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 5 years, 1 month 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.

notaubermime 5 years, 1 month ago

Love the inconsistency. Bush did not claim that invading Iraq was a crusade against Islam. He claimed the war on terror was a crusade against terrorism long before the invasion of Iraq. What you are doing there is equating "terrorism" with "Islam", something which you contradict in the next paragraph.

Muslims can say that there is a Christian war on Islam, Christians will say that there is a Muslim war on Christians (Egyptian Copts, Nigeria, attacks on Christian churches in Pakistan et al., etc.). The truth is that both wars are only going on to the extent that paranoid fanatics perpetuate them. Trying to pass off their delusions as rational thoughts that need to be addressed just plays into their game.

bad_dog 5 years, 1 month ago

You have to admit use of the word "crusade" in connection with a discussion about Islam was at best, a poor choice.

notaubermime 5 years, 1 month ago

Look up Bush's full quote and find me the part where he discusses Islam. At that point, I will agree with you that it was a poor choice of words (at best). Until then, I will stand by my statements that the only reason people associate the crusade on terrorism with a crusade on Islam is because of their own bias towards thinking of terrorism and Islam as being connected.

You can rant against the quote or you can rant against associating Islam with terrorism, but you cannot be logically consistent and do both.

bad_dog 5 years, 1 month ago

If you don't associate "radical" Islam with terrorism, I don't know what I can do to assist you. As I understand the situation, radical Islam is just a distorted/extremist interpretation of their faith.

I recall cringing when I heard W make the statement; thinking "Wow, did he just say that?" Of course, that was just one of many times I uttered that phrase during W's terms.

msezdsit 5 years, 1 month ago

...:there must be some other reason for terrorists mantra. Are we too lazy to find that out. "

Well just watch Faux news and they will tell you that you are just hating on America by blaming our country for these terrorist. You and people like you should be ashamed of yourself. However, if our policies considered your points we would then begin to make some real inroads in minimizing these terrorist attacks. I am scared to death to see what the drone attacks are going to manifest into. It ain't gonna be a good thing for the US.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 1 month 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.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 1 month 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?

Abdu Omar 5 years, 1 month ago

I suggest to you that when consider that Obama's speech in Egypt in 2009, it was a ralying call for Muslims who expected him to tread lightly on Palestinian Issues. But instead in 2013, he spoke of nothing for the Palestinians while praising Israel for its bloody work. Sure the Arabs hate him, but never, and I mean never, more than Than George W. Bush because Obama didn't attack Iraq for nothing.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 1 month ago

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

MarcoPogo 5 years, 1 month ago

Even Dean Koontz can write better books than this.

voevoda 5 years, 1 month ago

No matter what President Obama calls the Tsarnaev brothers, you won't be satisfied, WristTwister. That's because in your opinion he can't ever do anything right.

To judge from some of the people who post on the LJW forum, there are a lot of peole who cling to religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them to vent their frustrations.

jayhawkjohn71 5 years, 1 month 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"

Abdu Omar 5 years, 1 month 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.

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