Issue #84 Cover Story: Preventing Home Grown Terrorism: Lessons learned from the Boston Bombings

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

In April of 2013 Americans suffered another al Qaeda related terrorist attack—two nearly simultaneous bombings at the Boston Marathon that resulted in the killing of three and injury of hundreds more.  It wasn’t the worst al Qaeda related terrorist attack on U.S. soil – 9-11 has that distinction.  Nor was it among the first.  There have been many—including a previous attack on the World Trade Centers.

While many referred to the Tsarnaev brothers as lone-wolf terrorists, the Boston bombings were also not the first al Qaeda related attack of so called self-radicalized individuals.  U.S. military psychiatrist Nidal Hassan had taken up arms in 2009 and become an “active shooter” killing as many at his military base as possible before he was stopped and there have been many others—most stopped before they could carry out their attacks.

In all the cases of so called self-radicalized or “lone wolf” al Qaeda-related terrorists, we have seen a consistent pattern. The people who have carried out the attacks have had some contact over the Internet with al Qaeda materials, ideologies and often the ideologues themselves, that is, individuals who incite others to perpetrate terrorism either through their written or taped materials or in person over the Internet. Homegrown terrorism is something that in recent years al Qaeda has encouraged—calling for lone individuals to take instruction and inspiration from the Internet and rise up and strike at home.

The essential ingredients that make up the lethal cocktail of terrorism are very clearly defined and nearly always all present as I have learned over my ten years of interviewing over four hundred terrorists, their supporters, close friends and family members and even their hostages in Russia, the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East.  These four essential ingredients to the lethal cocktail of terrorism are 1) a group that is willing to use terrorism trying to reach it political aims; 2) a terrorist ideology that justifies attacking and killing innocent civilians on behalf of the group’s political aspirations; 3) social support from the groups membership and those it purports to represent with this varying from place to place and 4) psycho-social vulnerabilities within those individuals that the group manages to activate into terrorism.

In the case of al Qaeda, it’s affiliates and related groups, the ideology is what I refer to as ‘militant jihadi’ and centers around a call to “martyrdom” in which vulnerable individuals are convinced that the group’s struggle is a cosmic one, that its mandate is from Allah and that that the call is to (militant) jihad.  The struggle is defined as defensive—in that claims are made that Islamic people, lands and Islam itself is under attack and in need of defense.  With the struggle defined as cosmic, holy and ordained by Allah (hence the call to militant jihad) the means to fight can also be extraordinary and violate normal ethical tenets.  Terrorist attacks on civilians are allowed and those who die carrying them out are promised the rewards of Islamic martyrdom: instant access to paradise, the promise of electing seventy family members to directly access paradise upon their deaths, seventy virgins, and other honors and comforts in the after-life.

While much has been made of the seventy virgins as a motivator for terrorism carried out by those following the militant jihadi or “martyrdom” ideology, the truth is that in most cases, there is a great deal of vulnerability within individuals who resonate to such an ideological call to “martyrdom”.  When I looked at the individual motivations for taking part in militant jihadi terrorism in many parts of the world, I found that they were always contextual and broke down quite clearly into two sets of motivations: one for those living in conflict zones and another for those living outside of conflict zones.

For those living in conflict zones, the individual motivations for participating in terrorism are quite clear and are generally trauma and revenge driven. In conflict zones there are often deaths; injuries; torture; arrests and detentions; blocked access to power, resources and territory; and frustrated aspirations—if not shattered life assumptions.  Those who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suffer from near constant flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, inability to concentrate, and searing posttraumatic bodily arousal—the “martyrdom” ideology put forward by terrorist groups can be seen as a type of short-lived psychological first aid.[i]

For a highly traumatized individual, contemplating “martyrdom” can offer a means of calming the mind—one often goes dissociative and may even enter a state of euphoria or bliss contemplating one’s own suicide if convinced that it will lead to instant access to paradise.  This became evident during interviews with actual suicide bombers who were arrested before their actions could be carried out as well as during interviews with family members of those who did suicide. We even found this effect taking palce in a manipulated experiment with normal college students taking on the role of a suicide bomber[ii].

To enter a state of euphoric calm is quite a strong narcotic medication administered to someone with a difficult case of PTSD—especially for someone who may not have access to other treatments.  Likewise the group has additional offers to the potential “martyr”.  They may appeal to the communal suffering and group norms of acting on behalf of the collective.  And if the person lives in a place like the West Bank or Gaza, there is a high degree of social support for enacting terrorism. One will be considered a hero, and be glorified in “martyr” videos, posters, songs and the like after carrying out such an act.  The perpetrator’s family may even receive financial compensation for their death. Such social support for terrorism exists elsewhere also—in small pockets of radicalized communities in Europe for instance, one may also be glorified for joining the militant jihad.

For those living outside of conflict zones, the struggle is less clear-cut.  No one is being killed, there are no battles over territory, no injuries, torture, and the like. However, there may be a feeling of unjust arrests and detentions among the vulnerable populations that al-Qaeda related groups often appeal to, or anger over detention centers such as Guantanamo.

In non-conflict zones, I found individual motivations having less to do with trauma and revenge and much more to do with feeling discriminated against, marginalized, and for first and second generation Muslim immigrant populations, relating to troubles assimilating and feeling accepted into society.  Likewise, the attraction to terrorist groups is often related to belonging to a group; it appeals to budding manhood (to be a mujahideen), it is a chance for adventure, and impressing the girls—particularly if they offer themselves as informal brides to those who commit to “martyr” themselves—as has happened in the Netherlands for instance.

Terrorist recruiters make use of what is happening inside conflict zones to create a sense of identification—even a sense of fictive kin—with Muslim victims living in conflict zones and through that, these operatives induce secondary trauma in those they address in non-conflict zones.  For instance, they will show graphic videos and photos of Muslims being killed in conflict zones, paired with music and scriptural calls to militant jihad and play upon the emotions of those they hope to recruit.

An al Qaeda recruiter in Belgium did just that—he showed his potential recruit a video of Muslims suffering in Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir, etc. Then, once he had him emotionally engaged, he tied it back to the situation in Belgium comparing how uneasily first and second-generation immigrant Muslim communities live among their white European Belgian hosts. The recruiter asked the Belgian Moroccan he was preying upon if he was aware of all the rapes of Muslim women in the former Yugoslavia when it disintegrated into conflict, and if he was ready to protect Muslim women in Belgium if something similar happened there.  Hooking him within the context of local concerns, the recruiter then enrolled him in militant training and continued to take him step-by-step down the terrorist trajectory.

Thus what we find happening often is that terrorist groups engage their recruits by preying upon their individual vulnerabilities (that are highly contextual and differ according to where they live) and offering them the “martyrdom” ideology and social support for it within the group itself and sometimes in the community surround and certainly via the Internet.  In non-conflict zones, the social support for terrorism that is not present in the wider community, but that is present virtually—via the Internet, is especially important.  Social support for terrorism over the Internet is rife and exists even among instigators and ideologues that are now dead—but who unfortunately live on and continue to inspire terrorism via their seemingly immortal Internet presence.

In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston bombings, we see a particularly interesting matrix of influences.  The elder Tsarnaev had been exposed to the Chechen conflict as a young boy fleeing with his family from the first war of independence and he had also witnessed his father losing his job in Kyrgyzstan allegedly due to his Chechen ethnicity when the second Chechen war of independence broke out.  The family moved to Dagestan and Tamerlan (the elder of the two Tsarnaev brothers involved in the Boston Bombings) stayed the longest there, only immigrating to the U.S. at age fifteen, when he reunited with his family.  He was certainly well aware of the war atrocities going on inside Chechnya, Putin’s heavy handed crushing of the Chechen independence movement, the carpet bombings, the flood of refugees out of Chechnya, the stories of torture, detentions and even killings of innocent Chechens. Further, he would have been acutely aware of the Chechen rebel response led by Shamil Basayev who under the ideological influence of Saudi born former Afghan fighter Khattab, morphed the Chechen independence movement into a militant jihad and campaign of terrorism that embraced the “martyrdom” ideology.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev only arrived in the U.S. in 2002, two full years after Chechen rebel Basayev had begun his campaign of suicide terrorism, attacking innocent Russians in the metro, on trains, blowing up bombs inside airplanes and in 2002, taking over a theater of 800 hostages for three days with suicide bombers claiming they were willing to “martyr” themselves for the Chechen cause.  To a young man, alone without his parents, these Chechen terrorists may have looked like heroes—someone to emulate.  Although Tamerlan left Dagestan behind as he entered the U.S. this conflict likely remained buried in his heart.  And as he left Dagestan but stayed connected to it, he was likely well aware that it too eventually became swept up in the militant jihadi movement, with more terrorism currently occurring there than in Chechnya nowadays.

At first Tamerlan appeared to be doing well in the U.S.  He learned English and studied hard, although failed to succeed in higher education. He successfully filled that gap by becoming a champion boxer—with his goal to make it to the Olympics boxing for the U.S. team. As a young man he was known as a flashy dresser and flamboyant character as well as an extremely proud boxer—likely evidencing a strong need for affirmation.  Dzhokhar, his younger brother, who arrived earlier to the U.S. at a younger age, excelled in school and gained entrance into Dartmouth, a top university.  Both boys appeared at first to be assimilating in their new country well.  And they showed the typical behaviors of American teenagers; partying—smoking pot and drinking alcohol—despite their Muslim upbringing.

Tamerlan, however, appears to have been put off his tracks by a confluence of personal crises.  First his family was having a hard time.  Tamerlan’s professional father had been reduced to a car repairman—fixing cars on the cold Boston winter street outside their home—with the neighbors complaining about it.  His father fell gravely ill and his parents argued and finally divorced. Tamerlan perhaps unable to contain his emotions, was arrested for slapping his girlfriend.  The arrest along with the fact that the boxing championship had changed its rules then created another crisis for him.  He was barred from competition until his citizenship came through and that was being held up.

Coming from a part of the world where intrigues, political influence over visa applications, and unfair sports practices are common, Tamerlan believed that he was being barred from citizenship by the U.S. government for nefarious reasons—perhaps to help another boxer or specifically to thwart his Olympic ambitions.  He became angry and depressed and blamed the U.S. for destroying his dreams.  He also, in the same time period, came under the influence of a teacher that steered him into a conservative Salafi interpretation of Islam.  His mother encouraged his “reverting” back to this more conservative form of Islam than Chechens typically follow, perhaps hoping he would find his way and give up drinking and smoking, which he claimed to have done (although there are conflicting reports on this).  In any case, as a result of the boxing crisis, Tamerlan lost all life aims at a time when his family had disintegrated with his parents moving separately back to Dagestan.  He was lost—except for his fanatical Islamic beliefs that he continued to fan by engaging over the Internet with the sermons of fiery preachers such as Anwar al Awlaki.

Tamerlan also made contact over the Internet with another disillusioned boxer, William Plotinkov, who was a first generation immigrant from Russia (in Canada).  Plotnikov decided to go and join the Dagestani rebel movement and is found on the Internet—including in a video that Tamerlan posted to his You Tube account—clearly glorifying “martyrdom” and the militant jihadi movement.  It appears that when all was lost for Tamerlan, he found a new way to exalt himself—following his new Internet “brother” he too would go to Dagestan and join the rebels.

Tamerlan journeyed to Dagestan shortly after a mysterious murder occurred in Boston—the murder of Brendan Mess, a young man who Tamerlan had previously claimed as his best friend.  Mess and his two (Jewish) roommates were found nearly beheaded in their apartment with their money left intact and drugs sprinkled over their bodies.  There was no forced entry and the police concluded at the time that the murderer was someone they had known.  The police failed to realize that the murders involving near beheadings, occurring on the anniversary of 9-11 and involving drugs sprinkled over their bodies rather than any theft, were likely highly symbolic and carried out by someone following the militant jihadi ideology.

When the FBI recently reopened the case, a suspect who was killed in an altercation with the FBI agents during questioning is said to have admitted that Tsarnaev and he carried out the killings of the three young men.  If this is true, Tamerlan had already sealed his new life as a militant jihadi in Boston striking, out at his new host culture—just as other first and second generation immigrants have also done—presumably blaming it for corrupting him and his brother, leading them into drugs and partying and away from the “true” Islam.

In any case, Tamerlan was not interested in further attacks in the U.S. He either fled or simply left to Dagestan, ostensibly to apply for his Russian passport and visit his father.  But it appears that his real mission was to make contact with Plotnikov and other extremists there, hoping to join the rebels.  Tsarnaev arrived in Dagestan and did make contact with extremists but he also continued in his flamboyant and attention seeking ways, which put many of his extremist collegues off from embracing him as a “brother”.  It took Plotnikov about six weeks upon his arrival in Dagestan to gain entrance to the militant jihadi groups operating there, during which time he lived in a local village, perhaps being observed and vetted by the rebels. As Tamerlan took steps towards his new life as a militant jihadi, trying once again to gain meaning, adventure and a sense of heroism, he surely also knew that upon his arrival to Dagestan that he, like his friend Plotnikov, had to wait patiently for his invitation to join.

In any case it appears that Tsarnaev’s mission in Dagestan was cut short when Plotnikov and his cadres were suddenly killed in a counter-terrorism mission. Tamerlan didn’t wait for his passport—which was his stated reason for having traveled there—but instead quickly fled Dagestan and returned to the U.S.

Arriving back to Boston, still lost and without a life mission, and perhaps already a murderer, Tamerlan was still seeking a meaningful life path, and if a murderer, also likely seeking for a way to “redeem” himself.  Islamic “martyrdom” offered him the way.  Unable to join the Dagestani rebels Tamerlan took up another offer via al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’s online Inspire magazine.  It invited him to become a homegrown lone wolf terrorist attacking inside the U.S.  There he also found ideological support for attacking America in the sermons of Anwar al Awlaki.  Tamerlan had all the ingredients for becoming a terrorist: a group, an ideology and social support and it was all made available to him over the Internet and it all meshed and resonated with his own individual vulnerabilities.

In Boston, Tamerlan made his final decisions. He channeled all his life frustrations into his quest to become a militant jihadi.  And he took all his confusion over having accepted the al Qaeda narrative of Muslims under attack by western powers –which for him rang true from his Chechen experience and from what he found on the Internet about civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He began to blame the U.S.  We also see Tamerlan’s obvious sympathy for the Syrian civilian causalities and their independence movement being crushed by Assad, just as Putin had crushed the Chechens.  These things resonated with his own lived experience coming out of a conflict zone and having gone back into one to live temporarily.  Likewise, his hero Awlaki had been killed by a U.S. drone attack along with Samir Khan the author of Inspire magazine—two heroes for him that even in death were helping to organize his life’s plan.

Tsarnaev fell prey to the al Qaeda ideology and training materials found on the Internet.  He connected with ideologues in Boston who led him to conservative interpretations of Islam and anti-western views and he deepened his connections by finding an online militant jihadi (William Plotnikov) who glorified the idea of joining the militant movement in Dagestan. When he was thwarted in the ordinary life path of immigrants arriving in American by failing in higher education and then was thwarted again by the new boxing rules and perhaps even by his own drug use and depression, joining the militant jihad looked to him like the best way out.  In his way of seeing things, it provided a new way of earning self esteem, finding life meaning, camaraderie, belonging, heroism and adventure as well as reconnecting him to his ethnic roots and Islamic traditions.  It pointed him back home just as first generation Somali Americans also went home to fight jihad—they had also fallen prey to a similar convergence of influences.  But then, when Tamerlan was blocked from joining the Dagestani rebel movement, he then brought it all back to the U.S., attacking at home in his host country.

Could this have been prevented?  If the U.S. authorities had not lost track of him and had followed his travels, Internet history and terrorist related actions, it probably could have.  Likewise, if Tamerlan had managed to sort out his citizenship application and boxing career, or had encouragement been available from his mosque or community to find another life path when boxing fell through, if he had help with what appears to be a contentious divorce of his parents and a life of drugs and depression, he likely would have found a sense of meaning and life other than that of a terrorist.

And just as the lethal cocktail of terrorism plays out we can surely say that if this vulnerable new immigrant coming out of a conflict zone and not assimilating well in a non conflict zone, had never encountered a terrorist group, even virtually (al Qaeda or the militant jihadis in Dagestan), or their ideology, or received social support for engaging (again mostly via the Internet and in Dagestan) he would have likely never have become a terrorist.  He would have been only a frustrated pot-smoking social misfit, not a terrorist.

While what happened in Boston is far removed from Australia, the dynamics of al Qaeda related terrorism are much the same the world over.  David Irvine, the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) recently confirmed that the Australian intelligence community is investigating hundreds of Australian men of Lebanese background who have gone to fight with the rebels in Syria. News reports list some as fighting with al Nusra—a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and soon also to be designated by the Australian government as well.

Are these young Lebanese Australians, if they return back to Australia, a threat?  There are arguments on both sides of this coin.  The UK experience with men who went to fight in behalf of Muslims under severe attack in the former Yugoslavia is that although battle hardened and certainly radicalized into militant action, these fighters posed little threat to the UK upon their return and lived peacefully as good citizens.  In that conflict, however, the Bosnians themselves did not welcome al Qaeda nor embrace neither their terrorist actions nor their “martyrdom” ideology.  This has not been the case in Chechnya nor in Syria—both of which have significant pockets of the community embracing the al Qaeda ideology and groups.

The UK also has a completely different experience, as do many other European countries, with immigrant descent Muslims journeying to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere to take part in al Qaeda related training camps, deepen their ideological commitment to the militant jihad, and so on.  Within this latter group, the returnees have returned as a threat.  They returned as activated and violent extremists and have tried to attack inside their home country or use Europe as a base to attack the U.S.

When it comes to the Lebanese people, we must recognize their large diaspora over the world and that the Lebanese people have a very recent jubilant memory of kicking Syria out of their country and gaining independence—albeit via peaceful protests.  Further, it is certainly difficult the world over for Muslims, and non-Muslims alike, diaspora Lebanese, Syrians and other nationalities to continue to watch Assad’s atrocities against civilian targets who have been brutally killed, injured and displaced in the tens of thousands.  And it is understandable that young able-bodied men of Lebanese descent would want to come to their aid.  Seeing their fictive (or even actual) kin under attack in Syria, they may harbor a strong desire to help them gain independence from a known tyrant.

This is distinctly different from heeding the call to terrorism. However, it does pose a risk to those who respond to the call to come to their aid of downtrodden and oppressed Syrians because they are being exposed to a terrorist group, it’s ideology and they certainly also experience a great deal of social support for terrorism—even though they themselves may not be engaging in terrorism in Syria.  They have, however, been exposed to all the elements for becoming a terrorist and for that reason the threat must be taken seriously.

The real questions for Australians are:  Do Muslims of immigrant descent and otherwise feel accepted and fairly treated in Australia and do they see legitimate pathways to self actualization in Australia?  If they are subject to discrimination, marginalization and suffer from high unemployment, frustrated aspirations and the like, then they may have individual vulnerabilities that make them easy prey for al Qaeda related terrorist groups, and their “martyrdom” ideology. Certainly fighting in Syria and training alongside al Qaeda operatives they may find terrorism glorified and great social support for joining a terrorist movement.

If on the other hand these Australian fighters go to fight for the downtrodden in Syria and return home without having accepted a terrorist ideology and also find that they fit back into Australian society in a meaningful way, they may have no need, or desire to continue interacting with al Nusra or any other al-Qaeda affiliate.  They may simply reenter society the same way those who fought in Bosnia reentered their lives in the UK.

While monitoring those who return from Syria is likely advisable, the responsibility to reintegrate these passionate young fighters back into Australian society and ensure that their desires for justice and life meaningfulness are met in peaceful ways rests both on society as well as within themselves. Let’s hope that the Syrian conflict finally ends well, that these young men return alive and leave extremism behind as they cross again back over the borders into Australia finding themselves once again in a home that offers them freedoms that they respect and cherish.


[i] Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

[ii] Speckhard, A., Jacuch, B., & Vanrompay, V. (2012). Taking on the persona of a suicide bomber: A thought experiment. Perspectives on Terrorism, 6(2), 51-73. Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/speckhard-taking-on-the-persona

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages. She also conducted psychological autopsies with a Chechen colleague on over half of the 112 Chechen suicide bombers investigating what put them on the terrorist trajectory and what motivated them to explode themselves.

 For a full list of references, please contact: admin@interactivemediasolutions.com.au