Radicalization of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnae

Many are asking how Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were moved to attack the Boston Marathon.   If they have a political grievance as Chechens, shouldn’t they be attacking Russians?  The sparse information available permits some explanation in terms of mechanisms of radicalization from McCauley and Moskalenko’s 2011 book, Friction: How radicalization happens to them and us.

1. A central mechanism of radicalization is political grievance.  Chechnia has been fighting Russians for many generations, and some Chechens interpret the conflict as Muslims versus Christians.  In this framing, the U.S. and Russia are both Christian countries.  More specifically, Al Qaeda members have a presence in Chechnia; some Al Qaeda members reportedly fought and died for Chechnia in the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004.  As a culture, Chechnians value loyalty: “My friends enemy is my enemy.”

2. Another mechanism of radicalization is love for someone already radicalized, someone who asks for help.  This is likely how the younger sweeter brother was brought to join in the attack.  Also, in more traditional societies, older brothers are expected to exercise some authority over younger.  We note that the younger follows behind older brother in video from the Marathon finish line.  One report suggested that the younger brother “idolized” his boxing-champion older brother.

3. Another mechanism of radicalization is unfreezing: loss of everyday connections and activities that keep most of us from radical change.  There are indications that the older brother was unfrozen/disconnected in recent years.  He posts “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”  He was charged with assaulting his wife (who converted to Islam for him) in 2009, losing thus his connection with her and their three year old daughter.  It is important to be clear that unfreezing does not push an individual toward violence in particular, but only opens a door to new people, new ideas, and new directions. 

In addition to motivation we need to consider means and opportunity.  There are reports that the older brother went home to Chechnia, Jan-Jul 2012.  He took this trip when feeling disconnected, opening him to Al Qaeda ideas and connections.  The trip could provide an opportunity to learn bomb-making; legend to the contrary, this is not a skill easily learned from the internet.  Finally, as long-time residents of the Boston area, the two brothers would know the crowd scene opportunity presented by the Marathon.

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