If Tsarnaev wasn’t an extremist, what about writings in boat?

So was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a jihadi or just a jerk?

Can you be just a little extremist, or is that like being a little pregnant?

On Monday, Tsarnaev’s defense team engaged in a critical battle in the guilt phase of his trial, an effort to refute the prosecution’s claim that he attacked the Boston Marathon because he was a committed Islamic extremist.


Bill Fick, one of Tsarnaev’s lawyers, spent a long time grilling FBI agent Kevin Swindon, head of the Boston FBI office’s cyber squad. While getting Swindon to acknowledge it’s impossible to say who downloaded what to the laptop Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used, Fick didn’t dispute that some of those files included jihadi how-to instructions like “How To Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

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Instead, Fick went to great lengths to point out that the FBI cherry-picked incriminating titles from the computer, that the files presented as evidence against Tsarnaev represented just “three ten thousandths of one percent” of what was on Tsarnaev’s computer.

Most of what was on the computer — episodes of “Teen Wolf,’’ “The Walking Dead,’’ pop music — is what you would find on the electronic devices of the average American adolescent male, Fick insisted.

Besides, Fick implied, Dzhokhar’s older brother, Tamerlan, could have downloaded all the incriminating stuff.

Less easy for the defense to explain away are the similarities between the language and themes used in the handwritten screed Tsarnaev left on the boat in Watertown where he was captured and those espoused by the same jihadists whose sermons and writings are sprinkled throughout the computers and other electronic devices Tsarnaev used.


The prosecution’s argument is pretty straightforward: Someone only casually interested in Islamic extremism would not be using the phraseology and thematic composition of jihadist hall of famers like Anwar al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda’s most influential propagandist, or Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the father of global jihad.

To make its case, the prosecution put forward Matthew Levitt as its expert witness on global jihad. A fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Levitt did a series of side-by-side readings of the screed that Dzhokhar scrawled on the inside of the boat and those of Awlaki and Azzam, sort of what you would see at a plagiarism trial. But Tsarnaev wasn’t stealing ideas so much as he was emulating them.

Tsarnaev talked about being “jealous of my brother who has received the reward of Jannutul [sic] Firdaus,” the highest form of paradise. He asked God to make him a martyr.

Levitt testified that Dzhokhar’s writing on the boat, which some have characterized as a confession, was actually a statement of intention, why he did what he did, and that such a statement is considered necessary by jihadis to receive the rewards that are promised to them.

If the defense wants to portray Tsarnaev as a stoner, someone who was not pious, Levitt said the words of Awlaki stress that engaging in jihad lets someone even with a nonreligious past like Tsarnaev’s to jump the line to paradise.

US Department of Justice

Although Levitt has the credentials of an academic, the argument at hand is hardly academic, especially as far as the defense is concerned. Convincing the jury that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was more of a follower than a partner of his brother, Tamerlan, is essential to their effort to save him from the death penalty.

For the prosecution, motive is one of the chief reasons Tsarnaev deserves the death penalty. For Tsarnaev’s lawyers, who have acknowledged their client did just about everything he is accused of, the motive is at the heart of their defense — that he wouldn’t have done it if not for his manipulative, extremist older brother.

But here’s something for the jury to chew on: If Dzhokhar wasn’t immersed in jihadi ideology, how could he lie there in that boat, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and compose, without any reference material, and using a plumbing contractor’s pencil, a long screed replete with jihadist justification for killing innocents?

His brother didn’t write that for him. He did.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at