The Young and the Normless: Al Qaeda’s Ideological Recruitment of Western Extremists

Thérèse Postel
Connections: The Quarterly Journal 12:4 [Fall 2013] pp 99-117

The Boston Marathon bombings on 15 April 2013 brought terror to the finish line of one of the United States’ oldest athletic events, and returned terrorism to the forefront of the United States’ psyche. The world watched as Massachusetts law enforcement agencies shut down a large swath of the state in order to find a bomber on the run. As the dust settled, it was clear that a well-adjusted, popular, intelligent young man who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, from a Chechen refugee family, executed one of the most infamous terror attacks on American soil since 11 September 2001, under the wing of his older brother.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a college student at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, was found hiding in a boat four days after the bombing in Watertown, Massachusetts, and was subsequently arrested; he has since pled “not guilty” to all charges levied against him.[1] Dzhokhar’s brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was run over and killed by Dzhokhar as they attempted to flee law enforcement in the early morning hours of 19 April 2013.[2] Tamerlan was a potential American success story that went off the rails, not as well adjusted as his brother Dzhokhar, who was fondly known as “Jahar” to most of his friends and teachers. Tamerlan was an accomplished boxer, who lost his way shortly after his dreams to be an Olympian for the United States were curtailed because he was not a citizen.[3] Their parents filed for divorce, their sisters moved away, and the family life of these two boys disintegrated.[4] Soon after, Dzhokhar became a United States citizen, continued onto college, and dabbled in drugs,[5] while Tamerlan floundered in all aspects of his life.

How did the lives of two men, who showed such early promise, go so far astray? This question has laid heavily on the minds of those trying to make sense of this bombing and looking to prevent the next one. The answer is not as simple or straightforward as it has been portrayed. Last year, I completed my M.A. thesis on Al Qaeda’s recruitment of Western extremists. I broke down Al Qaeda and its affiliates’ recruitment patterns into three categories: structural, institutional, and ideological relationships. While structural and institutional connections between those seeking to join or act on behalf of Al Qaeda’s worldview are often very concrete, ideological connections are porous and fluid. It was through this ideological avenue that the Tsarnaev brothers became radicalized.

It is of the utmost importance to understand the ideological influences and relationships that can push young individuals to become radicalized. The similarity through which hate groups, including white supremacists, far right extremists, and fundamentalist religious groups like Al Qaeda entice individuals to act violently on the group’s behalf is most instructive for counter-radicalization and counterterrorism purposes.

The complete details of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization remain unclear. However, recent developments in this case show that while the primary impetus for the Boston bombing was radical Salafi jihadist literature of the kind promulgated by Al Qaeda, Tamerlan had also become immersed in other extremist right wing ideologies of the United States.[6] In a similarly twisted manner, Anders Breivik, who carried out the massacre of children at a summer camp outside Oslo in July 2011, admitted he admired Al Qaeda’s ideology, persistence, and success although he was a noted white supremacist and Islamophobe. Breivic called Al Qaeda the “most successful revolutionary movement in the world” and claimed he hoped to create a “European Al Qaeda.” [7] The cross-pollination and similarity of ideas between these extreme views could no longer be ignored. Counterterrorism efforts will be enhanced and bolstered if experts better understand the type of individual that is susceptible to the ideology espoused by groups like Al Qaeda.

The title of this journal, Connections, is very appropriate, as I believe the ideology Al Qaeda and the assortment of right-wing hate groups in the United States put forth is most appealing to those who lack sustaining connections in their life. This article will first illustrate how the extremist ideology of far-right groups and the ideology of Al Qaeda resonates with the same pool of disaffected, disconnected individuals looking for meaning and a sense of community in their lives, using many of the same methods. The overwhelming evidence suggests this was the case for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The importance of these connections to the radicalization process allows me to argue against the prevalence of “lone-wolf” discourse in counterterrorism today. Next, the article will further describe Al Qaeda’s ideological recruitment of individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers to their apocalyptic worldview through the case study of Zachary Chesser, a young American man who tried, unsuccessfully, to travel to Somalia to join Al Qaeda in 2010. The Tsarnaev brothers are featured prominently in the May 2013 issue of Inspire,[8] Al Qaeda’s English language magazine, which only months earlier provided them with instructions and motivation for their attack. Understanding this process of radicalization, for any type of terrorist group, may prevent loss of life by interdicting future terrorists before they are able to carry out any violent acts.

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