Opinion: Internet fuels ‘homegrown’ terrorists

April 26, 2013


Last Friday, not long after the alleged marathon bombers were identified, a friend forwarded me a frantic Facebook message she’d received from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s high school history teacher.

“This is totally ... surreal,” wrote Larry Aronson, who lived three doors down from the Tsarnaevs. “I knew this kid. He could not possibly have done this. He could not have been a sweeter, more gracious young man.”

There in a nutshell is the very personal and strategic dilemma confronting Americans and the security officials who seek to protect them. We’ve developed means to identify terrorists who look and act like fanatics or those who can be linked to handlers in Pakistan or Yemen. But how do you identify the homegrown terrorist who looks like the nice boy next door?

Of course, the FBI had received warnings from Russian officials that the older brother, Tamerlan, was a follower of radical Islam, and the CIA asked that his name be added to a watch list. However, when the FBI interviewed him, it found no links to terrorists. Customs officials later flagged him when he left on a six-month trip to Dagestan and Chechnya — both havens for nationalist and radical Islamist groups that are fighting the Russians. However, there was no follow-up by any U.S. government agency after he returned.

Yet, after interrogating Dzhokhar in his hospital bed, U.S. investigators believe — so far — that the brothers were self-trained zealots, unaffiliated with any foreign terrorist group. They also believe the two probably acquired their radical ideas from jihadi Internet sites. (Relatives claim Tamerlan was influenced by a Boston-area convert to Islam.)

“This is a new element of terrorism that we have to face in our country,” proclaimed Sen. Marco Rubio, R., Fla., after a classified intelligence briefing. “We need to be prepared for Boston-type attacks, not just 9/11-type attacks.”

But how to prepare? And how great is the threat?

One view comes from counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman, whose 2008 book Leaderless Jihad argued that a third wave of terrorist attacks would come from “homegrown terrorists” radicalized in the West. Yet, Sageman cautioned in a phone interview, the threat should not be exaggerated.

Sageman’s views interest me because, years ago, he set forth a profile of “homegrown, young [terrorist] wannabes” that almost matches the Boston suspects. In the Washington Post he wrote of youths who “dream of glory and adventure, who yearn to belong to a heroic vanguard and to root their lives in a greater sense of meaning.” Referring to cases in Britain, Toronto, and the Netherlands, he added that “many became religious only a few months before their arrests.”

These wannabes “interact on the Internet, acquire religious ideas, and sometimes try to connect with terrorist groups, but sometimes not,” Sageman told me. Often angered by what they perceive as a Western war on Islam, they stoke their anger by following videos of Islamist heroes who fight the West, now or in previous centuries. As for motivation: “They are after praise on jihadi websites … for their bravery, and glory for what they did.”

How does this picture square with the sunny persona that Dzhokhar presented to buddies and teachers? “People are not internally consistent,” Sageman said, adding that he believed the older brother initiated the younger’s change in behavior. “His buddies were not around him when he was with his brother. He stopped drinking and smoking after his brother came back.”

As for combating homegrown wannabes, Sageman says that when they turn toward violence, “there are signals that can be detected.” He cites Tamerlan’s large-scale purchase of fireworks in New Hampshire, and his participation in jihadi websites.

Sageman also argues that homegrown terrorism will ultimately burn itself out, especially if we undermine the appeal that global terrorism has for a small number of young Muslims. I’m not quite so optimistic, at least for the foreseeable future. But I agree with Sageman that wannabes turned violent should be treated as criminals (and tried in civilian courts).

One way to fight the delusions of homegrown wannabes that they will become Internet heroes is to remove any aura of “terrorist glamour” from their deeds.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Abdu Omar 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Those who commit acts of terror are in no way associated with the teachings of Islam. I wish Americans could find that truth. Nothing in the dogma or teachings of Islam perpetuates this kind of behavior. If you don't believe me, read the Quran from cover to cover. It is much shorter than the Bible and is easier to read in the American translation.


Barry Penders 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Internet is the medium. These terrorists were trained in a liberal town by liberal professors.


jayhawkjohn71 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Fighting terrorism starts at the top of our government. Our president called Waco a workplace attack, not Islamic Jihadist motivated. He is silent on Bengazi. He refuses to call Boston bombing orchestrated by Islamic Jihadist. Get the picture? We are back to a pre 9/11 mindset. Someone needs to teach Barrack Hussein Obama how to pronounce - "Islamic Jihadist"


kansasdaughter 11 months, 4 weeks ago

First step of censoring the internet...


Agnostick 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Andrew Sullivan had some similar words about all this last Friday morning, while the search was still on for the younger brother. By that time, Tamerlan's Amazon "Wish List" was available, along with his YouTube channel.

"You don’t need formal training to become a Jihadist. You just need the Internet."

Rubin hits on a word, though, that very succinctly describes what these "two yoots" became: wannabes. If we were to liken all this terrorist activity to, say, guitar playing, here's how I would draw the comparison...

Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers, as well as the WTC bombers from 1993, were skilled musicians of the most extraordinary type. They took formal guitar lessons for several years, learned how to play many different styles, learned acoustic, electric, slide, dobro. They even learned to make their own guitars. They were the very best at what they did, and they invested a great deal of their lives into their passion, and their craft.

The Tsarnaev brothers got really, really excited about the guitar. They watched a ton of heavy metal videos, bought every song recorded by Led Zeppelin and Metallica, and then went out and bought both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" for their XBox 360. When Tamerlan went overseas for a few months, he encountered Rocksmith--a game just like "Guitar Hero," but using an actual guitar! (whoa!)

I know this comparison doesn't really hold water, especially when you consider that the Tsarnaevs managed to pull off a bona fide act of terrorism.... and with ingredients from a fireworks store and Bed Bath & Beyond. It's a shocker, really.

Ultimately, we're faced with some really tough choices:

  • Xenophobia -- keep all Muslims out of America

  • Monitor everyone's Internet use (whlie we're at it, how about a gun owner's database?)

  • Censor as many offensive (read: "jihadist") web sits, pages, chat rooms etc. as we can.


Agnostick 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Meanwhile, moving on with the rest of America...


WristTwister 11 months, 4 weeks ago

It's troubling that Obama and the main stream media will not name Islamic Jihadists as the perpetrators of this horrific event. WE now add "home-grown" terrorists to work place violence and man made disasters to describe the murders and mayhem created by Islamic Terrorists.

Mr. President, why not at least make a statement like: Home-grown terrorists get bitter, they cling to bombs or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them to vent their frustrations.


Agnostick 11 months, 4 weeks ago

"The Turner Diaries" is a book that has been around since the late 1970s. It inspired Timothy McVeigh, who committed his act of terrorism in 1995, well before the Internet really became popular. "The Turner Diaries" can now be found in electronic versions, for your electronic reader.


bearded_gnome 11 months, 4 weeks ago

and blaming the internet is a bit like blaming guns for murder. people kill people, people radicalize other people.


bearded_gnome 11 months, 4 weeks ago

uh wounded-souldier, polling shows that among the muslim countries we had more respect from them when GWB was president than now under mr. obama. think about that. strength breeds respect.

now we've had two successful terrorist attacks on our homeland under obama with boston and ft. hood. need more?


bearded_gnome 11 months, 4 weeks ago

this collumn is incredibly shallow!
why does she think Tamerlan was in Dagestan for six months? getting a tan? hahaha! he was getting training of course. even John Kerry stated that openly.


Steven Gaudreau 11 months, 4 weeks ago

Wounded soldier, religious fanatics have been murdering in the name of their god for centuries. USA is just the flavor of this century. I do agree our leaders are a bunch of busy bodies "spreading democracy". Ive been told Israel is our oil god who can direct our "allies" to cut us off. Not sure if this is true but why else would we have a dog in that fight?


Abdu Omar 12 months ago

The first step in stopping home grown terrorists is to find out what their grievences are against the USA. GW Bush claim, after the events of 9/11, that these terrorists hate the freedom of Americans and want to bring it down. I really doubt that.They are angry, from my research, that America supports Israel and kills Palestinians, and that America is fighting so many wars in the Middle East for no reason. This all goes back to the policies of GW Bush who attacked Iraq as a "crusade" against Islam, his own words.

If you read what the Quran says about terrorism and killing of innocents, you cannot possibly believe that it foments terror or condones it. It strongly is against it, so there must be some other reason for terrorists mantra. Are we too lazy to find that out. Young men are influenced mostly by peers, not religions dogma or ideals from religious sources. And they can be greatly mislead to do horrible acts.


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