Boston bombers – BBC Panorama unravelled zilch!

Tamerlan and Jahar Tsarnaev

As someone who is interested in politically and religious motivated violence, I was left disappointed with BBC Panorama’s “The Brothers Who Bombed Boston”, writes Dr Ilyas Mohammed.

The program was much hyped in the print media, such that, one got the impression that Panorama had identified the “holy grail” of why the brothers, Jahar Tsarnaev and his elder brother Tamerlan became “radicalized”. By this I mean that the program had unearthed evidence, which explained the “whys” the brothers decided to attack the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013.

Regular motives

Sadly, and I should have known better, Panorama churned out a sequence of “possible” motivations that fostered radicalization and the attack, which Muslims have become all too familiar with since 9/11. The program provided four continuums for radicalization and terrorism:

Ideas – anti-Semitism, Islam and politics.

Institutional – the mosque.

Personal -the family and personal failures.

Technological – Internet.

Most of these can be dismissed as “red herrings”.

Anti-Semitism and Islam play little or no role, and are insufficient triggers on their own to foster radicalization and terrorism. Religious institutions, such as mosques are anything but places of radicalization, given the infiltration and surveillance by the police and secret services.

Families are often the last to find out about the radicalization of one of their members, as evidenced by the media interviews with the families of the 7/7 bombers. In my interviews with Islamists, personal failure has never been the trigger for radicalization, it has always been a combination of reasons coming together.

This leaves two options – politics and the Internet. As evidenced by the many martyrdom videos and interviews with perpetrators clearly stating that the oppression and suffering of Muslims is a central motivation for their actions and politics. The Internet, has made the world a smaller place in terms of political awareness, human rights and mobilization, thus it can act as facilitator for radicalization and violence.

Strange motive

Perhaps that strangest motive for the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev that Panorama provided was his possession of “white supremacist literature”. It may have come as somewhat of a surprise for many Muslims. The surprise being – why is a Muslim “extremist” reading literature from groups that “hate” him?

One has to remember that Anders Breivik and the English Defense League (EDL) also have knowledge of Islamist ideas. Therefore, it is was no surprise to me that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was reading far-right literature, which regarded Adolf Hitler as a “hero”. Gaining knowledge about the “dark side” of the enemy’s history is important in shaping and adding to the knowledge base of any extremist group or individual.

For a layman, all the aforementioned explanations, apart from “white supremacist ideas” are all feasible in explaining why and how one may become radicalized. Not because these are true, but due to them having popular currency among many media and political platforms, within and beyond Europe.

What is radicalization?

In reality, there is no such thing as the “radicalization” process that the media, right-wing think tanks and politicians keep referring to when describing how individuals acquire “extremist” ideas.

Serious academics such as Sageman (2010) and Sedgwick (2010), as well Gethen-Mazer and Lambert have all raised concerns about what radicalization means, what it is and how it is operationalized in various policy platforms. Sageman and Sedgwick have dropped the term all together.

If Panorama was serious about unravelling how the brothers acquired “extreme” ideas and acted upon them, then the focus should have been on clearly defining the criteria that determines “extreme” ideas held by some Muslims and how it differs from extreme ideas by other groups about Muslims. The program should have looked into the “lone-wolf” phenomenon and the impact of Muslims suffering upon other Muslims.

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