Wednesday, April 19, 2017

From the Archives: Journalist Christian Caryl investigates Boston's 'lone-wolf' Tsarnaev brothers

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on June 7, 2013. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

In the June 6 [2013] edition of the New York Review of Books, veteran journalist Christian Caryl has contributed an investigative piece about Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.

The article, called “The Bombers' World,” looks into the family background, friendships, neighbors, and remote influences on the Tsarnaev brothers, who came to the United States from the former Soviet Union more than a decade ago but who still had ties to their ancestral homeland of Chechnya.

As Caryl explains the family's arrival in his article:

The Tsarnaevs arrived in the US after a brief stay in Dagestan, another Russian republic that abuts Chechnya, but they had spent most of their lives in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, where Anzor Tsarnaev, the father, had worked for a while in the local prosecutor’s office. But when a new war broke out in Chechnya in 1999, Anzor said, the Kyrgyz authorities (perhaps under pressure from the Kremlin) purged the government’s ranks of anyone with a Chechen background. Anzor lost his job, and for a time, he said, he was even thrown in jail, where his guards subjected him to beatings. It was this abuse that served as the basis for the family’s (ultimately successful) application for refugee status in the US.

The Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner interviewed Christian Caryl about his investigations into the Tsarnaev brothers and their backgrounds after he delivered a lecture about his new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, at the Stimson Center in Washington.

'Something of an outlier'

Caryl, who is a fluent Russian speaker, explained that he had “talked to people who knew the Tsarnaevs extremely well – indeed intimately, I would say.”

He also “examined their websites [and] their use of social media in some detail.”

That led him to conclude that “we're dealing with perhaps something of an outlier” among terrorist groups and individuals.

“In many respects,” Caryl said, the Tsarnaevs' “case is so unusual and so different that we may not see exactly this same configuration in the future.”

What he found “quite striking,” he said in the interview, as well as “perhaps very threatening,” is the existence of “lone-wolf terrorists who form their convictions almost in isolation from people around them.”

'The Internet is enough'

Rather than being taught by a mentor or someone with more experience or learning, for these lone wolves “it really has so much to do with the Internet and with” what Caryl calls a “virtual community of jihadis on the Internet.”

As a consequence, he explained, “you almost don't need people around you talking about this stuff anymore. The Internet is enough.”

In the case of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, he said, “What's fascinating really about the Tsarnaevs is the isolation in which they became what they became.”

That, he concluded, “has somewhat ominous significance for the kind of terrorism we're going to see in the future.”

A question that has been asked many times since the Boston terrorist attack is whether both Dzhokar Tsarnaev and his elder brother were both radicalized as jihadists.

Based on his research, Caryl said, “I think the younger brother is very much a story of the influence of the older brother.”

Older brother's influence

This, he explained, is “the one aspect of this story that really is very Chechen, characteristically Chechen,” – that is, “the fact that the older brother had this enormous influence within the family. That's very characteristic. In other ways, the Tsarnaevs had very little to do with Chechen culture and the whole Chechen story.”

Tamerlan's influence on Dzhokar “sticks out” as characteristically Chechen, Caryl continued, because “in Chechen families, it's the oldest son who has enormous authority and wields enormous influence within the family.”

In the case of the Tsarnaevs, he said, “we're dealing with a case where [Tamerlan] lorded it over his younger brother to really an extraordinary degree and ultimately [to a] fateful extent.”

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