of the world that provide an explanation of individual discomfort and offer a solution. In Tamerlan's case, he was eventually caught up in the narrative that Islam is under attack and that his duty as a good Muslim was to defend it. This kind of narrative, supported by plentiful videos of atrocities on the one hand and heroic deeds on the other, is not confined to groups that claim to act in the name of Islam. It is available in all shapes and sizes, geared to promote the cause of any and every violent group that claims to be fighting for a noble cause, whatever its objectives or inspiration.
Like so many others before him, Tamerlan surfed the websites of extremist preachers who told him that society was corrupt, and that this was the reason that he did not fit in. What was unusual with him was that he thought he could change society through violence. Or perhaps it was some other expression of anger or revenge. Dzhokhar said that they were upset by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it can hardly have escaped their notice that there are no U.S. forces in Iraq, and the drawdown in Afghanistan has already started. It would perhaps have been more logical for him to claim that they were upset by the lack of a U.S. war in Syria.
The lesson from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan is that acts of terror will continue to happen whatever the political climate; sometimes they will be more frequent than at other times, but individuals will continue to become radicalized and attack society for a variety of known and unknown reasons. The job of protecting society from terrorism will never be easy and cannot always be successful. It is made still more complicated when the terrorist has minimal contact with others. It took 18 years to catch Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and seven to catch Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber. At least the Tsarnaev brothers will not attack again. And let's remember that despite the anxiety created by the 24/7 coverage of the atrocity in Boston, the U.S. is in a period of calm, and the risk of domestic terrorism remains low.