Domestic Radicalization and the Boston Marathon: A ‘Soft’ Front in the War on Terror?

May 24, 2013

Michael Smolander

Detention of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar

The homemade bombs that killed three and injured hundreds at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 signal an unsettling trend in the war on terror. Much of the reporting on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s role in the Boston Marathon plot has failed to answer a simple question: what drove a nineteen-year-old University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth student to commit hideous violence? Establishing Dzhokhar’s motivation and comparing it to previous terror attacks could potentially reconfigure the way national security experts view terrorism, ideas and geopolitics.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a particularly interesting case study for terrorist behavior. Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan constructed crude pressure-cooker bombs to carry out the Boston Marathon attack. There are two important aspects to their bomb-making: it was done with no professional training and there is no known link between the brothers and the kind of organizational structure that launched pervious terror attacks, such as the London Underground bombings in 2005.

Tamerlan plays an integral role in understanding Dzhokhar’s motivation to commit terrorism. In 2010, the Russian security service informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of Tamerlan’s suspected link to terror networks in the Caucuses. Moreover, it is well reported that Tamerlan traveled to Makhachkala, Dagestan in July 2012, after which Russian authorities expressed alarm to their U.S. counterparts over what they saw as the radicalization of Tamerlan.

What is most important to Tamerlan’s travels and supposed period of radicalization is Dzhokhar’s absence. There is no paper trail tracing the suspected radicalization of Dzhokhar and no tangible evidence linking him with radical views that might prompt one to commit an act of terror. Hence, although Tamerlan had been on the Russian and American security services radar, Dzhokhar showed no signs of radicalization and indeed did not travel outside the United States. These are crucial details to understanding the intricacies of the Boston Marathon bombings and the imbedded relations between these siblings. The disturbing fact that Dzhokhar did not travel overseas to receive tactical training suggests that radicalization was introduced as an intellectual process within the United States via his older brother Tamerlan. Dzhokhar’s radicalization presents a deeply confusing, disconcerting and significant reality that calls for a reconfiguration of the way the national security apparatus perceives domestic terrorism.

What is most troubling about how the nineteen-year-old Dzhokhar became radicalized is that it was largely an intellectual process supported by Tamerlan. Dzhokhar’s training and radicalization is the polar opposite to previous examples, as seen in the training leading up to previous terror plots such as Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan, whom bombed the London Underground in July 7, 2005. The disturbing trend that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev illustrates is young-Muslim men, even if deeply imbedded into Western culture, can still be radicalized into committing terrorist acts that are motivated by intellectual concerns. This process can play out without traveling overseas to receive tactical training or indoctrination, and fervent ideology is the only prerequisite.

The emergence of the Dzhokhar phenomena expresses the need to reformulate terror prevention strategies. If Dzhokhar was radicalized via informational and intellectual processes, then terror must be prevented along the same lines. Hence, if Dzhokhar was motivated to commit terror as a result of persuasive intellectual arguments about America’s role in the Middle-East and religious sentiment, then the fight to prevent such attacks needs to take place at the source. Simply put, a more engaged civil society is the solution, wherein diverse groups are respected and their voices are heard in the public arena. Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been quoted suggesting he did not have a single American friend and that he did not understand them. This is a public policy and civil societal failure as much as it is a national security one. Tamerlan’s and subsequently Dzhokhar’s radicalization may have been avoided by providing them with a platform to voice dissent, rather than allowing their concerns about American society and foreign policy to culminate in a violent statement against American citizens. It is a failure of civil society that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar spent large parts of their lives in the United States and were unmoved by the arguments that support the American constitution, democracy and the Rule of Law.

An intellectual front in the war on terror has emerged, wherein Western states must establish more inclusive channels for dissent to dissuade the radicalized sentiment exemplified by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. If the Tsarnaev brothers were afforded the opportunity to voice their critical perspectives on the role of the United States in the Middle-East and the status of Muslim’s in the United States, perhaps their pent up aggression would not have culminated in violent martyrdom.

The traditional response to terrorist attacks to date has been a legislative one aimed at demobilizing organized terror networks, such as the Patriot Act. However, combating terror on an intellectual level, as was necessary in preventing Dzhokhar’s radicalization, requires a more inclusive civil society. In short, the way to combat terror on the new intellectual front is through freer flows of public discourse, debate and deliberation. Rethinking the way radicalization occurs also infers a reformulation of where terrorism is fought. The case of Dzhokhar illustrates that the war on terror can often lead to fronts within our own society.

In sum, combating terror will require a soft power approach as much as it does a hard power one; public safety depends on it.

Michael Smolander is a contributor to

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