The Terrorist Tipping Point: What Pushed the Tsarnaev Brothers to Violence?

Forget what you know about terrorism. Christopher Dickey on the three surprising factors that contribute to creating deadly terrorists, whether they are from al Qaeda or the IRA.

The emerging profile of the Tsarnaev brothers alleged to have bombed the Boston Marathon suggests that they have much in common with terrorists of the past—many of whom had nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, what we know of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is beginning to fit into a revealing pattern.

“You have to understand the person,” a senior law-enforcement official told me years ago, in a conversation I never forgot. And the operative word is, precisely, “person”: what makes him tick, and what tips him from inchoate anger (which is protected by the American Constitution) to active, targeted terrorism.

Lying in his hospital bed in Boston, nodding and scribbling as best he can, Dzhokhar is not likely to shed much light on that critical question. At least not directly. Self-awareness is not a characteristic of most terrorists. And to be effective those fighting them have to try to understand them better than they understand themselves.

"You have to get out in front of him,” said the same official, who has done just that in many cases where terrorist attacks were prevented, but who still declines to speak on the record. “Make an assessment of whether he’s radicalized enough to take action, and then make decisions about what you’re going to do about it.”

That is precisely what the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to do, it appears. The Russians asked the FBI to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. It checked its databases. It questioned him. But it does not appear to have used an undercover agent or confidential informant to gather “human intelligence” about him. And it’s only really by taking such measures that a potential suspect’s attitudes can be probed before he becomes a committed killer. But the constitutional and political risks of appearing to “profile” people and communities have made law enforcement wary of going too far and too fast in that direction.

The keys to the development of most terrorist minds are not really about their ethnicity, religion, or race. And from what we know of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers who was killed in a shoot-out with police last week, he’s a poster boy for those personal elements that really are important to such a killer’s profile.

First: testosterone. Almost all of the people who carry out terrorist attacks are young men. As Georgetown University scholar Bruce Hoffman points out, the average age of the hijackers on September 11, 2001, was 24, while that of Palestinian suicide bombers is 21. Tamerlan was 26, while his brother Dzhohar, now in a Boston hospital, is only 19. Yes, occasionally women are terrorists as well. Indeed, they may play important roles in goading the men to action. But when it comes to “doing jihad”—actually carrying out bombings and shootings—women definitely are the exception rather than the rule.

Second: narrative. This is perhaps the most important and most misunderstood element in the shaping of a terrorist’s thinking. It is often confused with ideology and, in the case of Islam, with religion. But testosterone-driven young men looking for glory are not, by and large, given over to theological exegeses. Often their religion is self-taught, cherry-picking slogans from the religious texts or, these days, from videos on the Web.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mentors were right there before us on his YouTube page, particularly Feiz Mohammed from Australia: a former boxer, like Tamerlan, who turned into a self-styled preacher of jihad. Reports out of Australia say that Sheikh Feiz, as he is called, had changed his tune in recent years and now preaches against extremism. But it’s doubtful that message got through to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or, if it did, that he would listen.

Young men on a self-appointed mission don’t like to be confused by awkward questions. One of the most useful insights in the monograph “Radicalization in the West,” written by the New York City Police Department in 2007, is that when a cluster of young men start talking about jihad at the mosque, that’s not necessarily a warning sign. But when those same men leave the mosque because they don’t want to hear the arguments against them, that’s a real red flag.

As noted in these pages and elsewhere, the common thread among terrorists is an identification with people—or more often, “a people,” who are suffering repression by some outside force: the Irish under Britain, the Jews in Palestine before 1948, the Palestinians under Israel since then, the Tamils under the Sinhalese, Latin American peasants under oligarchs. The list was long even before Osama bin Laden identified the more generic oppression of all Muslims by "Jews and crusaders" and Iraqis and Afghans came under American-led occupation.

In obsessive and often highly romanticized narratives of “jihads,” “crusades,” or “wars of national liberation,” the young men justify their violence, inevitably, by pointing to the suffering victims they claim to be defending. When innocent children are killed, the boilerplate rationale among terrorists is that “our children” have been killed as well. We have not heard that yet from the surviving Tsarnaev brother, but others in the Middle East were quick to voice that cynical “logic.”

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The would-be terrorist doesn’t have to be a victim of the suffering himself, and often he is not. The argument that poverty and oppression are the causes of terrorism, as such, is misleading when we look at the individuals who carry out the acts. As the venerable scholar of insurgency Walter Laqueur pointed out long ago, those attracted to terrorism tend to be relatively well educated, gainfully employed, and sometimes come from quite affluent backgrounds.

They convince themselves that they are righting epic wrongs, and many believe that their sacrifice (their “martyrdom”) is not only heroic but even chivalric. The seminal work of al Qaeda ideology, written before 9/11 by Ayman al-Zawahiri (the group’s current leader), is called Knights Under the Prophet's Banner. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s excellent book about al Qaeda, The Black Banners, takes its title from the Islamic saying that the Muslim conquest of the world will begin with an army from the ancient land of Khurasan that flies those dark flags. A dramatic video extolling that idea was among Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s favorites. It’s probably not a coincidence that the historical Khurasan area in Central Asia was not far from the regions—Chechnya, Dagestan, and Kyrgystan—where the Tsarnaevs have their roots and spent their early childhood.

Third: theater. Terrorism is all about spectacle and always has been. Almost a thousand years ago, the cult of the assassins set out to terrorize its enemies by proving its agents could strike them in places where they thought they were secure. Hollywood movies like Independence Day or Godzilla were a source of inspiration for the al Qaeda plotters behind the September 11 attacks. The alleged conspirators in a 2009 plot to blow up synagogues in the Bronx reportedly were “disappointed” that the best target, the World Trade Center, had already been hit. One bluntly said he wanted to see the destruction on television and be able to say, “I’m the one who did that.”

Some day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother, may give many reasons for attacking the innocent spectators and runners at the Boston Marathon as opposed to some other target. But there’s no question the most important was that so many millions of people were watching it, and it was, for these righteous would-be “knights,” such an easy target for atrocity.

Testosterone, narrative, and theater: TNT, if you will. That’s the truly critical and explosive mix inside the terrorist’s mind.