How do two sons of a political asylum refugee grow up to be terrorists? Their father loved America. Their uncle and aunt and everyone that knew them–including their neighbors and school mates–were shocked to hear these young men were suspected terrorists. In fact, it was so shocking, that the aunt and father quickly began saying the boys were “framed.”
The suspects in the Boston Marathon were brothers. Their father, by a neighbor’s account, was brutually beaten by KGB and fled to the United States. He loved America.
So, how did they become suspected terrorists?
A neighbor described the boys as helpful, the family as hospitable. She said when she saw their picture on TV, she fell on the floor. Her only thought? Somehow they were “poisoned along the way.”
The suspects’ uncle, in a brief appearance on CNN, said his guess was that “somebody radicalized them.” He said this had nothing to do with Chechnya. And historian Charles King agrees, citing reports from journalists interviewing family members in Dagestan:
In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act.
So, how did these young men become terrorists?
The best article I’ve read is from a Reuters journalist who spent seven months in captivity in Pakistan. And although the radicalization process he saw happened in Pakistan, the underlying conclusions are, in my opinion, spot-on:
militants had created a sophisticated system of schools, training camps and indoctrination videos that slowly severed young men’s bonds with their families.
The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God. The only cause that mattered, clerics preached, was stopping a vast – and nonexistent – Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth.
No matter how long I spent talking with him, I could not alter his attitudes. Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.
My own extremist religious past resonates with this. Here’s how radicalization happens:
- Cut off from family. New recruits to my childhood cult found our extremist way of life attractive because they had never made a genuine connection with the “dead” Christianity of their childhood. It was easy to persuade new members to cut off their families because outsiders were “worldly, hypocritical and compromised.” Outsiders didn’t appreciate the HIGHER CALLING that our TRUE religion offered. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of the outside world which many times includes family members.
- Relationship with God is the only thing that matters. Extremist religion is narrowly focused. It elevates one thing; ie. “relationship with God” above all else. The trick, here, is that what ACTUALLY matters is the group. The group becomes God for the new recruit. Whatever the group leader says and believes is what the new recruit says and believes. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of previously held values; ie. the American dream is no longer valuable but martyrdom for God IS valuable.
- Radicalism gives identity, cause and community. For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life or crushed by poverty or suffering a heartbreaking loss, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution. Identity, cause and community are a POWERFUL trifecta–especially for young recruits.
Now, here’s my theory about how the two young terrorist suspects experienced their self-radicalization:
My guess is that the older brother was disaffected first. His father had returned to Chechnya. The older brother had a criminal record–beating an ex-girlfriend. Perhaps he’d become disillusioned with the American dream, with American values. Perhaps it felt like no matter how hard he worked or no matter how good an education he had, he was not going to Make It in America.
There was a vacuum in his soul. Moderate, peaceful Islam was no longer attractive–or perhaps, he had never truly connected with his Muslim faith.
Slowly, religious extremism began providing answers. He began watching terrorist YouTube videos. He was looking for something purposeful, some kind of higher calling.
The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God.
My guess is that the older brother’s values began shifting. A good education, a nice house and a car, a good job–these things no longer held value for him.
Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.
Slowly, martyrdom and/or jihadist insurgency became increasingly attractive to the older brother. He started talking to his younger brother about it. They didn’t want to die, necessarily, but they wanted to inflict righteous judgment on the Great Oppressors–the United States.
Whether or not the older brother had real connections to terrorist groups remains unknown. I agree with David Rhode, the Reuters journalist who spent seven months in Pakistani captivity. The enemy is not religion. The enemy is extremism.
And let’s be clear, extremism isn’t just happening in Islam. It happens in all religions. In fact, what has disturbed me the MOST since leaving my childhood cult is that Christian fundamentalism is growing in popularity. My cult used to be considered “fringe” and “weird.” But now, fundamentalism is hip.
Contemplative, mystic, “moderate” Christianity is derided and dismissed just as contemplative Sufism is dismissed and derided among fundamentalist Muslims.
The enemy is fundamentalism because fundamentalism is very attractive to people looking for Definitive Answers. Extremist religion provides a rigid, black-and-white framework for understanding the world.
For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution.
**DISCLAIMER: although my childhood cult didn’t promote violence toward outsiders (we just beat up each other, ugh), it’s not a huge leap of logic to see the similarities between hard-line religious groups. Also, these are just my opinions and theories based my experience in extremist religion. When new information comes to light, I’ll probably change my theories and opinions. WHICH IS TO SAY, no need to get all crazy up in da combox, k? Good. Thanks.**