Understanding the Tsarnaev Brothers

Over the next few days we will learn more about Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, from their childhood in Central Asia and their arrival to America up to the last days before and after their alleged attack against the Boston Marathon. All this information will help us understand, for what is possible, why two seemingly well-adjusted young men decided to indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that adopted them. We cannot read people's minds, but based on the limited evidence we now possess and considering patterns we have observed over the last few years we can make some preliminary observations.

The Tsarnaevs' Chechen origins have immediately triggered the attention of commentators. It is a point that indeed should not be overlooked. Over the last few years the Chechens' century-long struggle against Russia has increasingly taken religious undertones. In the mid-1990s, hundreds of Arab volunteers joined local forces battling the Russian army and brought with them an interpretation of Islam that was completely alien to Chechnya's traditionally Sufi and moderate Islam. While most Chechens rejected the jihadists' worldview, some local warlords formed close bonds with them.

Today networks that adopt some of the most militant interpretations of jihadism operate not just in Chechnya but also in several neighboring regions. The Beslan school siege and the attacks perpetrated by female suicide bombers (the so-called black widows) are just some of the best known actions of a movement that regularly engages in violence against authorities and moderate Islamic institutions throughout the southern areas of the Russian Federation. For political reasons Russian authorities have tended to exaggerate them, but links between Chechen militants and various jihadist groups in the al Qaeda galaxy do exist. Chechens have long been operating with such groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria.

But do these dynamics really matter in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers? We will know more over the next few days, but it is arguable that the roots of the brothers' radicalization are to be found more on the streets of Boston and the Internet than in the war-scorched alleys of Grozny or the valleys of rural Chechnya. It appears in fact that the Tsarnaev family left Chechnya more than twenty years ago -- in fact the younger Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan, where the family first settled. After moving throughout Central Asia the Tsarnaevs apparently settled in the Boston area more than 10 years ago. Given their young age, it seems apparent that the Tsarnaev brothers must have embraced the ideology that led them to allegedly bomb fellow Bostonians while living in the Beantown area.

From the first accounts of their lives and a cursory look at Tamerlan Tsarnaev's presence on social media, what emerges is a profile that is very much in line with that of hundreds of homegrown jihadists seen throughout Europe and North America over the last ten years. On one hand the brothers seemed to have embraced a Western lifestyle, including some of its most frivolous aspects. But videos Tamerlan posted on his Facebook and YouTube pages indicate a clear fascination with Salafism. And featured prominently are not the battles in his ancestral Chechnya but the speeches of Feiz Mohammed, an English-speaking radical preacher popular among Western Salafists. It is possible, even likely, that indirect memories of the struggle in Chechnya did influence the Tsarnaev brothers. But their embracement of jihadist ideology did not take place in a region they probably barely remember. Their Chechen origin seems to be a footnote in a story of radicalization that resembles that of young men of all ethnic and social backgrounds throughout the West.

Before discovering that the Tsarnaev brothers were allegedly behind the attacks, most commentators wondered whether the attack was "domestic" (i.e. right wing/militia) or "foreign" (i.e. jihadist). This analysis is deeply flawed, as it overlooks the scores of quintessentially homegrown jihadists arrested by authorities throughout the U.S. over the last few years. Some of them went abroad, joining al Qaeda affiliates from Pakistan to Somalia. In many cases they planned attacks inside America that, for various reasons, failed. Nashville-born convert Carlos Bledsoe, who killed two Army recruiters in Little Rock in 2009, and Virginia native Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers in Fort Hood, succeeded. While their ideology might be foreign, American jihadists are domestic in every other aspect. Born or, at least, bred in America, their radicalization took place within the U.S., thanks to the Internet and/or the influence of small radical clusters that exist throughout the country.

Authorities are well aware that in the aftermath of the events in Boston nothing can be more counterproductive (not to mention unfair) than stigmatizing the whole American Muslim community, which is as horrified as any other by the attacks and could be a huge asset in preventing new ones. Moreover, the problem should not be overemphasized nor politicized -- two likely developments. But the events in Boston seem to provide additional evidence indicating that jihadism is not just an external but also a domestic threat to America.



Lorenzo Vidino, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, Switzerland.