A year has passed since two pressure cooker bombs concealed in backpacks detonated, killing three people and injuring more than 160 near the Boston Marathon finish line. At least 16 people lost limbs. The community responded with strength and resilience.
The Boston Bombers provide an interesting dynamic. The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a loser. At the age of twenty-six, he was a washed-up boxer. As an accomplished local boxer, who had won the Gold Gloves competition, he had dreams of becoming an Olympic boxer only to be derailed by the U.S. policy of banning non-citizens from participating. Considering most U.S. Olympic boxers are in their late teens or early 20s, Tamerlan was well past his prime.
Tamerlan had not completed the two years of community college and was living with his wife and child. His wife was providing the primary financial support for the family as the family’s welfare support payments were reduced in November 2012. Their Section 8 housing subsidy was terminated in January, 2013.
His parents had failed in their employment endeavors and returned to the country from where they had requested asylum. His mother had been previously arrested for shoplifting. He also claimed to have lacked American friends, thus increasing his isolation.
Tamerlan confided to his mother that he had the feeling that he had two people living inside him. Being concerned about his mental state, his mother encouraged his friendship with a Muslim convert, Mikhail Allakhverdov, known as Misha. The seeds of radicalization began at the kitchen table. Misha schooled Tamerlan in Islam, the religion of peace. Those who knew Tamerlan, said he began to change as he became more devout in his awakened faith.
On September 11, 2011, Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Raphael Yeken were murdered in the Waltham apartment of Tamerlan’s former boxing friend, Brendan Mess. The victims all had their throats slashed with such violence that they were nearly decapitated. Thousands of dollars in cash and marihuana were scattered over the bodies. After the killing, Tamerlan became the prime suspect in the murders. The case still remains under investigation, but another person of interest in the murder was developed by Boston authorities.
Ibragim Todashev, age 27, who was also a former amateur boxer who then became a professional mixed marshal artist. He had previous arrests for assault and was out on bond for aggravated assault in Orange County, Florida. The FBI and Massachusetts State Police questioned Todashev in his Orlando apartment concerning his possible involvement with the Waltham murders. After hours of interviewing and according to reports, Todashev was about to sign a confession implicating himself and Tamerlan in the 2011 Waltham slayings. One trooper had stepped outside to update the prosecutor. Todashev initiated a violent confrontation in which he knocked over a table with such force, that the FBI agent sustained a laceration on his head. Todashev grabbed a broom handle and was lunging toward the other trooper, when Todashev was shot dead by the FBI agent.
As Tamerlan became more devout, he was exiled by his mosque for espousing radical and inappropriate rhetoric. Once again being an outcast, he looked to the internet where he began associating with Muslim extremists on the Internet and sympathized with their teachings. With hopes of joining the warriors of jihad, he travelled to Dagestan. The hardened Islamic fighters were not enamored with a wannabe terrorist from Dorchester. After six months, he was never accepted and left in failure as an outcast from those that shared his beliefs and religion.
About the same time of his embracing Islam, he also befriended a disabled patient, Donald Larking, to whom his mother provided home health care. Larking was a conspiracy theorist and shared his views with Tamerlan, who in turn converted Larking to Islam. They became friends and discussed politics and various government conspiracies including the 9/11 Attacks and the Newtown School Shooting.
A Wall Street Journal reporter who visited Mr. Tsarnaev’s apartment after the bombing, observed papers that included The First Freedom, an Alabama newspaper that espouses “equal rights for whites,” The Sovereign, a New York journal that alleges the U.S. policy is under the influence of Israeli lobbyists. Tamerlan was a reader of the al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire, which published an article titled “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Tamerlan also had a marked-up copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which espouses an alleged plan by Jewish leaders to take over the world. His former brother-in-law, Elmzira Khozhugov, said Tamerlan began to believe a government conspiracy was behind many historical events. Tamerlan also viewed the movie Zeitgeist, which called the September 11 attacks a conspiracy authored by elitists. Zeitgeist was also a favorite movie of Jarred Loughner, who shot Congresswomen Gabby Giffords and killed six others in Tucson, Arizona.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a stereotypical third wave jihadist as described by Dr. Mark Sageman the author of Understanding Terror Networks. The third wave is primarily comprised of losers and thugs. Tamerlan clearly fits this profile. His brother Dzhokhar’s radicalization path is not as easy to follow.
Dzhokhar appeared to be more focused on smoking pot than on his studies and he was described by those close to him as being easygoing and not overtly religious. Those who knew him claim not to have heard him espouse any radical thoughts or behaviors. Often we are confronted with the Façade Effect in which we think we understand those around us, but we only understand the public persona that is displayed. However, Dzhokhar did share with one friend that he felt terrorism was justified because of the U.S.’s military action. Despite being hailed as a good student, his grades in college reflected an uninterested student. He failed most of his classes, while compiling a large student debt. His parents divorced and moved back to Russia. His sisters lived out of state. His only deeply rooted social support system was his dysfunctional brother.
As with many new college students, there is a great deal of internal conflict and stress. For many students moving from home, adapting to higher academic standards and adjusting to making new friends can often result in a great deal of anxiety. Many students have difficulty adjusting to college, especially those from out of town. It is during the first year of college that the new students feel the most vulnerable.
He was perhaps heavily influenced by his older brother, but Dzhokhar was not a reluctant terrorist. He willingly placed the bomb next to eight-year-old Martin Richard and walked away. Dzhokhar audaciously attended a party the same evening at school, where the focus of the party conversation was on the Boston Marathon bombing. Who could attend a party with such a cavalier indifference?
The next morning, without displaying any empathy for the victims, he worked out in the school gym. These are not the actions of someone consumed with grief or guilt. After his brother was shot in the shootout with police, he did not give up, but instead Dzhokhar fled, driving over his gravely wounded brother. While hiding inside the boat, he scrawled a message on the inside of the cabin, “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”
Many of these homegrown terrorists have feelings of rejection by society or they are consumed by their negative emotional vortex of life. They have a long list of personal failures. They are desperately searching for an identity or an affirmation for these feelings of despair. Many can find solace in a virtual house of worship. This “virtual influencer” could be any political, religious or social cause that adds significance to their miserable lives. It does not matter if they are moved to action by their belief in an environmental movement, religious fanaticism, or political activism; they can use this belief system as substantiation for their path of violence.
The latest report from the Intelligence Community Inspector General was critical of sharing of intelligence between the Russians and the FBI. Some were hoping the incident would also improve coordination between the FBI and their local law enforcement counterparts, who apparently were not aware of the activities of Tamerlan. J. Edgar Hoover said, “The most effective weapon against crime is cooperation… The efforts of all law enforcement agencies with the support and understanding of the American people.”
Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement. He retired in 2012 from the U.S. Secret Service after 22 years. He is an adjunct instructor at St. Leo University and the author of three works of fiction and two non-fiction books, Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an ex-Secret Service Agents Guide as well as Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before They Strike.