Were the Boston bombers driven by humiliation?

Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev

Since the Boston marathon bombings by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev on 15 April, the mainstream media has featured numerous interviews and articles by terrorism experts attempting to explain the bombers’ motivations. The majority of these commentators have attempted to connect the bombers to online radicalization and Al-Qaeda type groups in the Caucasus. PhD student, Mohammed Ilyas proposes that the possibility of “vicarious” and “proxy humiliation” may have been a motivation for the bombings.   

What we know about the bombers is that they are ethnically Chechen, which is in the Caucasus region that borders Europe and Asia. The Chechen Republic, a subdivision of the Russian Federation, has a history fraught with invasion and resistance that stretches back to the eighteenth century. The Chechen war against Russia in the 1990s and early 2000 resulted in mass destruction and immense loss of life, leading to many Chechens fleeing and resettling in other parts of the world.

The bombers’ family was amongst the refugees who relocated to the USA, and accordingly the bombers were socialized into US culture and received a American education. Despite this, some articles have argued that the elder brother was not “fully integrated” into US life, asserting that this was part of the reason for his radicalization, and that he radicalized his younger brother in turn.

Many commentators have suggested that several factors coincided to foster the conditions for Tamerlan, the elder brother to become radicalized: his mother becoming more “militant” in her faith, the internet, an awareness of Muslim suffering and a visit to Chechnya. However, what these articles do not address is what happens when the politics of the nation (in this case Chechnya, Russia and the US) meets the search for an identity among the diaspora community.

The quest for an identity that an individual feels comfortable with, which explains to them their history, their present, and their possible future, is a long and often sensitive process. This endeavor often forces individuals to ask questions of their ethnic, religious and national registers within a geopolitical arena. European Muslims have been on this journey for the last 20-30 years, and it has fostered conditions that have both pulled and pushed some Muslims to take the radicalization path and act in violent ways.

“Vicarious humiliation”

If we accept that the search for an identity could be a possible catalyst for the bombers to take the radicalization path, then it is likely that they gained knowledge about their brutalized recent past (at the hands of the Russians) through family histories and community memories. This would have been accompanied by various online platforms where videos detailing the Chechen wars from the 1990s and early 2000, and other conflicts involving Muslims, are easily accessible.

The significance of family and community narratives, supported by these videos, is the emotional bonds that they create, which when ruptured through violence can foster what terrorism expert Marc Sageman calls “vicarious humiliation”. In the case of the bombers these feelings of humiliation were likely generated by watching and reading about the tribulations of their ethnic brethren and co-religionists, a thesis supported by media reports claiming that the elder brother had a YouTube account broadcasting “Jihadi” videos. Farhad Khosrokhavar also notes that feelings of humiliation must be considered as factors when understanding what he terms the ‘mental universe’ of Al-Qaeda’s “new martyrs”. Khosrokhavar argues that these feelings are often experienced by proxy and internalized by some diaspora Muslims in Europe.

Through interviews that I have carried out with Islamists in Britain, it became clear that proxy humiliation played a large part in forming their world views, compounded by watching videos displaying the suffering of their fellow Muslims, such as those from Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. The experience and use of humiliation as a tool to provoke interest in politics provides a sense of pride and aims to restore dignity and masculinity can be a powerful catalyst for some to engage in activism, but this is a tactic used by many groups, not only Al-Qaeda.

Although humiliation may in some cases lead directly to ethnic- or religiously-motivated violence, in others it paves the way for individuals to begin their “journey to radicalization” regardless of religious, ethnic and national registers. Consequently the question that should be posed is what can be done to address the conditions that facilitate the radicalization path?

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