The shocking and tragic events that began in Boston on Patriot's Day and ended after a hail of gunfire in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts last Friday are likely to be viewed as marking a new phase in the United States' struggle with terrorism. The suspected terrorists, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev embody the new and stark reality of the dangers of "homegrown" Islamic terrorism and the potential difficulties of combating it in the future. Moving forward, while many important questions remain to be answered, one critical one will focus on what drove seemingly well-assimilated young men to turn against their adopted country in such a profound and horrific way.
The media has portrayed both brothers as having relatively fulfilling experiences after traveling to the United States in 2002. While the older brother Tamerlan seems to have become disillusioned in recent years, there is little or no evidence that younger brother Dzhokar was anything but a "normal American kid." This presents a real challenge for law enforcement and counterterrorism investigators. What types of factors would lead these seemingly normal young men to transform so dramatically into violent terrorists? Several analyses have (correctly) focused on the six months that elder brother Tamerlan spent in Russia from January-July 2012. During this time he may have indeed met with extremists, Chechen or otherwise. However, it is highly unlikely that the process or radicalization began in Russian. That process more likely began in the United States, in Cambridge Massachusetts, one of the most diverse and open cities in America. Understanding how Tamerlan became radicalized and how he then transferred his own fanaticism to his brother will be critical.
To be clear, this is in no way to seek to absolve or denigrate the inexcusable, immoral, and evil actions that the brothers took. The decision to deliberately target civilians is unacceptable regardless of the righteousness and nobility of the underlying cause. Nonetheless, it is critical to understand the factors or forces that seemed to change these two young men in order to avert such acts in the future. Even if Tamerlan received extensive training in Russia (which remains unclear), this attack remains "homegrown" in nature. While not planned or executed by foreign actors, these attacks are inspired by the ideas, messages and examples of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden even if the specific goals or objectives may be less coherent. It is critical to understand how that violent ideology is transmitted, adopted, and reinforced in order to effectively combat terrorism in the long-term.
There is no singular "profile" of a terrorist. Extensive research of terrorist groups and their members, whether based upon the analysis of broad statistical indicators, or exhaustive interviews with captured terrorists, have unearthed very few patterns or trends. The simple fact is that while many people around the world live in poverty, suffer political oppression, or are victimized on the basis of their race, religion, or ethnicity, the overwhelming majority do not turn to violence. Of the minority that does, an even smaller percentage chooses to target innocent civilians to make their grievances known or force some sort of political change. Understanding what drives generally disaffected people to engage in mass murder against civilians is a key to avoiding it. Only in effectively reconstructing the motivations and strategies behind the Patriots Day bombing, can counterterrorism officials hope to identify and avert such acts of homegrown terrorism in the future.