WASHINGTON, April 25 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – Long before twin bombs rocked the Boston Marathon last week, the trajectories of the suspects’ lives had already made them susceptible to radicalized ideology that could turn violent, psychology and terrorism experts told RIA Novosti.
“Adolescence is the time when people really form their identities,” said Sherry McCarthy, professor of psychology and counseling at Northern Arizona University, and a past Fulbright scholar in Russia.
“If there are feelings of isolation already, it becomes more problematic, and assimilating into a society that is quite different was a factor” in the way the suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, adapted to live in the United States after emigrating from the former Soviet Union a decade ago, McCarthy said in an interview with RIA Novosti.
Assimilation in the widely diverse melting pot of American society can be hard for any new arrival. But angst and isolation are a far cry from mass violence. In the wake of the Boston bombing that killed three people and injured roughly 200 more, investigators and the US public alike are asking: Why did this happen?
“Perceived injustice, need for identity and need for belonging are common vulnerabilities among potential terrorists,” said psychologist Randy Borum, a professor of strategy and information at the University of South Florida and an expert in the psychology of terrorism, in a report entitled “The Psychology of Terrorism.”
A Range of Factors
Talking to RIA Novosti, Borum was quick to stress that his comments do not refer specifically to the Boston attacks but to a broader scope of factors that can contribute to terrorism.
“The fact is that there is rarely one specific cause. There are many possible pathways,” he said, adding that “most people who hold radical beliefs do not become involved in terrorism.”
But there are a number of factors that experts say may have influenced the outlook of the Tsarnaev brothers, including the fact that they came from a part of the world – the former Soviet Union – that some Americans still view with latent Cold War suspicion, access to both the means and the opportunity to do harm and strong political and religious motives, said experts.
“A central mechanism of radicalization is political grievance,” said Clark McCauley, professor of social psychology at Bryn Mawr College.
“Chechens have been fighting Russians for many generations, and some Chechens interpret the conflict as Muslims versus Christians … the US and Russia are both Christian countries,” McCauley wrote in a Psychology Today blog post entitled “The Radicalization of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev."
“Al Qaeda members have a presence in Chechnya; some Al Qaeda members reportedly fought and died for Chechnya in the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004. As a culture, Chechens value loyalty: My friend's enemy is my enemy,” McCauley wrote.
Originally based in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan – an independent country since the 1991 Soviet collapse – the family moved to Dagestan, a part of Russia along the country’s southern border in the North Caucasus mountain region, before migrating to the United States in 2002 and 2003.
While his younger brother attended school, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was 26 years old when he was killed last Friday in a shoot-out with police, got involved in boxing, found a job, went to college classes, had a girlfriend he later married, and a daughter.
He became actively involved in religion around 2008, joined a mosque, and by 2009 was zealous enough to call his uncle an “infidel” during a heated conversation, the uncle told CNN. Tamerlan remarked to a photographer, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.” He was arrested on a domestic violence complaint that same year.
In 2011, Russia asked the United States to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Tamerlan Tsarnaev subsequently traveled to Russia in January 2012 and returned in July. Whatever happened during that period of time he spent outside the United States appears to have influenced his behavior in Boston, said US Secretary of State John Kerry in remarks in Brussels this week.
“We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston,” Kerry said. “So he didn’t stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people.”
Search for ‘Belonging’
Although the suspect brothers are ethnically Chechen, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, reportedly never visited Chechnya itself and it is not clear that Tamerlan Tsarnaev ever went there either, apart from his 2012 trip to the region when he did reportedly spend some time in Chechnya.
Yet, struggling to fit in with Americans in the Boston area, Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have grown to identify more closely over time with his countrymen in Chechnya – and with an extremist vision of Islam embraced by some armed groups there – than he did with friends and neighbors and citizens of the United States.
“Since there’s obviously no sense of belonging with peers in the US, then going back to the roots, when he was in Russia, in that area, is a reasonably common reaction for someone who was going through what he was going through,” said McCarthy.
Back in Boston, Tamerlan may have drawn the younger brother who looked up to him into a plan to perpetrate mass violence.
“Another mechanism of radicalization is love for someone already radicalized, someone who asks for help. This is likely how the younger, sweeter brother was brought to join in the attack.… We note that the younger follows behind older brother in video from the Marathon finish line,” said McCauley.
It appears the older Tsarnaev brother returned to Chechnya when he was already feeling disconnected from the United States, possibly “opening him to Al Qaeda or Chechen militant ideas and connections,” McCauley added.