Were Boston Bombers Lone Wolves or Long Arm of al-Qaida?

James Kitfield

Editor's note: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in police custody. Get updates here.

“Somebody radicalized them, but it wasn’t my brother.” In speaking about his nephews and Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Ruslan Tsarni put his finger on a question of paramount concern to law-enforcement and counterterrorism authorities: Who or what pushed two seemingly normal young immigrants past the tipping point separating youthful anger and alienation and wanton terrorism?

In many ways the emerging profile of the Tsarnaev brothers (26 and 19 years old, respectively), whose family apparently fled fighting in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya, fits a familiar pattern. Young Muslim émigrés, perhaps still struggling to fit in on some level, who bear the psychic scars and grievances of having come from a conflict zone where Muslim and other cultures clash. 

That was the profile of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia who was convicted of attempting to bomb a Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., in 2010.  It fit the case of Adis Medunjanin, a Bosnian-born immigrant who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and was convicted last year in a Qaida-linked plot to blow up the New York subway, along with coconspirator Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan native with family ties to Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. The profile also fits the Pakistani-British terrorists who launched the coordinated suicide bombings of London’s public transport system in 2005, who had family ties to India’s separatist Muslim province of Kashmir.

“The profile of the Tsarnaev brothers is chillingly similar to the London bombers, who were also the sons of immigrants from a Muslim area of the world immersed in highly contentious conflict,” said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “What we don’t know yet is if they are ‘lone wolves’ who self-radicalized on their own, or else had ties to terrorist organizations overseas that facilitated their radicalization and plotting.”

In recent years, al-Qaida and its affiliates, he notes, have actively sought to recruit non-Arab Muslims into their ranks who can more easily avoid law-enforcement scrutiny and gain easier access to Western nations. That was the story behind deceased terrorist mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki’s recruitment of “underwear bomber” Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who attempted to bomb an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

As an overwhelmingly Muslim region which has fought two bloody wars attempting to break away from Russia, Chechnya has also attracted numerous Islamic extremist groups and jihadists eager to join the fight. U.S. authorities are reportedly looking into possible links between the Tsarnaev brothers and the Islamic Jihad Union of central Asia, a terrorist group active in the north Caucuses.

Chechen extremists have also figured prominently in recent terrorist plots against the West. Just last summer, for instance, Spanish authorities arrested two Chechen suspects in a terrorist plot. One of them was Eldar Megomedov, a former Russian special-forces commando who had attended terrorist training camps in Pakistan run by the extremist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (which was behind the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India that killed 164 people), and who had operated out of Dagestan, next door to Chechnya.

“At a time when al-Qaida was seen as weakening and the terrorist threat declining, it’s interesting that we have two recent plots that have possible links to Chechnya,” said Hoffman.

If investigators find no links between the Boston bombers and overseas terrorist organizations in Chechnya or elsewhere, it will suggest they fit the equally familiar profile of “lone wolves,” extremists who self-radicalize and launch attacks with no outside guidance other than, perhaps, Internet instructions on how to construct improvised explosive devices. That profile fit Army Maj. Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 people in a 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks. In recent years, the FBI was arrested scores of these “lone wolves” in terrorism stings involving elaborate plots and informants.

“These deluded and disaffected young Muslims represent a new and durable phenomenon, and while their grievances are varied and complex, they are often moved and driven by the plight of persecuted fellow Muslims worldwide--from Chechnya to Afghanistan, and from Iraq to Pakistan,” Fawaz Gerges, Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, wrote in an e-mail. “We have witnessed scores of these freelancers trying to carry out bombings in Western countries. Most of these plots failed because the lone wolves were inept and unlucky. But it was only a matter of time before one succeeded.”

U.S. law enforcement’s response to the growing threat of self-radicalization and "lone wolf" terrorism has been stepped up surveillance on the Internet and in mosques where radical preachers may incite violence; the FBI’s elaborate sting operations to ensnare terrorist wannabes in fake plots; and outreach to Muslim communities across the country. Somehow, the Tsarnaev brothers slipped through that dragnet, either on their own or with outside help.

If no link turns up between the Boston bombers and established terrorist groups, some counterterrorism experts believe U.S. authorities will need to investigate further the nexus between radicalization and Muslim children born of war.

“I don’t think we’ve been paying enough attention to these kids who grew up or have ties to war zones, and then come to this country and have a really difficult time dealing with what they’ve experienced and how it affects their conflicted national identities,” said Karen Greenberg, a counterterrorism expert and the director of the Center for National Security at Fordham Law School in New York City. “We have a lot of cases in our data base of ‘self-radicalization’ by Muslim youths with ties back to conflict areas such as Bosnia, Somalia, Pakistan, and Chechnya. We really need to understand the connection better.”