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opinion | Ayaan Hirsi Ali

We must revisit how Marathon bombers became extremists

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (second from left) was found guilty of all 30 counts stemming from the Marathon bombings. His brother, Tamerlan (third from left), was killed during a shootout with police in Watertown. Associated Press/file 2013

Now that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been found guilty in the Boston Marathon bombing, we need to revisit a key issue — understanding why he and his brother became radicalized exponents of jihad.

Western commentators sometimes blame harsh economic conditions, dysfunctional family circumstances, confused identity, the generic alienation of young males, a failure to integrate into the larger society, and so on. None of this is convincing, as the Tsarnaev case shows.

Born in the former Soviet Union to a Chechen father who had sought asylum in the United States in 2002, both Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan had received the gifts of free education, free housing, and free medical care from various US governmental agencies.


Their paths to becoming US citizens could scarcely have been smoother. So why did the brothers feel compelled to build two explosive devices and detonate them in a crowd of spectators?

Growing up, the Tsarnaevs were typical examples of what I call “Mecca Muslims,” meaning that they were not raised to be zealots. The parents — at least in their early years in the United States — do not seem to have been very devout. The brothers rarely observed Islamic strictures: one had dreams of becoming a boxing champion and spent most of his days training while the other had a busy social life, dated girls, and smoked pot.

Yet when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote a bloodstained note in the final hours before his capture, the first words he used were: “I believe there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.” That is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, and it is the most important of the five pillars of Islam. Today it is also the banner of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

What he wrote next made it clear that he was no naive dupe but a fully-fledged “Medina Muslim” — that is to say, a committed believer in the literal application of the teachings and practice of the Prophet Mohammed after his move to Medina and adoption of jihad — holy war — as a method.


“I’m jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus [the highest level of Paradise] (inshallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive ... I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) [a martyr] inshallah to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!” He also offered this explicit account of his and his brother’s motivations: “the ummah is beginning to rise/ [unintelligible] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that[?]”

When people commit violence in the name of religion, we must consider the possibility that they mean what they say. As I argue in my new book, which calls for a reformation of Islam, jihad in the 21st century is not a problem of poverty, insufficient education or any other social precondition. It is embedded in some of the key teachings of Islam itself.

If Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were the only homegrown jihadists on record, it might be possible to dismiss them as mentally disturbed. But they are not. The Islamic State’s social media mastermind is believed to be Ahmad Abousamra, a dual American-Syrian citizen, who grew up in Stoughton. He attended the private Xaverian Brothers Catholic high school in Westwood before transferring to Stoughton High in his senior year, when he made the honor roll. He also made the dean’s list at Northeastern University.


If this sounds like a privileged upbringing, that’s because it was. Yet, according to the testimony of FBI agents, Abousamra “celebrated” the 9/11 attacks and, while in college in the early 2000s, expressed his support for murdering Americans because “they paid taxes to support the government and were kufar [nonbelievers].” Abousamra worshipped at the same Cambridge mosque — the Islamic Society of Boston — as the Tsarnaev brothers and five other high-profile terrorists, among them Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT scientist turned Al Qaeda agent who was sentenced to 86 years in prison for planning a chemical attack in New York.

These jihadists are hardly uneducated, unskilled, or impoverished. That they have nevertheless committed themselves to holy war against the West is deeply perplexing to those of us who cannot imagine anything being more attractive than the Western way of life. That is why we cast around desperately for explanations of their behavior — any explanations, other than the obvious one.

As the Tsarnaev trial heads toward its denouement, with the only remaining question whether or not the death penalty should be imposed, many Bostonians are hoping for closure — above all those families who lost loved ones so cruelly when the brothers detonated their bombs. Unfortunately, we need to face the possibility that this is just the opening of a new and worrisome era.


Since 2013, 29 people in the United States have been charged or detained as juveniles on allegations of seeking to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. About 24 other Americans are believed already to be with the the Islamic State or to have been killed fighting for it.

The case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a warning to America about the deadly danger posed by Medina Muslims. We must heed it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book is “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.’’ She is a Fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a Visiting Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, and founder of the AHA Foundation.