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Mining Online History for What May Have Radicalized, Informed Tsarnaev Brothers

April 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In Boston, a memorial service honored a police officer killed during the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers, while new information was released about the bombing suspects. Judy Woodruff talks with Jerrold M. Post of the George Washington University and Jessica Stern of Harvard University about how people turn to radical violence.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Federal investigators pieced together more of the Boston bombings puzzle today, as one of the victims, a policeman, was honored. The service featured a mass turnout by other police officers.

Police officers by the hundreds lined up in the late morning sun to pay respects to Sean Collier, the MIT officer shot and killed last Thursday night, allegedly by the bombers. The college canceled classes for the day, as thousands turned out to memorialize the 26-year-old Collier.

ROBERT RANDOLPH, Chaplain to the Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: We do not understand why Sean Collier was taken away from his family, his brothers and sisters in law enforcement, his friends on this campus. And we shout into the darkness. Even if no one hears, we say thank you for Sean, for his gifts, compassion, his energy, his sense of right and wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The singer/songwriter James Taylor played an interlude, and later came Vice President Biden.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’ve known the Colliers my whole life, and today’s the first time I met them. I grew up in the same neighborhood. I was telling them that — like a lot you have a badge, shield pined on.

You went out in my neighborhood, when I moved to Claymont, you either became a firefighter, a cop, a priest, or you joined the trades. I wasn’t capable of doing any of them, so I ended up where I am. But I know you. I know you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Biden also spoke of the terrorist threat that gripped Boston last week.

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Whether it’s al-Qaida central out of the FATA or two twisted, perverted, cowardly knockoff jihadis here in Boston, why do they do what they do?

They do it to instill fear, to have us, in the name of our safety and security, jettison what we value most and the world most values about us: our open society, our system of justice that guarantees freedom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the scene of the Boston Marathon attack, Boylston Street, reopened to the public.

And in the investigation, the Associated Press quoted unnamed U.S. officials who said the bombs were triggered by rudimentary remote controls. Some of the gunpowder in the devices may have come from this store in New Hampshire, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev bought $400 dollars worth of fireworks in February.

WOMAN: He just wanted the biggest, loudest stuff that we have in the store, pretty much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The surviving Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar, has reportedly told investigators that the brothers learned to make the pressure cooker bombs from an online magazine called Inspire. It’s published by al-Qaida’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula and includes a section called “Open Source Jihad” that explains bomb-making techniques.

The ideology that apparently sparked the attack remained on display on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page, links to videos from, among others, an Islamist fighter in the North Caucasus.

This afternoon, The Washington Post reported that the CIA asked to place Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name on a watch list more than a year before the attacks. It wasn’t immediately clear when his name was added to the list. But The Post said it happened after the FBI closed its initial inquiry.

For more on what may have turned two young men into violent terrorists, I’m joined now by Dr. Jerrold Post, who had a 21-year career at the CIA, where he founded the Center for Analysis of Personal and Political Behavior. He’s now a professor of psychiatry, political psychiatry and international affairs at George Washington University. And Jessica Stern, who is a lecturer at Harvard and former National Security Council staffer who’s interviewed dozens of terrorists to try to understand what motivates them.

Welcome to you both.

Dr. Post, to you first.

How does radicalization like what we have seen here happen? How does a young man living in the United States go from reading material to acting in a violent way trying to kill people?

DR. JERROLD POST, The George Washington University: The phenomenon of radicalization online is really quite alarming.

It’s been estimated that there’s some 4,800 radical Islamist websites. And I am struck that young men and women who are isolated, not feeling they belong, this way, can belong to a virtual community of hatred. Anwar al-Awlaki, who was known as the bin Laden of the Internet, was very adroit at manipulating individuals who were no longer lonely, but now belonged.

The issue of moving to violence is not so well understood. That often seems to be happenstance and often precipitated by the death of a friend, the loss of a loved one, the blowing up of a family home. And the issue of radicalization, though, this is a systematic process and quite alarming and a major counterterrorism challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Stern, what do you see in your research that turns — that causes these young men to turn the corner to something violent?

JESSICA STERN, Harvard University: Well, I think it’s often about confused identity.

And some young people seem to have a lot of trouble withstanding that confused identity. And they find a way to identify with people who feel oppressed. That narrative of oppression is often appealing to young people for whom something, as Dr. Post said, has gone wrong.

With Faisal Shahzad, he started having tax problems. He became more religious. He started going to Pakistan. But he until that change was described as a fairly nice person. This is — it’s not a unique thing. We have seen this before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to be clear, you’re referring to one of the terrorists who tried to …

JESSICA STERN: The Times Square bomber. I’m sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right. I just wanted to be clear.

JESSICA STERN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Post, you talked about feeling isolated, not feeling as if they belong. But they had to have read or seen something before that fueled the change. Is that right?

JERROLD POST: Oh, absolutely.

And it’s quite striking. Jessica and my colleague Gabi Weimann, who wrote a book, “Terror on the Internet,” talks about, especially for the youthful generation, in fact they are often consolidating their identity online. And the — I have analyzed the themes in these online sites.

And there are three, and this coincides with what Jessica said earlier. First, we are the victims. Secondly, they, the West, and especially United States and Great Britain, but also Israel, are the victimizers, and therefore defensive jihad is justified and required against those who are doing this to us.

And that’s a powerful message. And you have people who have — the brothers were characterized as losers by their uncle, who are not doing so well in their lives, and that he had given — had lost his dream to be an Olympic boxer, that his parents had left and were back in Dagestan. All of these together may have helped move him into this sphere where — from passivity and helplessness to activity to aggression.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, some of this has to be speculation at this point, because we don’t have the whole story yet.

Jessica Stern, tell us about what kind of information is available online. We have heard about this one website, Inspire. But as you said — both of you have said, there are thousands more. What do they say? And are they all in English?

JESSICA STERN: Yes, there are a lot that are available in English. And, in fact, there are a number of scholars who communicate directly with jihadis online.

It’s quite remarkable, what’s going on now, the kind of back-and-forth. But it’s not just jihadi ideology and how-to manuals that are available online. There are also “The Anarchist Cookbook.” Paladin Press had a book called “Hit Man” that resulted in a lawsuit because someone followed the directions and actually committed murder.

It’s available online. I was curious, and I looked last night. It’s right there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the — staying with you, Jessica Stern, just a moment, what about the ideological or the religious, Islamist strain of this? I mean, for example, are there passages from the Koran? Or is it extreme language that veers off in another direction?

JESSICA STERN: Well, what we have found is that it’s often people who are most ignorant about Islam who can pick and choose passages, actually, from any religion that would seem to support a holy war.

And right now there’s a canned ideology, a jihadi ideology that seems to be very appealing to the kind of alienated and lonely and lost young men that Jerry Post is talking about, that canned jihadi ideology right there. Some of them are converts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sorry. What did you say there at the end?

JESSICA STERN: I said of the — about 35 percent of those who actually have tried to carry out jihadi attacks, most of them failing, of course, have been converts to Islam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Post, is enough beginning to be known about this process that more could be done by authorities, by experts like you, like Ms. Stern to identify people who are — may be susceptible to doing something?

JERROLD POST: Well, this is a real dilemma.

And what we mustn’t do is undermine the very foundations of our liberal democracy in coping with this problem, because we have individuals. We can’t be monitoring everyone’s e-mail. The way Major Hasan, my psychiatric colleague at Fort Hood, was found was by monitoring the e-mails of al-Awlaki.

But it’s a very difficult process. And if someone is himself exploring, feeling a sense of fervor, meaning, of aggression, it’s quite a daunting challenge. But we mustn’t give up our civil liberties in pursuing that challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, final question to you, Jessica Stern.

It seems to me just a few years ago, we were hearing that there was more homegrown radicalization going on in Europe, in Great Britain, because perhaps young people were not feeling as assimilated there as they were here in the United States. That’s changed?

JESSICA STERN: Well, it does seem to be changed.

For the most part, Muslims in the United States are much better integrated. They’re better educated than the average American. They’re more likely to vote than the average American. But the New York City Police Department predicted after the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, that that kind of radicalization would come to the states in about five years, and I think they were right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that note, we will live it there.

Jessica Stern, Dr. Jerrold Post, we thank you both.

JERROLD POST: Thank you.