WASHINGTON — The suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are alleged to have committed despicable acts of terror that shut down a city and horrified a nation. But in the dark recesses of radical Islamic websites around the world they are being lionized in a propaganda campaign designed to recruit more home-grown militants.
The latest issue of Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire — the same publication the Cambridge brothers reportedly consulted to build homemade bombs — is almost entirely dedicated to them, including a chillingly detailed case study of the twin bombings in Copley Square.
The glossy English-language publication portrays the deceased suspect, Tamerlan, as a martyred hero, his image framed by puffy white clouds, gleaming sunbeams, and doves in flight. It features a poem by someone calling himself “Tamerlan 2” expressing the “wish to be lone mujahedin like Tamerlan.”
In another example, a Facebook group apparently created in the Russian province of Chechnya, where the Tsarnaevs’ father was born, hails Dzhokhar, who is now facing trial in Boston, as a brave freedom fighter. It features slogans like “Islam will conquer the world” and depicts a black fist etched with Muslim declarations of faith busting through an American flag. The group has nearly 1,000 followers.
“There have been heaps of praise loaded on the Tsarnaevs,” said Evan Kohlmann, founder of Flashpoint Partners, a consulting firm that tracks terrorist groups.
The elevation of the Tsarnaevs to hero status by radical groups dedicated to fomenting terror is unrelated to the efforts of the conspiracy theorists who demonstrated outside the federal courthouse in Boston during Dzhokhar’s arraignment last week, where he pleaded not guilty to 30 terror charges.
Those protesters insisted that the Tsarnaev brothers did nothing wrong and were framed by the government. But even some of them bristled at the suggestion that violence is justified by Islam.
Al Qaeda and other international militant groups, on the other hand, applaud on their websites the bombing and its devastating toll. These are the same sites authorities have said helped radicalize Tamerlan in the months before the April 15 attacks, which killed three and wounded 260.
Many of the radical websites are well known to US counterterrorism officials who have sought to shut some of them down, either by urging Internet service providers to take them offline, or by hacking them. But they are also considered a key intelligence tool in trying to unravel possible terrorist plots.
There has been no suggestion that the Tsarnaevs were under any operational control of Al Qaeda. But the group’s adoption of the brothers in the wake of the attacks comes as little surprise to terrorism experts, who say the group takes pride in being the inspiration for violence by unaffiliated Muslims.
“What the brothers have done conforms to a long Al Qaeda strategy,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. For more than a decade, he said, Al Qaeda leaders have told sympathizers “you have the power in your own country to further the cause.”
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar allegedly used information published in an earlier issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine to fashion the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Marathon attacks. The indictment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reveals that among his possessions were the writings of Anwar Al-Alawki, a Yemeni-American spiritual leader of Al Qaeda who was killed in a US drone attack in 2011.
The younger Tsarnaev also is reported to have been inspired by the book “In Defense of Muslim Lands” written by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian theologian who was a mentor to Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who has written several books about Al Qaeda, says the group can legitimately claim some credit for the Boston bombings even if it did not have any direct role.
“The best kind of success is when you don’t have to do anything,” he said. “You present a course of action and people act on it.”
The Al Qaeda magazine that extols the brothers cannot easily be mistaken for a factual publication; in one news alert it claims America “exploits children under the age of 10 to plant chips on those who oppose their policies for unmanned drones.” Kohlmann likens its readership to “jihadi tabloid morons.”
But mixing fact and fiction can make for effective propaganda.
For example, in an open letter to American Muslims, the new issue cites the Tsarnaevs’ own statements that they were not accepted by their adopted country. The letter cites that feeling of exclusion to convince American Muslims that, for Americans, “your belongingness to Islam is enough to classify you as the enemy.”
But perhaps most disturbing is the issue’s primer on how to launch a terrorist attack with little outside support using the Boston bombings as exhibit A. It recounts the household materials they used, how far apart they placed the bombs, and the fact the attack occurred after runners already crossed the finish line when law enforcement officers may have been less vigilant.
“The Tsarnaev mujahedin’s choice of Boston as a target for the bombings was very appropriate indeed. Why? Because it is relatively out of the enemy’s attention as a potential target to the mujahedin, unlike New York for example, which is under an intensive security surveillance since Sept. 11,” the magazine states.
The bombers also struck at the “substantial heart of Boston center,” it continues, “whereby many hotels are around. MIT is in the neighborhood, Fenway Park the home ball park of the Boston Red Sox baseball club is not far, also Boston university and Boston college are located near the blasts.”
Terrorism researchers say the transformation of the Boston bombers into the vanguard of Al Qaeda strategy against the United States is a deeply worrisome development.
“We see a shift in Al Qaeda to get a grasp on people that are already here and this is how they are going to do it,” said Craig Albert, a political science professor at Georgia Regents University. “It is terrifying.”
But Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stressed that none of it means the brothers should be seen as having acted at the behest of Al Qaeda.
In fact, he said by claiming after-the-fact ownership of their activities, Al Qaeda is revealing how its own operational capabilities have declined, making attacks in the United States difficult.
“It is a sign of its weakness, not its strength,” he said.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.