Picture emerges of what drove the Boston bombers

The faces of terror: Tamerlan (left) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev killed three at the Boston Marathon.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a well-liked, amiable, slightly shy scholarship boy with a passion for basketball and wrestling. Today he is America’s most infamous living terrorist. What went wrong?

Ten days ago, two sudden explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured 282 – the most lethal terrorist act on US soil since September 11th 2001. In the aftermath of the attack, one question dominated news and social media: who did this, and why?

Some assumed this, like 9/11, was a plot by an international terror group like al Qaeda. Others speculated that it may have been the work of an American militant, acting alone or backed by a domestic terrorist network.

Three days later, police released a CCTV image of two young men who they believed to be behind the attack. A million Boston residents locked themselves inside their houses as a dramatic manhunt developed, culminating in a shootout that left one suspect and a police officer dead. Six hours later the second was found, wounded and bleeding, in the hull of a grounded boat.

The identity of the Boston bombers is now public knowledge. Yet the puzzle of what drove them to such a horrifying act remains unsolved.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were brothers in a family of refugees from a mountainous region on the border of Europe and Asia called the Caucasus. Their parents had been forced out of their native Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim area that has struggled for centuries against Russian rule.

When the Tsarnaevs arrived in America, 17-year-old Tamerlan struggled to adapt to life in the US, claiming that he didn’t understand Americans. Alienated and unemployed, he was increasingly drawn to radical Muslim preachers and their violent anti-American messages. Tamerlan was killed by police bullets last Friday.

His brother Dzhokhar, seven years younger, seemed less isolated. He captained his local wrestling team, went to parties and won a scholarship to study marine biology at a local university. Fellow students described him as a shy but friendly character who seemed more interested in sport, hip hop and marijuana than politics and religion. When his face appeared on news channels after the bombing, they were baffled and upset.

What drove these two young men to such a drastic and violent act?

Still others question whether this is really about politics or ideology at all. Conflicted, unhappy and far from home, these young men may have simply latched onto any radical cause that gave form to their sense of foreignness and dislocation.

The path to hell

That’s no mystery, some say: these men fell under the sway of a wicked, toxic brand of Islam which glorifies bloodshed and wreaks terror around the world. Even if they were acting alone, the ideology they served was intimately related to that of al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Too sweeping, others object: Islamic extremism is only one small part of Chechnya’s age-old struggle for independence. With this attack, America has been dragged into a conflict that belongs on the other side of the world.

You Decide

  1. Do you have to be inherently wicked to commit an act of terrorism?
  2. What is ‘international terrorism’? Was the bombing of the Boston Marathon an example of it?


  1. As a class, hold a debate over how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be treated. Is he an ordinary criminal or an enemy of the state? Should he be given the death penalty if found guilty?
  2. Do some research and write down five facts about Chechnya, including at least one about its conflict with Russia.

Some People Say...

“A terrorist is a terrorist – motives don’t matter.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely you have to be evil to do something as terrible as this?
Perhaps. But plenty of people who are generally ordinary and decent end up doing terrible things. Some of the most prolific murderers in the Nazi death camps were ordinary people who had been drafted from the civilian population but were considered unfit for military duty.
But that was an evil time.
It was. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re immune. Psychological studies like the Stanford Prison and Milgram Experiments have shown over and over again that the vast majority of people are willing to cause serious suffering when they are part of mass movement that says it’s acceptable.

Word Watch

September 11th 2011
On this date, immortalised as ‘9/11’, terrorists from the Islamist terror group al Qaeda hijacked two aeroplanes and guided them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre. The towers collapsed, killing 3,000, and a third plane was flown into the Pentagon, the US military HQ. The USA’s ‘War on Terror’ has loomed over world politics ever since.
Dzhokhar was injured by bullets while trying to escape the police. He is still in hospital, but he is alive and has now been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar
Both brothers were named after historical figures who are heroes to many Chechens: Tamerlane was a Muslim warrior in the Mongol Empire and Dzhokhar declared Chechen independence in 1991.
Ever since this small nation was incorporated into Russia in 1785, it has been noted for its fiercely independent national identity. In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya made a bid for independence. The rebellion was crushed and 100,000 Chechens were killed. Chechnya is still officially part of the Russian Federation, but the central government has little influence there.
Radical Muslim preachers
Tamerlan’s Youtube channel includes clips of preachers defending anti-American violence and railing against Western culture. He may also have met Chechen militants during his six-month trip to Russia last year.

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