Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Detecting the radicalization and recruitment of the Boston Bombers

Detecting the radicalization and recruitment of the Boston Bombers

The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan.  However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence.  When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”

Two years ago in the summer of 2011, I used a radicalization model designed by Chris Heffelfinger, author of Radical Islam in America, to outline a potential framework for researching and eventually creating indicators and warnings for law enforcement and the military trying to assess the move of vulnerable individuals down the pathway of violent extremism.  In the article, “Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces,” I tried to use Heffelfinger’s framework to note what indicators might emerge as individuals move through the process of radicalization and recruitment to violence.  The four stages of Heffelfinger’s construct are:

  1. Introduction – Initial contact with the extremist ideology
  2. Immersion – Immersion in the thinking and mindset of the extremist ideology
  3. Frustration – Frustration over inaction of other members of the ideology
  4. Resolve – Resolve to commit violence on behalf of the extremist ideology

Movement along the four phases of this framework varies for every extremist.  Some take years to move through the entire process, others only weeks or months.  And yet others travel through some of the initial phases and never commit to violent action.  The pace and intensity through which those being radicalized move through the process often hinges on one or more emotional triggers – significant life events accelerating the individual’s dive into extremism and increasing the susceptibility of an extremist ideology’s resonance.  Four broad categories of emotional triggers are: 

  • Family- Death of a family member or divorce may leave the service member searching for a coping ideology.
  • Professional- Failure to achieve professional goals or adapt to military lifestyle may result in the individual being particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment.
  • Financial- Extremist ideologies often provide comfort to those suffering financial struggles.
  • Psychological- Witnessing or participating in a traumatic event may trigger distress leading to the pursuit of extremist ideologies.

Not discussed in the paper, but of equal importance to the framework and emotional triggers, is the presence of catalysts – people and places that help vulnerable individuals move along the phases of radicalization.  Today, these catalysts guiding radicalization are often extremist internet content, key influencers (oftentimes former foreign fighters, ideologues or family members) and social circles.  

Initial news reporting of Tamerlan’s recent past suggests the signs of radicalization were apparent and emotional triggers and catalysts were plentiful.  Roughly three to four years ago, Tamerlan seems have intiated his path to extremism with his mother becoming a catalyst.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Once known as a quiet teenager who aspired to be a boxer, Tamerlan Tsarnaev delved deeply into religion in recent years at the urging of his mother, who feared he was slipping into a life of marijuana, girls and alcohol. Tamerlan quit drinking and smoking, gave up boxing because he thought it was in opposition to his religion, and began pushing the rest of his family to pursue stricter ways, his mother recalled.”

At roughly the same time, numerous emotional triggers likely increased the appeal of radical Islam. 

“His growing religious interest coincided with a rocky period in his life during which his boxing career stalled, he drifted in and out of community-college courses, he was charged with assault by a girlfriend who said he slapped her, and a friend of his was murdered….He later married a different woman, Katherine Russell, a former Suffolk University student from North Kingstown, R.I., and she is the mother of his child.”

Differing news reports suggest the couple was prone to fighting and that Tamerlan’s wife Katherine, not Tamerlan, supported the family as he struggled to maintain a job. 

In recent years, Tamerlan’s family suggests his extremist pursuits were further catalyzed by an Armenian convert to Islam named “Misha”. His movement into the Frustration phase best symbolized by his outbursts and arguments with other members of the Islamic Center of Boston located in Cambridge, MA. 

“Tamerlan also protested at Friday prayers in January, around the Martin Luther King Day holiday, when a speaker compared the civil-rights leader with the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Vali said. Tamerlan interrupted the sermon and called the speaker a hypocrite, while some in the congregation shouted back, “You’re the hypocrite!” Mr. Vali said.” 

Tamerlan apparently drew the attention of the Russian FSB sufficient for them to contact the FBI in 2011 with their concerns. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan in 2011 but at this point, his radicalization was likely difficult to detect for several reasons. First, the FBI was limited to an assessment of Tamerlan’s extremism; not authorized to conduct surveillance or use more intrusive methods. Second, Tamerlan appears to have been in the earlier ‘Immersion’ phase on the path of radicalization and likely didn’t signal his intentions toward violence at this point.  Third, the FBI must handle hundreds of terrorism cases and assessments at any given time.  Simply put, without a strong indicator of violent tendencies and in the presence of many other cases, it was likely difficult for the FBI to justify pursuing Tamerlan any further. 

Finally, Tamerlan appears to have entered the “Resolve” phase quite recently.   Tamerlan’s foreign travel should have and apparently did set off signals to the FBI and Homeland Security but they weren’t sufficient to ignite an investigation. According to his surviving brother Dzhokhar, the plot to attack the Boston Marathon was conceived and prepared for only a few weeks ago providing law enforcement limited time to detect the plot. 

Looking forward, several challenges still persist in the detection and disruption of extremist radicalization and recruitment.  First, as was identified after the shootings of Nidal Hasan, law enforcement and the military lack a well-researched and defined list of indicators and warnings associated with cases of violent extremism.  Despite more than a decade of attacks, there remains no defined method or supporting tools for assessing violent extremism.  Second, there remains a coordination and communication gap across law enforcement and homeland security.  Many signals of Tamerlan’s radicalization surfaced but there was little correlation of these disparate pieces of information.  Lastly, the U.S. has suffered several rounds of violent extremism yet little has changed in countering violent extremism. It’s time for the handwringing and government inquiries to end and for accountability and action to occur.