GEORGETOWN/ ON FAITH | The bombings at the Boston Marathon brings homegrown terrorism back into the spotlight. Suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were born in Russia, but, as President Obama recently, “Why did these young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities resort to such violence?” Several decades of research on radicalization of Muslims in the United States and Europe could point to some possible answers.
Contrary to comments by Representative Peter King and others that mosques are the major tool for radicalization, data from Gallup and Pew actually shows that membership and engagement in mosque activities lead to greater civic engagement. Neither Tamerlan nor Dzhokhar were active members of a mosque beyond attending services. We also know that American mosques are not tolerant of extremism and tend to expel radical members. In fact the Los Angeles Times reported that Tamerlan was thrown out of a Cambridge mosque just three months ago after he stood up during a Friday sermon to protest against the imam who was praising Martin Luther King Jr. While some cooperation already exists between Muslim leaders and law enforcement, this incident shows the need for greater partnerships in the fight against radicalism.
More significantly, the Boston bombing confirms a trend that has emerged during the last decade toward self-radicalization through the Internet. Dzhokhar has reportedly told authorities that he and his brother were motivated by religion but were acting on their own. Investigators will continue to look into that claim. What is certain is that Tamerlan had a YouTube account with a playlist of radical activists and Islamic preachers such as Australian native, Feiz Mohammad. The online activities of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki are comparable to Mohammad’s speeches found on Tamerlan’s account. There is evidence that al-Awlaki’s online diatribes inspired a number of U.S.-based terrorist incidents, including the Fort Hood shooting carried out by Major Nidal Hasan in 2009, the airline bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009, and the attempted plot by Faisal Shahzad to bomb Times Square in New York City in 2010.
Such a process of radicalization is inherently difficult for policymakers, intelligence organizations, and law enforcement to identify because its starts with intolerant discourses that are legally protected by our right to free speech. That is in part why the FBI could not build a case against Tamerlan in 2011 after his visit to Dagestan. In 2007, the Australian Federal Police reportedly investigated Feiz Mohammad’s sermons because they were suspected of breaking laws against racial hatred, and inciting violence and terrorism. This type of operation is not possible in America where there is no law limiting freedom of speech.
It would be misleading however to suggest that control of online materials would allow us to identify or to combat possible radicalization. Studies of radicals in the United States and Europe have shown that ‘disembeddedness’ from society is a near-prerequisite for engagement in radical groups. And while it might be tempting to attribute the attraction to movements like al-Qaeda to social and economic marginalization, neither Tamerlan nor Dzhokhar were marginalized. Tamerlan married an American who converted to Islam and had a young daughter. Dzhokhar is described by his classmates as an easy-going, good student. This information is consistent with what we know about previous terrorists. John Walker Lindh, for example, is from a well-off, liberal family in California. Faisal Shahzad attended university in the states, gained U.S. citizenship, and lived a seemingly well-integrated life with his wife and children in suburban Connecticut.
Tsarnaev, Lind, and Shahzad do however share one thing in common: they are lone wolves, with weak links to strong communities—ethnic, cultural, or religious. Their disembeddedness may be related to conditions of life in major globalized Western cities, which affect both the well educated and the high school dropout. My own research has found that international cities like Boston, London, Paris and New York tend to erode familial ties. In the absence of strong social networks, permanent contact with multiple cultures can lead some individuals to intolerance. Additionally, it is not by chance that most Muslim radicals in the West are novices within Islam. Whether because of conversion to Islam or because emigration disrupted the normal transmission of tradition, their religious education begins not in the family, but in fundamentalist groups or with radical charismatic preachers.
Self-radicalization through social media, global communication and international travel, enormously complicates American counter-terrorism efforts. The time has come to pay more attention to the social processes that lead to radicalization and less attention to the targeting of entire groups based on immigrant status, ethnicity, or religion.
Jocelyne Cesari is senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and director of Harvard University’s program on Islam in the West.