More Boston bomber types lurk, officials warn

Al Qaeda helps breed Islamic radicalization where disaffected lone wolves live

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The Boston Marathon bombings last year put a new face on terrorism: that of young, U.S.-raised misfits in search of a cause for which they can kill and die thousands of miles away from hotbeds of Islamic radicalism.

Feeling disenfranchised and alone, these youths often seek community online, placing themselves into a guerrilla’s mindset by consuming information on specific movements and gradually becoming self-radicalized, counterterrorism researchers say. Al Qaeda, becoming increasingly diffuse and decentralized, tries to help these individuals in their process through online magazines such as Inspire and jihadist postings on YouTube.

Al Qaeda still exists, but its ability to reach into the U.S. is very limited — mainly because of the job law enforcement has done,” said Christopher Swift, an adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University. “On the Internet, [al Qaeda‘s] looking for someone who is isolated, atomized — that they can indoctrinate but don’t have to take responsibility for — someone [to] whom they can push out the ideological source code and have act in their name. We’re going to see this ‘lone wolf’ model proliferate.”

Law enforcement officers have taken note.

“We have to have a recognition — and we do — that terrorists are more agile, they’re not restricted by nation-states and borders, they can flow information in and out of different areas of the world at will,” said Michael Steinbach, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. “No longer does somebody in country X need to travel to a terrorist hotbed to get trained and get their orders. You can really do everything that needs to be done without leaving your home, let alone the United States.”

Domestic self-radicalization has increased with violence in the Muslim world, especially in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, said Bill Braniff, who is conducting a study on the issue for the National Institute of Justice.

His group found in a study that last year was the most violent period of global terrorism since 1970, with attacks more lethal than ever before in modern history and concentrated in a handful of locations.

“All of these conflicts provide an opportunity for individuals to become intellectually or emotionally invested in a caucus or region. There’s all these different passageways for them to go, to help them identify with the culture or ideal they believe in,” said Mr. Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “If these conflicts weren’t going on, [the idea of self-motivated jihad] is more abstract.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombings, seemed to have become radicalized in 2011 while he was living in a suburb of the city, according to a congressional report released in March.

By all accounts, Tsarnaev was a volatile young man, accused of domestic violence against a girlfriend, and was thrown out of his local mosque several times for getting into shouting matches with preachers because they encouraged worshippers to celebrate American holidays, according to the report.

When law enforcement personnel searched Tsarnaev’s computer, they found a YouTube account with various Russian-language videos on Islam and playlists of jihadist instructions. One 13-minute video, titled “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags of Khorasan,” detailed a jihadist prophecy that at the end of the world a holy army would rise out of the region historically associated with Afghanistan and sweep across the Middle East to Jerusalem, according to the congressional report.

Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police in a Boston suburb days after the bombings.

Briefly raised in the Russian republic of Dagestan, an epicenter of Islamic insurgency, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, seemingly had no specific investment in their former homeland’s battles, Mr. Swift said, but they were inspired and ideologically driven by al Qaeda’s call for global jihad via the Internet.

“If you look at the Tsarnaev brothers, they hadn’t been to Chechnya since they were kids — this wasn’t about what Russia’s done to Chechnya and the suffering of the Chechnyan people,” said Mr. Swift. “These individuals already had some other issue, and then went online and glommed onto this understanding of the world. The Internet gives people who are already vulnerable [to jihad] a pathway and a recipe to follow.”

Not all background information has been released on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he awaits trial on multiple federal charges, including the denotation of two improvised explosive devices — built with pressure cookers and packed with shrapnel — that exploded near the end of the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year.

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About the Author
Kelly Riddell

Kelly Riddell

Kelly Riddell covers national security for The Washington Times.

Before joining The Times, Kelly was a Washington-based reporter for Bloomberg News for six years, covering the intersection between business and politics through a variety of industry-based beats. She most recently covered technology, where her reports ranged from cybersecurity to congressional policymakers.

Before joining Bloomberg, she was a management consultant and ...

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