Roots Of Self-Radicalization: The Mote In Our Own Eye

While the press wants to take the easy pathway and point to al-Qaeda as the culprit behind the Tsarnaev brothers' Boston Marathon attack, there may be a more disturbing and complex reason.

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There is a huge rush to judgment right now by the press when it comes to the Boston bombings, eerily reminiscent of the Iraq War runup where everyone in the media simply accepted as fact that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when he didn't.

As Richard Clarke points out, there are some traceable ties between al-Qaeda and Chechnya, but he's at least poking at the unknowns, trying to tease out some nuance.

CLARKE: Well, actually George, Chechens have been involved with al-Qaeda since almost the beginning of al-Qaeda. They were involved in fighting for al-Qaeda in Bosnia. They were involved in fighting against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, so there is a record there. But the real question here is, how do you tell when someone gets radicalized? They're normal, they're happy kids in Cambridge and then something happens, a switch is flipped.

How can the FBI, how can Homeland Security notice when that happens, or when the radicalization occurs? Especially if it's self-radicalization online? It's very, very difficult to do. What I want to know is, what did the Russians do when he went back to Russia? They had already said they were interested in him, and then he goes back to Russian and spends over six months there. What did they do? Did they follow him around? That's a question we need an answer to.

Putin's Russia is a bad place to be if you're not an oligarch. Over the past ten years Russian oligarchs have increased their power and their wealth at the expense of their middle class. Power has been consolidated to the point where the sole difference between Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia is that they no longer try to conceal it.

Foreign Policy outlines a brutal history of Chechen oppression by Russians throughout the years. It's worth reading if only to understand the environment the Tsarnaev family fled in 2002.

This is the defining moment in Chechens' modern history, when they were wrenched away from their mountains and dumped like rubbish in an unfriendly land with a flat horizon. Even the Russian government has recognized this was a genocide, and yet few Russians today appreciate the trauma it caused. Everyone lost someone and, when they were allowed home beginning in 1959, many of those bodies came home to Chechnya with them, to be buried in the mountains, not in the foreign steppes.

They were kept together by their faith, by their Sufi Islam with its closed brotherhoods and secret rituals. The generation that grew up in Kazakhstan nursed a seed of grievance. That seed grew in the fertile soil of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, and flowered into a declaration of independence in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

And this:

But these were the Chechens, ungovernable even by their own, even by Aslan Maskhadov, the man who had led them to their unlikely victory over a country with more people in uniform than there are Chechens. Without an external enemy to unite them and, no doubt, aided by trained provocateurs sent by Moscow, they fell into squabbling between Islamists, mafia gangs, secular nationalists, and ordinary Chechens who just wanted to get on with things.

In 1999, the Chechens invaded Dagestan, supposedly to aid allies there, and a new Russian leader decided Moscow had had enough. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was making none of Yeltsin's mistakes, however. He had no intention of fighting among the tower blocks of Grozny. His artillery flattened the Chechens' capital block by block, driving his opponents into the open, where they died on mines or explosions or in extrajudicial executions.

In the biographies that have emerged thus far, it's clear these families got to the United States and from there, were largely on their own. They fled violence in Dagestan to arrive in a country with very little in the way of resources. Their father was an auto mechanic who didn't quite make ends meet. There is very little mentioned about the mother, and their aunt was a lawyer in Dagestan who now lives in Canada. It's unclear what conditions ultimately led the family to seek asylum in the United States, but the father's return for health reasons must have been difficult for sons raised in a patriarch-controlled society.

This 2006 diplomatic cable describes what they left behind:

The fighters had no money, no jobs, no education, no skills save with their guns, and no prospects. Al-Khattab's offer of food, shelter and work was inviting. As a result, between the wars Salafism spread quickly in Chechnya. (Al-Khattab also invited missionaries and facilitators who set up shop in Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, whose Kist residents are close relatives of the Chechens.)

No money. No jobs. No education. And no skills but their guns.

Tamerlan came to the United States when he was 15 or 16. One might safely assume the only life he knew was one that included war, corruption, and death. Julia Ioffe, herself a Russian immigrant, describes what life in the United States might have been like for him:

Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is how conditions in this country may have affected two brothers, the eldest of whom clearly had difficulty adjusting to life in this country, where liberty and opportunity is defined by our own oligarchs. Perhaps the conditions which fell on the poorest people in this country, including these two brothers, might have created a toxic blend of home-grown extremism, shaken and stirred by the links to their past and their Muslim culture, where they found themselves most at home.

Why self-radicalization?

Richard Clarke:

Yeah, this probably will turn out that way, self-radicalization. But the issue here is, now that people have seen what two men can do with easily obtained materials, close down the city, get the president of the United States to show up. Other people around the country who have been radicalized have watched this. And they're going to wonder, is there a way now that I can do this?

Under what set of circumstances would someone ask themselves that question?

Here's a few that came to me pretty quickly:

  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Grinding, unending poverty without opportunity
  • Recognition that life in these United States right now is gamed by the rich at the expense of the poor
  • Discontent, blended with a past rooted in war and violence

We know Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan last summer. Just a year before he left, Foreign Policy published an in-depth article about the violence in the region, which springs largely out of rampant corruption and greed by public officials:

But the broader problem seems destined to persist. In numerous conversations, residents of Makhachkala described to me a paralyzing level of daily bribe-taking.

"You pay to get into university, you pay to stay there; everyone pays to get a job unless they have family connections," said Rasul, a man in his early 30s who trained at a police academy in St. Petersburg for five years but couldn't afford to buy himself a position in the local force when he came home. "Some people are just totally powerless and excluded. And in the end they can't take it anymore; they pick up a gun and head for the hills."

Content people do not brew bombs in pressure cookers in order to blast innocent bystanders to their deaths, but angry, hopeless people do. Other than the scholarship the younger brother won to UMass, I see very little in their history to suggest they felt hopeful about their futures or their opportunities here. With a dying father and what seems to be an estrangement from other family members, perhaps they turned toward the solutions put forward by other discontented people.

It's easy to point fingers at al-Qaeda. But this might just be the time we should take the mote out of our own national eye before plucking at the splinter elsewhere. Perhaps these brothers couldn't see a difference between the corruption and favoritism at home and the corruption and favoritism here. We do better at putting a veneer on ours, but we have the same problems of preference, privilege and money.

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