Making Sense of the Tsarnaev Brothers

Islamic radicals, extreme social misfits — or something else?

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AFP/Getty Images

A man in Moscow looks at a computer screen displaying an undated picture of the 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19, 2013.

April 19, 2013, 6:31 PM

Less than 24 hours after the FBI posted photos of two suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, the world has learned an astounding amount, with astounding speed, about the two men — one of whom is now dead after a murder, car chase and shootout that climaxed in Watertown, Mass., last night. The other suspect, his brother, remains at large. But for all the detail emerging today, a huge question remains unanswered: What motivated their alleged actions?

The dead man is 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Still on the loose is his younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is just 19. Media accounts say the men were born abroad but have been in America for a decade or more.

There are conflicting accounts of where they lived before arriving in the U.S., though all suggest roots around the Caucasus region of southern Russia. By some accounts, the family moved to the U.S. about a decade ago to escape brutal violence in the Russian republic of Chechnya. The English-language Russian news outlet RT reports that in 2001 the family moved from the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan to the Russian republic of Dagestan; but according to his page on a Russian social networking site, Vkontakte, the younger brother, Dzokhar, attended school in Dagestan from 1999 to 2001. The Associated Press found their father today in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. Dagestan lies at Russia’s southern extremity, not far from Chechnya.

After moving to the U.S., both men grew up on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, Mass., not far from the main campus of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a campus police officer was shot to death last night. Neighbors interviewed by TIME in the ethnically mixed, transitional neighborhood said the boys used to play soccer in the street and the father worked on his cars behind the family house.

Online glimpses of Tamerlan suggest a young man who never assimilated to his host country — “I don’t have a single American friend,” he is quoted as saying in this photo essay.

By contrast, however, Dzhokhar appears to have been a happy, well-adjusted and rather normal teenager, evident in part from his social-media footprint. More ominously, he also apparently expressed interest in Islamic political causes, including the armed Syrian rebellion and the cause of Chechen independence.

Authorities are undoubtedly focused on assessing the significance of hints the men may have had ties to radical Islam and the Chechen-independence movement. Chechnya may be best known in America for its violent separatist battles with Moscow (involving some of the most dreadful terrorism of recent years).

But the Islamic radicalism breeding violently in Russia’s Caucusus region has inspired Chechens to join jihadi causes elsewhere in the world, possibly including fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. (This report suggests that no Chechens have been among the detainees at the U.S. military‘s Guantánamo Bay prison camp, though a human-rights lawyer who follows Gitmo cases cautions the report is not exhaustive.) Just last month, French and Spanish authorities arrested three Chechens in Paris for planning terrorist attacks.

None of this proves a motive for the attacks. What authorities don’t know is whether the brothers, if guilty, were influenced by radical religious beliefs or acted out of some petty grievances — that they simply were, as their furious uncle said of Tamerlan this morning, losers. Although there have been multiple religiously motivated terrorist plots in the U.S. in recent years, the recent history of mass murder in America is a story of mental illness and social isolation, not religious fundamentalism.

For now, counterterrorism officials will have to assume the worst. Beyond capturing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, their top priority will be determining whether a larger terrorist organization may be at work here, one that could be plotting further attacks.

The original version of this article has been updated to include reports that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attended school in Dagestan from 1999 to 2001.

23 comments
paulejb
paulejb

Being dead is probably the best thing the elder brother ever did in his short and unremarkable life.

zinnsand21
zinnsand21

The lock down of Boston is hugely over the top..

sage80_wanker
sage80_wanker

What needs to be made sense of are those who are always trying to 'make sense' of evil. There's no sense. It exists! Deal with it! Nobody at TIME is going to save a single life by making 'sense' of radicalism. By nature, it's nonsense. Get out of care bear land. You are willfully forgoing facts. His motivation & his isolation was based on his religious view that those around him were deserving of death. No religion needs you to protect it by mitigating the facts for some social theory. You are trying to deny his own words so that YOU can understand the how & why.

73yearoldVet
73yearoldVet

Reports that the suspects in the Boston bombing are from Chechnya may have caught some by surprise -- rebels in Chechnya are known for their violent and long-running campaign to break away from Russia, but not for exporting terror to America.

But congressional researchers and foreign policy analysts have long tracked a connection between the Chechnya region and Islamic extremists with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Analysis said they may represent part of a jihadi network which has made its way to American soil.

"The Chechen jihadi network is very extensive," Middle East analyst Walid Phares said Friday. "They have a huge network inside Russia and Chechnya."

Both of the brothers have been found to have extensive web postings related to Moslem extremism and their support for the goals of Al-Qaida.

99% of Mosems are good people and do not support terrorism. These brothers were part of the 1% that have become radicalized and are willing to kill innocent men, women and children. They have no conscience. This is shown by the one brother who sat he boom down next to the 8 year old boy who was killed.

Anyone who tries to justify these actions is one sick person and does not deserve to be an American.

TimKarr
TimKarr

@samgustin Starting to feel as though they were disenfranchised young men acting on own. More Columbine than Mumbai. Just a theory FWIW.

Hermione
Hermione

Let me put it this way - I am not even going to waste my time coming up with a list of names for these 2.  It will just not bring back the dead, or grow limbs, or make all this go away.

If the surviving one is caught, and determined to be truly guilty, then let him and all resposible parties be deal with to the fullest extent of the law.

laurajfg
laurajfg

@TIME If they weren't guilty they would've showed up by now to clarify everything

guestok5
guestok5

The use of loser is not as American's use it.  He's a loser,  meaning that his character is base.  As this man is using it is, they were given the chance in US and because the didn't settle in they lost out. Therefore they were the losers.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

The lack of chatter and the lack of people taking responsibility suggest that while they may have done it because they believe in a radical Islamic cause, they weren't doing it at the behest of a radical Islamic group.

The younger brother might be a very interesting case.  The older brother sounds like he's long beyond gone and good riddance but the younger brother might be someone who's conflicted between his brother's world view and the view espoused by others - and he may be driven right now more by fear than anything else.  I hope they can take him alive.

cent-fan
cent-fan

That's a reasonable assessment.  If one brother is the leader and motivator and the other is a capable follower then that's all the network they need to ultimately shut down one of the largest cities in the US.

Maybe it boils down to a lack of "romance".  As a young middle class person in the US all you have to do is check off the boxes of public education and you can predict where and how you'll end up.  No great cause.  No great stories of adventure.  So why not consider yourself part of an oppressed class half a world away even if you can't directly relate to it?  Then you become a "freedom fighter"... and get to do cool things outside the law because the law doesn't apply to you and your "struggle". 

manlyman
manlyman

Trying to imagine what the conversation would be like today had these fellows turned out to be born and raised American's with blond hair. Oh and I hear Obama is planning to introduce a bill to ban IED's in the U.S. That's should eliminate these sort of incidences.

fitty_three
fitty_three

"Trying to imagine what the conversation would be like today had these fellows turned out to be born and raised American's with blond hair" 

And I can imagine you trying to defend them, girlygirl.