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Making Sense of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Online Radicalization

A 30-count indictment has been brought against Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The charges include use of weapons of mass destruction and the murder of four people. The indictment also offers the first official glimpse of what authorities suggest may have contributed to Tsarnaev’s attack; namely, extremist materials found online.

According to the indictment, Tsarnaev downloaded several documents in the months leading up to the attack, including essays on the importance of violent jihad as well as Inspire, an online magazine produced by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Inspire contained instructions on how to build a pressure cooker bomb, like the one used in Boston.

There is a critical question here for any instance of radicalization: Did Dzkokhar embrace his radical ideology and violent plans because of the materials he downloaded, or did he go in search of materials that legitimized and justified what he and his brother planned to do? It is a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but the way this question is answered has a big impact on how online extremism is viewed.

As Internet and social media capabilities have grown in recent years, so too has the debate over the threat of online radicalization. The Bipartisan Policy Center recently wrote that “dealing with this new and constantly changing threat (online radicalization) should be a major and continuing priority for the government as it works to counter violent extremism.”

While the messages Tsarnaev was reading likely influenced his decisions and beliefs, there are many questions about just how much of an impact extremist online literature has on would-be terrorists.

 

Feeding the Fire of Radicalization

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid in a boat during the final standoff that culminated in his capture, and the indictment states that he wrote inside the boat that: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians;” “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all;” “Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to aid [unintelligible] it is allowed.”

These kinds of sayings are identical to much of the rhetoric and propaganda used to justify violence and terrorism in the name of religious duty. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s writing is a regurgitation of this message, and because they are so similar to those presented in Inspire and the other documents he downloaded, it might seem as though online material was a source of his extremist beliefs.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

According to the indictment, the boat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in, seen here through an infrared camera, contained a scribbled message that echoed radicalized propaganda. Massachusetts State Police photo

On its own, however, reading an extremist article or essay (online or otherwise) is not likely to create and arm a lone violent actor. Radicalization is a process, not an event. If Inspire and the other literature was unavailable, would Dzhokhar and his brother still have committed their horrific attack?

For Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it seems his older brother, Tamerlan, had a significant role in coaxing him away from a peaceful college life and into one of violence. Amid the inherently tumultuous years of a young man in his early 20s, Tsarnaev struggled with questions of nationality, religious belief and identity. His brother, who had started down the path to radicalization several years earlier, was certainly a powerful and influential figure in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s life. His views on religious duty and the perceived persecution of Muslims would seem to have more impact than some piece of propaganda from Yemen (i.e., Inspire).

“Chesser represents a growing breed of young Americans who have such comfort and facility with social media that they can adeptly use it to facilitate radicalization and recruitment to violent Islamist extremism that is accelerated as compared to traditional avenues of recruitment.”

There is a critical question here for any instance of radicalization: Did Dzkokhar embrace his radical ideology and violent plans because of the materials he downloaded, or did he go in search of materials that legitimized and justified what he and his brother planned to do? It is a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but the way this question is answered has a big impact on how online extremism is viewed.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...