Notes on the Tsarnaevs’ Radicalization

The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan. However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence. When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”–Clint Watts, “Detecting the Radicalization and Recruitment of the Boston Bombers”

In this entry, I will outline some of my thoughts and notes on the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization. In the above-quoted piece, Watts utilizes Chris Heffelfinger’s radicalization model, which consists of four different stages: 1) introduction to an extremist ideology, 2) immersion in the ideology’s “thinking and mindset,” 3) frustration that other adherents to the ideology are not taking action, and 4) resolve to undertake violence to advance the ideology’s cause.

Heffelfinger’s model is similar, though not identical, to the model offered in the NYPD’s 2007 study, written by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. While Heffelfinger’s model is generalized, and a researcher could try to apply it to a range of extremist ideologies, the NYPD model is focused exclusively on salafi jihadism. That study similarly identifies four phases in the radicalization process. The first is pre-radicalization, an individual’s life before his journey to extremism. The second is self-identification, in which the individual begins exploring salafi Islam “while slowly migrating away from their former identity — an identity that now is re-defined by Salafi philosophy, ideology, and values.” The third phase is indoctrination, where the individual’s beliefs intensify, culminating in “the acceptance of a religious-political worldview that justifies, legitimizes, encourages, or supports violence against anything … un-Islamic, including the West, its citizens, its allies, or other Muslim states whose opinions are contrary to the extremist agenda.” The fourth and final phase is jihadization, where the individual comes to accept an individual duty to undertake violence, and may even “begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack.”

In both models, it should be noted, many more people will begin the process than will complete it: most people who come to hold extremist ideology drop out at some point before using violence in service of those beliefs. (Many people may in fact continue to hold extreme beliefs, but not be driven to violence by them.) A great deal of criticism has been directed at the NYPD model in particular. Some of this criticism is off-base: in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review, Minerva Nasser-Eddine and colleagues criticize the NYPD study for “leav[ing] out militant Christians, … as well as other groups within the West that employ terrorist and guerrilla tactics in their campaigns.” The rather obvious problem with this criticism is that it unreasonably assumes that all militant ideologies should share a common radicalization trajectory. However, an on-point criticism of the NYPD study, which is also applicable to Heffelfinger’s model, is that it assumes the primacy of ideology (religious or otherwise) in moving an individual toward the embrace of violence. In my own research on “homegrown” jihadist terrorism in the West, I’ve found that ideology is sometimes the central factor in an individual’s radicalization, while sometimes another factor — political anger, group dynamics, even sense of adventure — predominates.

I find both the Heffelfinger and also the NYPD model useful so long as we understand that they don’t explain the entirety of terrorist cases, and not even the entirety of cases where the terrorist attack is designed to further the salafi jihadist cause. Rather, they can help us to understand radicalization trajectories in cases where ideology is the predominant factor.

I wanted to introduce these radicalization models because they will help us to think about the points that follow. But my goal in this entry is not to discuss the merits or shortcomings of existing radicalization models. Rather, I want to outline some aspects of this case that strike me as significant.

The end of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s boxing career

The New York Times carried a long article on the impact that the change in entry rules in the Golden Gloves national tournament had on Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The tournament rules changed in 2010 to disqualify legal permanent residents, after which Tamerlan “dropped out of boxing competition entirely, and his life veered in a completely different direction.” The Times explains:

Mr. Tsarnaev portrayed his quitting [boxing] as a reflection of the sport’s incompatibility with his growing devotion to Islam. But as dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives from Cambridge, Mass., to Dagestan showed, that devotion, and the suspected radicalization that accompanied it, was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.

Fox News has published an article where Tamerlan’s former coach, Bob Russo, commented on the Times piece: “That’s ridiculous. You can’t tie the sport of amateur boxing — that has helped so many immigrants and unfortunate people — to his transition to radical Islam.” This critique represents a gross misreading of the Times article, which in no way implies that boxing made him do it. The NYPD’s study, wherein the radicalization trajectory is largely based on salafi-jihadist ideology, notes that the catalyst for the religious seeking that exemplifies the self-identification phase “is often a cognitive event or crisis, which challenges one’s certitude in previously held beliefs, opening the individual’s mind to a new perception or view of the world.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s disqualification from boxing in future Golden Gloves national tournaments seems to have been a personal crisis of this kind, which made him open to new ideologies and ways of understanding the world. Acknowledging this in no way blames boxing, excuses Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s actions, nor obscures the role of radical Islamic ideology.

Religious ideology and radicalization

The reporting on Tamerlan Tsarnaev makes religious ideology appear to be a powerful force — and, I would say, likely the dominant force — in his radicalization and turn toward violence. It should be noted that when we talk about the role of religious ideology in this context, we aren’t speaking about the role of Islam writ large, but rather a particular understanding of the faith that many other Muslims oppose. This is illustrated in Tamerlan’s case, when some of his theories about the faith were rejected at a Cambridge, Massachusetts mosque.

I had an interesting conversation on Bloggingheads with Adam Serwer that I recommend for those interested in this topic, in part because I thought it did a good job of broaching controversial aspects of this discussion that are often shunted to the side, while not veering into the sensationalistic or offensive. Further, much of my academic work on the topic has focused on the role of religious ideology in the radicalization process. While studies like the NYPD’s may over-emphasize the role of ideology, other studies unfairly marginalize it. Examples that I have reviewed include the work of Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, and of Jessica Stern. To help navigate this controversy, my work has outlined indicators of religious ideology being a guiding force in a subject’s radicalization: their presence or absence can help researchers determine the importance of religious ideology to a particular terrorist’s radicalization.

Here are some data points that I have found relevant with respect to Tamerlan Tsarnaev:

Where did his radicalization occurThe N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan’s landlady, Joanna Herligy, said, “He certainly wasn’t radicalized in Dagestan.” That is, she believes signs of his extremism were evident before he left for six months in the Caucasus. Herlihy “told law enforcement officials that his trip clearly merited scrutiny,” and said “that Mr. Tsarnaev’s embrace of Islam had grown more intense before that.”

Adoption of a legalistic Islamic practice. One of the steps that my 2009 study on religious ideology and radicalization identifies is adoption of a highly legalistic practice of Islam. A legalistic practice in itself is not alarming: most often it is indicative only of someone becoming more conservative in his practice of the faith. But in a great deal of homegrown terrorist cases, adoption of a highly legalistic practice was an early step in the process indicative of an individual coming to adopt a new identity, and new ideas at odds with his previous life.

As part of this step, several homegrown extremists stopped listening to music. Those who gave up music included Adam Gadahn (who once made his own death metal albums) and John Walker Lindh (who used to post obsessively in online hip hop chat rooms, at one point claiming that he was “a famous MC who shall remain anonymous due to dickriders”). Tamerlan also gave up music as his practice of Islam became more severe. He not only listened to all kinds of music, but also was a talented musician. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) recalls that “during registration for a [boxing] tournament in Lowell, he sat down at a piano and lost himself for 20 minutes in a piece of classical music. The impromptu performance, so out of place in that world, finished to a burst of applause from surprised onlookers.” Tamerlan listened to all kinds of music, including classical and rap, and used the email address In fact, a few years ago he had planned to enter music school. AP (Apr. 23) shows that Tamerlan’s interpretation of Islam guided his eventual avoidance of music. Six weeks after Tamerlan had told Elmirza Khozhugov, the ex-husband of his sister, about his plans to enter music school, they spoke on the phone. Elmirza asked how music school was going. Tamerlan said that he had quit, and explained that “music is not really supported in Islam.”

Growing a beard is another act that can indicate an increasingly legalistic practice (though, again, is not at all alarming in itself). Members of the Fort Dix Six, for example, had a rather long conversation, captured on tape by an informant, about the details of how beards should be kept according to religious law. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan “grew first a close-cropped beard and then a flowing one.” Tamerlan shaved off his beard prior to the bombing.

Spiritual mentor. In his turn toward a stricter practice of Islam, Tamerlan may have had a spiritual mentor. Referred to in early reports as “Misha,” this alleged influencer’s real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov. Tamerlan met him in 2008 or 2009. The AP (Apr. 23) reports that Tamerlan’s family thought Misha/Allakhverdov was instrumental in his decision to stop studying music. Elmirza Khozhugov told the AP about his method of religious instruction: “Misha was telling him what is Islam, what is good in Islam, what is bad in Islam. This is the best religion and that’s it. Mohammed said this and Mohammed said that.” Khozhugov witnessed the conversation, which occurred until Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, came home from work around midnight. When he asked why Misha was still there, Tamerlan’s mother, Zubeidat, replied, “Don’t interrupt them. They’re talking about religion and good things. Misha is teaching him to be good and nice.” Tamerlan’s relationship with Misha would cause tension with his father, who felt that his son was listening to Misha and not to him. But it apparently did not cause tension with his mother, who was also coming to practice a stricter form of Islam (as I will discuss momentarily). Though much of the steps Tamerlan took suggest a move toward strict salafism, Christian Caryl, the writer who first tracked Misha/Allakhverdov down, has said that he did not think Misha was a salafi.

Misha was apparently also influential in turning Tamerlan toward political extremism and conspiracy theories. Tamerlan “turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world,” AP reports. He read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and also developed an interest in Alex Jones’s conspiracy website Infowars. Tsarnaev began to frequent jihadist websites, and read extremist literature like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language online publication Inspire.

Attempts to impose his religious beliefs on others. Another step in my 2009 study was attempts to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. Tamerlan seems to have done this with his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, with respect to the wearing of hijab. The Times (Apr. 27) reports that his mother used to not cover her head, and in fact “she began wearing a hijab only a few years ago, in the United States, prodded by her son.” This actually caused tension at home. The Wall Street Journal (Apr. 22) reports that Tamerlan’s father, Anzar, said, “You are being crazy, covering yourselves.” Zubeidat replied, “This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do.” Tamerlan’s mother and father later divorced.

Intolerance toward perceived religious deviance; belief in a schism between Islam and the West. Two of the steps in my 2009 study were extreme intolerance of perceived religious deviance, and perception of an irreconcilable schism between Islam and the West. Both of these appear to have been present in Tamerlan, based on the same incidents.

Belief in a schism between Islam and the West can be manifested in self-isolation, or distancing oneself from previous friends and acquaintances who are non-Muslim. In one U.K. case, that of attempted suicide bomber Nicky Reilly, his stepfather noted that Reilley “started to hate us. He went on about how he’d die and find Allah and lasting paradise.” Likewise, acquaintances of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay noted that he “shut himself away,” and that “when he converted, he stopped hanging out with his normal friends.” We can see evidence of this in Tamerlan. After his one-time best friend Brendan Mess was killed in a gruesome triple murder (which Tamerlan himself may have committed, as I will discuss), Tamerlan did not attend the funeral, explaining, “I don’t have any American friends.”

Both of Tamerlan’s outbursts disrupting services at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque were in service of his vision of a schism between Islam and the West, and showed his intolerance of what he saw as religious deviance. As the L.A. Times reports:

The older brother twice disrupted services. In November, Tamerlan Tsarnaev disputed a preacher’s statement that it was appropriate to celebrate national holidays, according to the society’s statement. Then in January, he challenged a preacher who praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Tsarnaev “stood up, shouted and called him a ‘non-believer’; said that he was ‘contaminating people’s minds’ and began calling him a hypocrite,” according to the statement. Congregants urged Tsarnaev to leave, and once the service was over, he was told he was not welcome to attend the mosque if he continued interrupting services.

Earlier signs? There has been a great deal of speculation that Tamerlan may have carried out a gruesome triple murder before leaving for the Caucasus: one of the victims was his former best friend, Brendan Mess. The victims were bound, had their throats slashed, and were sprinkled with marijuana. The linked piece provides possible reasons for this murder, including the possibility that Tamerlan was outraged that Mess had given marijuana to his younger brother Dzokhar, and also the possibility that the victims may have been targeted because they were Jewish.

Russia’s FSB warned the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan in 2011, saying that he had “changed drastically” and become “a follower of radical Islam.” The FSB also stated that he planned to travel to the region, where he would connect with “underground” militant groups. Much of the inevitable debate about whether an intelligence failure occurred prior to the Boston bombing will focus on the FSB’s warning, Tamerlan’s trip to the region, and how evident the danger Tamerlan posed in 2011 was. However, it is worth noting that there is a difference between someone holding extremist views and someone being likely to undertake violence. In a free society, the fact that someone holds extreme views does not automatically confer the right for the government to put him under surveillance, nor should it.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Dzokhar, on the other hand, did not display his brother’s signs of religiosity. He was a pot smoker, a drinker, a partier — all of which contributed to people who knew Dzokhar feeling such disbelief that he could be involved in the Boston plot. (Those who knew Tamerlan, in contrast, were able to recall various data points illustrating his transformation.) This is why, in my Bloggingheads conversation, Adam Serwer and I agreed that “religious identity politics” were likely more important to Dzokhar than religious belief itself. And other factors may have loomed even larger, such as peer pressure from his respected older brother.

About Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University's security studies program.

6 Responses to Notes on the Tsarnaevs’ Radicalization

  1. Pingback: Homegrown Terrorism: a balanced View | Wirtschaftsprofiling und Unternehmenssicherheit

  2. David McDuff says:

    This is an interesting and well thought-out post, and it usefully brings together a number of strands in the “radicalization” debate surrounding Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar. However, I wonder if in the last analysis Islamic radicalization is really the primary question here. It may well be that Tamerlan became influenced by radical Islam in Boston, before his trip to Dagestan, and that his disappointment and anger at the 2010 change in the Golden Gloves boxing tournament entry qualification criteria contributed to his aggressive mood – but the fact remains that it was after, not before, the six-month North Caucasus trip, and after his return to the United States in July 2012, that the Boston Marathon bombing took place. The reports that have been published clearly lead one to suspect that during the visit he acquired from somewhere the practical, technical, bomb-making and above all operational knowledge needed for the implementation of such an attack.

    So far Western media have placed heavy emphasis on the “radicalization” (and “self-radicalization”) motif, and likewise Russian media have been at pains to highlight it in their reports and op-ed discussions. Copious amounts of information have been deliberately leaked by high-level Russian sources to newspapers like Novaya Gazeta and Izvestia, nearly all of it designed to show that Tamerlan was somehow mixed up with shadowy forces in Georgia, Canada and the U.S. (CIA) intent on aggravating Islam-fueled tensions in the North Caucasus and Russia. This line of approach has even been adopted by the Georgian prime minister in his ongoing campaign against members of the previous government, especially Mikheil Saakashvili, accusing them and him of collaboration with Chechen Islamist terrorists ( This essentially pro-Moscow line is obviously advantageous to the Kremlin as it seeks to weaken U.S. and Western influence in the region.

    What we currently appear to be witnessing in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is a revitalization of the now well-established attempt by the Kremlin authorities and siloviki to implicate Western governments in a hypothetical plan to further destabilize the North Caucasus – and ultimately Russia itself. There may indeed be more to it than that, but at all events, as one political analyst has pointed out in an article recently published by the Jamestown Foundation – now under attack by Izvestia as an “organ of the CIA”:

    “The Moscow papers’ stories about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s visit to Georgia (, about his contacts with Mansur Mahmud Nidal (, or even his possible contacts with the Canadian William Plotnikov ( are nothing more than attempts to deflect attention from what Tamerlan Tsarnaev was really doing on his last visit to Russia.”

  3. Just a few potential additions: mental illness, a domineering mother, the mentally unstable but also domineering older brother and what appears to be a weaker younger brother. I would think thorough forensic psychoanalysis of this family would yield a lot of clues.

  4. Not specifically related to the Tsarnaevs, but – someone smarter than I suggested we try to change the narrative so as to stop encouraging the ongoing recruitment of young jihadists.

    Why not stop using the terms JIHAD (holy war) and MUJAHEDDIN (warriors).
    The use of such a vocabulary has served to reinforce adversaries’ claim to legitimacy in the Islamic world.

    Instead, use the terms HIRABAH (unlawful war) and IRAHABI (terrorist).

  5. I appreciate the academic rigour you are bringing to this topic.

    Whatever one’s criticisms of the NYPD approach, it has worked. You can’t beat that with a stick. We may not have the luxury to adopt more idealistic/ideological approaches that pretend ideology isn’t a factor, as the ex-FBI-turned-ACLU advisor is telling us (see NYT piece).

    Christian Caryl has accomplished what no other journalist has done and contacted the mysterious “Misha,” which is a diminutive of the name “Mikhail” and therefore is just as much his “real name”. But from the sound of it, he didn’t have much time with him and spoke with him outside his home, for perhaps 20 minutes. It doesn’t sound like he sat down with him for 4 hours. So while I respect that he made a judgement that Misha “wasn’t Salafist,” we can’t be sure. And I’m not sure what the “10 ways you can recognize a Salfist instantly” are anyway. Beards? Quoting certain prophets?

    I’m troubled by the way in which we are all being driven to this “self-radicalizing” narrative that seeks to minimize the role of organized terrorist groups so opportunistically just when Obama needs to wind down two big wars against Islamic countries.

    Religious cults of any stripe usually have two key features: a) pressure to advance yourself spiritually by recruiting others, and therefore having to proselytize aggressively not just out of zeal but out of an imperative to advance in the organization b) a demand to think from the cult’s ideas and discard old ways of thinking, i.e. love of music as proof of progress.

    But both of these factors need a personal bond or connection, it seems to me, and can’t just make do with a Youtube. For one, the “youtubized” theory seems to overlook that in fact very organized, funded, resourced, determined, planned operations are the ones making persuasive videos and disseminating them — and also socializing with people in comments on Youtube and forums that go with the video. For two, the obvious sequence of the video account beginning *after* the trip to Dagestan seems to be underplayed.

    The tendency with either the “self-radicalization” or “Islamist plot” hypotheses is that they completely leave out the possibility of a staged Russian intelligence operation which isn’t some wild conspiracy theory when we take into account that Kadyrov ordered a Chechen leader assassinated in Vienna and former FSB agent Litvinenko was murdered with polonium 2010, pointing to the state as actor. These and many, many more incidents involving hired Chechens or turned Chechens or mysterious assassins sometimes posing as Islamists means that you have to keep an open mind about this option, as both Putin and Kadyrov could be motivated against the US for revenge, both over the Magnitsky List and the larger issue of the war in Syria and US support of rebels there.

    But whatever the version of the story, there likely had to be a person or persons who mentored Tamerlan, even if they didn’t train him formally in some camp, and this person doesn’t have to be a Salafi to push him toward more rigid thinking (and that may have been Misha’s role). Someone has to give him the moral green light to kill and overcome what would be a natural conditioning of conscience not to kill — and Misha spent enough time with Caryl to let us know that if he had been Tamerlan’s teacher, he wouldn’t have countenanced violence. So likely there are others (or Misha is misleading us).

    There’s an awful lack of curiousness about the glaring hole in the Russian intelligence story to the US. Here’s the Dagestanti anti-extremism center of the MVD (police) telling Novaya gazeta (a deliberate leak) that they know Tamerlan was in touch with Nidal, the 18-year-old jihadist killed by Russian forces, and yet Moscow neglects to tell the FBI *that* — and talks only about a Youtube account? A man from America is in touch with at least one or maybe two jihadists in Dagestan (there are multiple jihadists discussed as possible contacts), and nobody questions him? He is allowed to leave the country without incident? Really, guys?

    We keep hearing about the two incidents in the Cambridge mosque as somehow exonerating this mosque of radicalism. Yet reportedly Tamerlan met Misha at this mosque in 2009 when it opened, and his family members described him as becoming more radicalized after this meeting; he was also not expelled from this mosque but returned again after these incidents, so perhaps *some* of his thinking was more radical than the black Muslims in the mosque who wished to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., but was exactly in line, for example, with other hate concepts, i.e. with at least some members’ radical rejection of the Jews and Israel, as you can see in this video:

    At the end of the day, the entire “self-radicalization” theory hinges on watching Youtubes or joining in Internet fora. Yet Tamerlan made his Youtube with the radical jihadist films, some of which were removed by Google, in *August 2012* which was *after* he returned from his six months’ sojourn in Dagestan, which also included side trips to Chechnya and started and ended in Moscow.

    So how was he self-radicalizing via the Internet before that? Perhaps the FBI’s forensic studies of his Internet use may shed some light on this question. Until then, I’m going to continue to look for clues in the Russian side of this story where there are contradictions and gaps, and not just listen to former FBI agents and Harvard psychologists recruited by the Times to fit a narrative they’ve constructed. Any narrative is a construct, but I think we should challenge those that are designed to sooth us into complacity and fit White House foreign policy after the fact rather than reject those that seem too awful to contemplate.

  6. Pingback: Radicalization and Political Violence | al-Wasat - الوسط

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