Prominent voices are already painting the Boston Marathon Bombings as the “next Sept. 11,” pointing to the influence of Al Qaeda or to the world’s Muslim community — as US Representative Peter King of New York has recently done. Anyone who does so is making a huge mistake.
Suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fit the model of self-radicalized terrorists — so-called “homegrown” terrorists — motivated to call attention to violence occurring against Muslims around the world. Analysis of the older brother’s YouTube account reveals a deep interest in Salafism, the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam adhered to by Osama bin Laden. But this does not mean the Boston bombers were directed by Al Qaeda, or part of a broader Islamist conspiracy.
Rather, this case bears a close resemblance to the July 2005 London suicide bombings. Although these were inspired by Al Qaeda causes, the London bombers were largely self-radicalized and acting mostly on their own. The key point is that the London bombers were not a sleeper cell waiting to go off, or part of a broad wave of follow-on attacks. They were largely responsible for their own deadly acts, and few followed in their wake.
Overall, the four London bombers were highly socially integrated and had tremendous respect for their social and economic conditions. For instance, Shehzad Tanweer, 22, drove his own red Mercedes, worked in one of his father’s several businesses, and was a trophy-winning cricket player who rarely missed his Wednesday night matches. Hasib Hussain, 18, was known for going to night clubs and holding frequent discussions about cars — little different from many teenagers, according to his friends. None had a history of outbursts or violence, or other signs of significant opposition to British life.
The Boston bombing suspects have a similar socioeconomic profile. Dzhokhar, an honors student, attended public school in Cambridge, was captain of his wrestling team, and was the recipient of a selective college scholarship award by the City of Cambridge. This hardly fits the model of someone who is socially alienated. Tamerlan, who was older when his family moved to the United States, was less comfortable among Americans. He nonetheless was a Golden Gloves boxer, dreamed of representing the United States in the Olympics, and was said to have enjoyed the movie “Borat.’’ Again, hardly out of synch with mainstream American life. Even his difficulties with assimilation are not unique for someone who emigrated to the United States as a teenager.
What about religious indoctrination? Although religion likely played a role, it is not the way most people expect.
What does Tamerlan’s growing interest in Salafism tell us about his motives? Religious fundamentalism is a consequence — not a cause — of politically motivated anger. Salafism makes a distinction between suicide and martyrdom — e.g. between killing oneself over personal issues like depression versus a self-sacrificing mission in defense of Muslims. So, Muslims willing to die for a political cause have a moral dilemma. Salafism resolves this dilemma.
What about the London bombers? All four were Muslims, but varied in their commitment to the religion. According to the British intelligence agency MI5, Mohammed Siddique Khan and Tanweer showed no signs of religious extremism, while Germaine Lindsay was a recent convert to Islam who was frequently unfaithful to his wife. Hussain was particularly religious, undertaking a hajj to Saudi Arabia in 2002. Salafism may nonetheless have played a role, but certainly not consistently so, and could easily be just as much a result as a cause.
The Boston bombing suspects were indeed religious Muslims, but millions of Americans are. That is hardly enough to consider someone to have been “indoctrinated.” It is possible that the older brother Tamerlan was indoctrinated during his six months in Russia, but that only confirms the profile of a transnational terrorist. They commonly seek affirmation from like-minded elites for a stamp of approval to gain the training required to carry out an attack. By definition, seeking out approval and training means one has already been self-radicalized.
What motivated the London bombers was a spiral of anger over perceived injustice by the West toward the Muslim world. As Tanweer revealed in a martyr video — his final testament to the world — “You will never experience peace until our children in Palestine, our mothers and sisters in Kashmir, our brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq feel peace.”
The ongoing interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, assuming that he is being honest, confirms that the Boston bombing fits this same profile. CNN reported on Wednesday that “he and his brother had no outside help, and that his brother became an Islamist thanks to the US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.” If this account is correct, they were acting alone, driven by anger over US policies in the Muslim world — with religious fundamentalism serving merely as an enabler of a political cause.
Robert A. Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. He is the author of two books on suicide terrorism.