Personalized Jihad?

April 25th 2013 - The Boston Attack and what we know about it at this point doesn't exactly turn conventional wisdom of the terrorism research community upside-down: vulnerable young men, a vacuum to fill, a family falling apart, a personal re-invention, ties to a homeland and a region affected by bloody conflict, perhaps a radical friend, perhaps a lot of radical video consumption, perhaps a fatal journey abroad, a bit of Inspire... And yet, there are a few aspects in this case I am still chewing on. To put it another way: Maybe we should call in the psychologists.

It's mainly these points that strike me as possibly significant when trying to draw conclusions from the Boston attack:

1.- While this is obviously not even remotely the first terror attack in which brothers took part, it's still different from most others that I am aware of in that we have reason to believe that Tamerlan was the driving force and that Dhzokhar submitted to his idea. We have a lot of indication of a radicalization of Tamerlan, but as of now very little, if anything at all, that would suggest that Dhzokhar even was a committed Jihadist when he signed up for it. In what sort of capacity, and for which reasons did he take part? They may lie in a sphere to which political scientists, Arabists, journalists or whatever else most of us may be don't necessarily have the best understanding of and access to. What I mean, to put it bluntly: What if this was an attack that meant something different to each of the perpetrators?  I am aware that there are other instances in which one participant exerted undue influence over others. And yet, if we are trying to take it from here and to assess what may be coming next, we should probably bear in mind that apparently even a jihadist terror attack may be something that someone can be drawn into even though his "real" motivation may much rather be that he doesn't want to be the one left behind or the one leaving someone else behind.

2.- There is one other dimension to this attack that I can't get out of my head: This was two excelling sportsmen attacking a sporting event. Why the Marathon? Only because it was the biggest event that fit the schedule? Perhaps. But maybe this is also something that other professions have interesting perspectives on. I personally find it distantly but oddly reminiscent of school shootings: Going back to something you were once part of and maybe experienced humiliation at.

I am no psychologist and I feel bad even trying for a second to think like one. But it is exactly this discomfort that makes me wonder if I have sufficient analytical tools at my disposal to see all important dimensions in this attack.

To elaborate a little: My background, for example, is in Arabic and Islamic Studies and Political Sciences and I work as a journalist. I tend to stress the importance of ideology. For example, I made great efforts trying to explain to people that what may look like illogical and arbitrary targets to "us" are in many cases perfectly reasonable targets from a Jihadist perspective if you are acquainted with their sources and ways of thinking. But the more attacks by "lone wolfs" or self recruited Jihadists we see, the higher the chance is that they might mix personal with ideologically prescribed considerations. Since no-one is leading them (in many cases), no-body gets to "correct" them. So with Jihadism becoming more individual, it also may become more personalized. And that would perhaps mean we have to take into consideration additional or slightly different factors in order to do risk analysis or threat assessment, etc.

This is just a blog post, not an academic paper, not a newspaper editorial, not a conference contribution. Please take it as such. It is just a few thoughts that I have been developing over the past few days. They may be absurd, already proven wrong or considered solved. But then, what's a blog for if not (also) for throwing thoughts at people to see what they have to say.

So, I am curious about your reactions!

Cheers, Y. 


  1. I think it’s an insightful piece, and that your point actually militates strongly against silo-ed thinking.

    The other day in some twitter convo I said “i'd suggest real expertise wld be more than 1 person, & they'd mostly be able to hear one another” and I think that’s pretty much what you’re getting at, when you write:

    In what sort of capacity, and for which reasons did he take part? They may lie in a sphere to which political scientists, Arabists, journalists or whatever else most of us may be don't necessarily have the best understanding of and access to.


    Maybe we should call in the psychologists.

    But you’re right, and wrong, it seems to me, when you say:

    I am no psychologist and I feel bad even trying for a second to think like one.

    Psychology is not your discipline, okay – but when you notice your discomfort, you’re noticing what the best of them notice – your own thought process as it unspools.

    And besides, you're a novelist as well as a journalist, aren't you? A writer's imagination may be more familiar with some disciplines than others, but it knows no boundaries...

    Which brings me to the idea that we don’t actually need another discipline to bring its own turf wars into the conversation, we need a concert of minds, a polyphony of insights.

    And the listening skills to hear them in counterpoint...

  2. I think your meanderings are valid. The Boston Marathon isn't just a marathon. It happens on Patriot's Day. I can't help but wonder how extensive the influence the Alex Jones crowd had on their thinking. I could tell immediately from one of Dzhokhar's tweets that he was from that mindset. Could it be that they were fed up with the farce of American freedom - at least in terms of what it brought to them - and infuriated by American ignorance about and attacks on Islam? We are hardly nuanced in our understanding of Islam, to say the least. This is not to justify what they did, but an attempt to figure out how the alienation and frustration drove them to become violent. Then again, there is a part of me that wonders if there might be a bit of the sociopath in both. How could they look on so calmly as the bombs exploded? Dzhokhar's interactions with fellow students and the garage mechanic revealed that he was not as cool, calm, and collected as he wanted to believe. Also his seeming willingness to communicate with investigators makes it clear he is not a hardened AQ fighter. In the end I will not be surprised to find out that he doesn't know who he is either.

  3. Sharon, Charles -- thanks both of you for the debate! I see common ground here in that we ought to not just treat the brothers as just another case of Jihasists bombing "the West". We need to try and dig deeper and understand that behind all of these terrible careers are personal factors involved -- in some cases more (like this one, presumably), in other to a lesser extent.