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Thoughts on the 'Jihadification' of Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev

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On Sunday two incredibly well informed FBI special agents arrived at my house here in Boston wanting to know anything I could teach them about the process of jihadi radicalization, as well as Chechens, a topic I covered in my class on Chechnya at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth titled "Fire and Sword in the Caucasus: A History of the Muslim Highlanders of Chechnya." Besides immediately directing them to what is for me the most impactful and heart wrenching book I have ever read in my life, Khasan Baiev's The Oath. A Surgeon Under Fire, (the only book in English written by a Chechen, a doctor, which tells the story of how he got caught up in the war with Russia that destroyed his world, but yet still kept the Hippocratic Oath and tended to Russian soldiers and even Chechnya's most feared warrior-terrorist Shamil Basayev) I directed them to my earlier articles "Shattering the Chechen Al Qaeda Myth. Part I and II.

These articles systematically demolished the misguided notion that the outgunned, Sovietized, Sufi-mystic Chechen rebels defending their mountain homeland from the mighty Russian Federation had somehow developed a foreign policy which bizarrely led them to become the evil henchmen of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi fundamentalist terrorist Osama Bin Laden and his Pashtun tribal Taliban allies in Afghanistan. I myself personally traveled to Afghanistan in 2003 and interviewed numerous Taliban prisoners of war held by Northern Alliance Uzbek General Dostum to see if they had ever seen a real Chechen fighter of the sort reported to be the vanguard of their armies (see my photos here). None of them had ever seen or heard of Chechens; it was like looking for the Chechen Big Foot.

While the Chechens had engaged in terrorism against Russia in response to that country's genocidal war against their small breakaway republic, they did not see the distant United States of America as the enemy and had certainly not traveled across Eurasia en masse to Afghanistan to fight us. As deplorable as Chechen terrorism was, it was directed against Russia, a country that had been their hereditary enemy since it brutally conquered them in 1861 (over a 120 years before Bin Laden declared his jihad on the U.S.), not the distant USA, which they admired. In fact the Chechens appreciated it when the President George W. Bush administration condemned the Russian Federation for human rights violations against their people.

While the small number of Chechen rebels were later radicalized in the 2000s and came to see their war for national independence as a defensive jihad, they had no reason to attack distant America. For a view into their world see the Chechen rebels' website Kavkaz Center.

Which brings us to the older and more dominant of the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan. Why would a Chechen immigrant to America like Tamerlan Tsarnaev carry out the senseless Boston bombings if it did not dovetail with the objectives of the Chechen fighters or terrorists? I believe it was his own personal journey into jihadism which has been duplicated by other young Muslims in Britain (site of the 7/7 bombings of the Tube metro system and buses by radicalized Pakistani Brits) and France (site of several terrorist attacks by radicalized North African French citizens). Like many young men, I theorize that Tamerlan was searching for an identity and sense of self. While he was previously known to smoke marijuana and box, he ultimately found himself in a radical strain of Islam. But it was not the Islam most Muslims would recognize, it was almost a separate cult known as jihadism which seeks to construct what has been called the "Sixth Pillar of Islam," i.e the fard (obligation) of jihad (there are actually only five pillars in Islam).

News reports also state that Tamerlan identified with jihad warriors in the Russian Muslim province of Dagestan (next to Chechnya) whose videos were found online. Among them was Abu Dujana who stated "If you think Islam can be spread without spilling a single drop of blood, you're wrong," and "only cowards and hypocrites seek excuses not to join the jihad."

If this scenario sounds preposterous to you, you should see how well produced some jihad videos are with their heroic nasheeds (jihad songs) and riveting footage. See this typical jihad video created by Chechen rebels fighting against the Russian army and imagine you are seeing it through the eyes of a young American Muslim (and Chechen, with all the warrior mystique baggage that entails considering that tiny Rhode Island-sized Chechnya beat transcontinental Russia in the 1994-96 Russo-Chechen War) looking for heroes, a sense of purpose and identity, and deeper faith in a commercialized, secular Boston. See also the extraordinary video found here of Chechens in combat.

These sorts of action videos may have acted as "gateway drug" to what I call the "jihadification" of Tamerlan. The Chechenn warriors in the above videos are fighting not just for their homeland and families... but their faith. While some young American men emulate gangster rap, play violent video games, join gangs etc., these sorts of online video lead to the glorification of jihad for some born again Muslims or those young Muslim men seeking a greater sense of purpose. It gives them a cause larger than themselves.

News reports state that Tamerlan may have also been drawn to the online preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni American who joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and became known as the "Bin Laden of the Internet" for running Inspire Magazine with Pakistani American Samir Khan (which notably taught viewers how to "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom", i.e. a pressure cooker bomb like the one used in Boston). This seems to fit this radicalization-by-Internet paradigm that is well established. Here is a video by al-Awlaki stating that jihad is more important than the haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam), a proposition that few, if any moderate Muslims would agree with.

All this may have led the jihadified young Tamerlan on a recent spiritual journey back to his homeland of Dagestan, where many Chechens live. I have had Irish American friends who have similarly re-identified themselves with their old homeland and traveled there seeking to find something deeper in their identity. A sort of diasporic attachment to a homeland outside of America that makes them stand out and gives them a non-U.S. melting pot identity that is special. Dagestan may have provided Tamerlan with such a reattachment that had a seductive, militant edge to it. Dagestan, which is a Russian Muslim republic next to Chechnya, has been wracked by jihadi violence as extremists, some of them Wahhabis, try to overthrow the government there and create an Caucasus-wide Emirate (religious state). This exciting millieu may have further inspired Tamerlan and he may have interacted with like-minded jihadis there, becoming further inspired to carry out his terrorist attack in the process. It is doubtful he practiced to build bombs on his own in an urban Boston setting.

It seems that the older Tamerlan then converted his brother Dzhokar to the fanatical cause, much as John Allen Mohammad (the 2002 Beltway Sniper) brought along the 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo to be his accomplice in his similarly senseless terror rampage.

One must also take note of his name, Tamerlan, a name unfamiliar to most Americans. It honors the memory of the original Tamerlane (Timur i Leng), a 14th century Turko Mongol Muslim warlord who brutally conquered most of Central Eurasia. Similarly, the younger Dzhokar brother was most likely named for Djohar Dudayev, the first president of Chechnya who led his people in fighting for independence from Russia after 1991. The original Djohar (Джохар in Russian, the same spelling in that language as Dzhokar) was killed by a Russian air strike while talking on the phone with Russians about peace (he was tricked by the Russians who homed in on his phone signal). The Chechens subsequently renamed their capital, which had once been Grozny (a Russian word meaning "Terrible"), Djohar in his honor. Dzhokar and Tamerlan are thus two names with some heavy significance and import for jihadified Muslims of Chechen ancestry who may have found themselves drawn to the cult of Muslim holy war at the expense of other less radical aspects of the faith...most notably the passage in the Koran that states "killing one innocent person is like killing all humanity."

For a backgrounder on the little known Chechens of the sort I gave the FBI see my brief article here on the History News Network.