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Parvez Ahmed Headshot

Tsarnaevs, Mass Murders and Radicalization

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Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev resemble Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine gunmen who killed 13 people using guns, explosive devices and bombs rigged to cars. And yet, unlike with the Tasrnaevs, no one dug into which church Harris and Klebold worshiped at. Timothy McVeigh, the self-radicalized Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 including 19 children under the age of 6, was motivated by radical Christian and anti-government views. And yet no one asked his family or members of his faith if they were patriotic Americans. The apparent double standard is one of many troubling aspects of expert commentary in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy.

U.S. government sources indicate that Tsarnaevs were not connected to any outside terror group. How then did an otherwise "normal" person turn to such deranged violence? To the Fox News crowd, the motive is Islam and the trigger is jihad. Underreported is the fact that Muslim groups and Islamic Centers around the country have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the bombings and in expressing their solidarity with the citizens of Boston. Killing innocent people in the name of Islam is not jihad, which is semantically translated as striving for good. Its murder and criminal. Also underreported is the fact that imams (Muslim religious leaders) in Boston are refusing to give Tamerlan proper Islamic burial rites.

The Brennan Law Center in its 2011 report, "Rethinking Radicalization" wrote, "The path to terrorism does not have a fixed trajectory with each step of the process having specific and identifiable markers." Any assumption that terrorism is linked to a religion is gross oversimplification of a complex process that social scientists indicate has no set pattern. Experts have repudiated the "religious conveyer belt" theory, which suggests a linear progression from religiosity to radicalization to violence. Not everyone who holds hardline conservative religious views becomes a terrorist nor is every mentally ill person a step removed from being a mass murder. Placing mosques under scrutiny and American Muslims under surveillance, as has been suggested by some in the U.S. Congress, only alienates the very community whose help is needed to thwart any radicals in their midst. In fact several terrorists have been nabbed because of cooperation from the American Muslim community. The Brennan Report went on to say,

There is no profile of the type of person who becomes a terrorist; indeed, the process by which a person embraces violence is fluid, making it nearly impossible to predict who will move from espousing "radical" views to committing violent acts. .... Islam itself does not drive terrorism. In fact, the most recent research suggests that a well-developed Muslim identity actually counteracts jihadism.

The first step toward radicalization is usually discontent, which may precipitate an identity crisis. It appears that Tamerlan was seeking a new identity after, for unknown reasons, failing to embrace his American identity. As often, though not always, is the case, he turned to religion, primarily via the Internet, where he engaged a mysterious character named Misha, who reportedly harbored extremist views (latest reports suggests that Misha was not Tamerlan's radical teacher). Successful recruitment occurred because Tamerlan was ignorant of mainstream Islam and became pliable in the hand of his manipulator and gullible to the many conspiracy theories proliferating cyberspace. Former CIA officer Marc Sageman, in his book "Leaderless Jihad," notes that most terrorists lack religious knowledge and were secular individuals until just before joining an extremist group.

Sustaining a radicalized state of mind requires isolation from mainstream society. Tamerlan cut himself off from society, giving up boxing and music. Besides being aloof, Tamerlan was angry and excessively critical of society. He was thrown out a Boston mosque after violently protesting a sermon that praised Martin Luther King's non-violence. This was yet another tell-tale sign. While the mosque leaders did the right thing by throwing him out, should they have gone a step further and engaged Tamerlan in a conversation? It is hard to know with certainty if such a conversation would have stopped Tamerlan but it may have unearthed information that flagged him as potential threat to society. However, given our constitutional protections, it is unclear as to what law enforcement could have done had they received such a report.

Given the lack of any pattern in radicalization, both law enforcement and community leaders face a very difficult task as to how they go about unearthing violence-prone radicals. As a free society, we will have to manage such threats without veering away from our constitutional principles. Fear of terrorism should not change our way of life. Truth be told, according to some experts, the chances of dying from terrorism is 1 in 1.7 million. The chances of dying in a car accident are 1 in 100 and by gun violence 1 in 25,000. A little perspective may help us better cope with the frenzy.