Hot Issue: The Boston Marathon Bombing: Radicalization Process and the Tsarnaev Brothers

Tsarnaev Brothers

To gain a perspective on so-called “home grown” jihadist terrorism, two models are especially enlightening. The first is the report by the New York City Police Department (NYPD): “Radicalization In The West: The Home Grown Threat.” [1] The other model is prescriptive and can be found in the writings of al-Qaeda authors. [2] 

The NYPD study is useful because it is clear, readily available and approaches its topic from a practical, law-enforcement perspective. According to the NYPD report, the jihadist radicalization process may be divided into four stages: Pre-radicalization, Self-identification, Indoctrination, and Jihadization. The report emphasizes that U.S. Muslim communities are not the problem and states that “the Muslim community in New York City is our ally and has as much to lose, if not more, than other New Yorkers if individuals commit acts of violence (falsely) in the name of their religion.” 

The NYPD Model 

Stage 1. Pre-radicalization is the state in which an “unremarkable” person finds himself (or herself) before radicalization occurs. Such a person is likely not particularly religious; has not received formal Islamic training or has recently converted to Islam; is a male under 35 years of age with little or no criminal background; and is a second or third generation immigrant. The most likely candidates tend to be middle class, educated, upwardly mobile and adept at using computer technology. This description also fits the vast numbers of young Muslims who become successful members of society. Such an “unremarkable person” would not be thought of as a likely radical by his family or friends and is not a focus of law enforcement. 

Stage 2. In Self-identification, unremarkable individuals experience a personal change and begin to move away from a former identity toward a new identity in conservative Salafist Islam. Factors, either singly or in combination, that may trigger the self-identification stage include: economic setbacks, a perceived obstacle to economic or professional advancement, some form of social or racial humiliation, perceptions that Western military is at war with Islam, or some personal tragedy like the loss of a family member. Young men who seek Islam on the Internet will find many instances of Salafist Islam and jihadism. They may also join a Salafist oriented mosque or society. Generally, a “spiritual sanctioner” or mentor may enter the self-identified individual’s world at this point. 

But one should pause to ask, why Salafism over other versions of Islam? Perhaps the answer is that it promises a distinct new identity for someone in search of one and has sold itself fairly effectively as the authentic version of Islam. It also offers answers to all life’s questions and leaves little room for doubt. Violent Salafi-Jihadism, on the other hand, appeals to a subset of seekers because it calls for action. (It also has layers that can appeal to intellectuals.) It plays up the romance of the warrior—jihadists defeated the Soviet Union and can now defeat the greatest enemy, America. Salafi-Jihadism also offers revenge for the humiliated and heroic risk for the romantic. And most of all, it offers validation among the secret few that the seeker has come to admire. 

Stage 3. Indoctrination convinces some individuals to accept the violent Salafi-jihadist ideology associated with al-Qaeda or related jihadist groups. They are encouraged by spiritual sanctioners (who do not provide operational advice) to consider making their convictions the basis of action. At this stage, the radicalizing individual may withdraw from the mosque or confront its leadership if the leaders are perceived to be too moderate or the mosque subject to police surveillance. 

Stage 4. Jihadization moves the individual from a theoretically committed Salafi-jihadist to a politically committed jihadist. Fully indoctrinated in the ideology made famous by al-Qaeda, the individual is ready to act violently on his or her convictions. The NYPD report emphasizes that individuals may stop at any stage in the process or go through the entire process but never commit a terrorist act. The general pattern is known but the outcome is impossible to predict with confidence for any individual. 

The al-Qaeda Perspective 

In general, like the NYPD, al-Qaeda considers Salafi-Jihadism to be its ideology. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia became merely a local jihadist target. Al-Qaeda opposes nationalism, whether it is Chechen nationalism or any other form; the goal of jihad is the universal caliphate. Overwhelming the United States with asymmetrical conflict is the path to that goal. 

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told the FBI that he and his brothers learned to make bombs in al-Qaeda’s English language Inspire magazine. [3] The first issue of Inspire (Summer 2010) contains the article, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which gives clear instructions with illustrations of several alternative methods of constructing an effective bomb similar to the bombs used in Boston by using powder from fireworks and a pressure cooker. It does not give instructions for sophisticated remote control detonation; however, the eighth issue of Inspire contains instructions for making a remote detonation device. 

Inspire also offered many other articles that likely influenced the Tsarnaev brothers.  For example, the magazine presents a series of nine articles by the al-Qaeda strategist of jihad, Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, which are translated excerpts from his major work. [4] From the first issue (summer 2010) Inspire serves up al-Suri’s ideas in small, repetitive doses that even a relatively ignorant reader could absorb. Even if the Tsarnaev brothers skimmed over al-Suri’s articles, however, the major ideas they describe are what al-Qaeda operatives anywhere could have told anyone like the Tsarnaevs because it is part of al-Qaeda doctrine. In the first issue of Inspire, al-Suri gives a brief summary of the results of the three historical “schools of jihad.” Al-Suri explains that the first school of secret, hierarchical terrorist organizations before al-Qaeda that tried to overthrow local autocratic regimes in the Middle East was a complete failure. The author explains that the second school of “open fronts and overt confrontation,” such as those in “Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya,” were militarily successful according to every objective measure but they were unable to achieve their ultimate political goal of establishing permanent Islamic emirates. Finally, in the face of overwhelming power of the United States, the one school of jihad that has proven successful albeit on a limited scale is what al-Suri calls “the school of individual jihad and small cell terrorism”—the home grown threat in the title of the NYPD report. 

In his second article, al-Suri delivers heaping praise on the “exceptional” Chechen fighters and the “military miracles” they achieved that stunned the world. The author writes that the “imbalance of power [with Russia] did not stand as an obstacle for them or for their victories.” But since 9/11, “America has employed her stunning technological superiority, and used it for her strategy of decisive air strikes and complete control over space and the electronic world.” Al-Suri ends by arguing that young Muslim men need to forget the false nationalism of this age and fight for the universal community of Muslims. The author concludes that the only alternative is the “school of individual jihad and small cells”—the subject of the third article in which al-Suri makes a distinction between “blameworthy terrorism” and “praiseworthy terrorism.” Jihadist individual and small cell terrorists are praiseworthy because they are defending the oppressed. For the fledgling terrorist, al-Suri asserts, “We should advise him to pursue his everyday life in a natural way, and to pursue jihad and Resistance in secrecy and alone, or with a small cell of trustworthy people…” In the following issues of Inspire, excerpts from al-Suri’s book are translated to prove that a small unit without any ties to a larger organization could be a vital part of the global Islamic resistance by following conclusions drawn from “the books of the greatest theoreticians in military art, for example, Mao Tse-Tung, Guevara, Giap, and Castro…” Attacking in the heart of America was a priority and al-Suri’s ninth article advises “targeting human crowds in order to inflict maximum human losses.” 


By looking at both the al-Qaeda strategy from the limited perspective of the Inspire magazine and the NYPD report on radicalization, one may draw conclusions about the Tsarnaev brothers and potential follow-on threats, which would be difficult to discern from looking at either one alone. The NYPD report is a compelling after-the-crime analysis that gives us a profile of the homegrown jihadist radicalization process but without any way to connect that process to wider al-Qaeda strategy and intentions. Inspire magazine provides that link. Reportedly, the Tsarnaev brothers took the magazine seriously, which compels us to take it seriously as well. 

Various sections of the magazine may be seen as appealing to different stages of the radicalization process with historical and religious articles intended to move the discontented, religiously unschooled young immigrant from an interest in Salafism as a new identity to Salafi-Jihadism as a heroic cause. The magazine also provides articles on current events, which claim the United States is the paramount threat to Islam and oppressor of Muslim communities and, therefore, action against this great oppressor is a jihadist duty. Finally, Inspire provides the link to the stage of Jihadization by what it calls “open source jihad” by providing instructions in the craft of terror and a strategic context in which to operate. This strategic context calls for the young jihadists to stay where they are, act normally, and most of all, to avoid forming or joining a clandestine organizations, which are always vulnerable to police. Instead, they should act alone or with one or two close associates to avoid placing other cells in jeopardy. Furthermore, they should use simple tools, such as a knife, an iron bar, a gun or a bomb against any Americans to make the society overreact, reveal themselves as enemies to Islam, and thereby to inspire other young Muslims to follow their example. 

We should expect the international jihadist movement to encourage others like the Tsarnaev brothers; we should not expect to find a wider organization to which the Tsarnaev brothers belong. If the NYPD and other experts are correct, we should expect to find “spiritual sanctioners” of these brothers (and others like them), who encourage in a general sense, but may have no operational or clear criminal role. Furthermore, although police will not be able to predict which young men are quietly in crisis and are prone to become jihadi terrorists, they can certainly work with American Muslim communities, which oppose al-Qaeda as much or more than other Americans, and many of which have anti-radicalization programs. 


1. Arvin Bhatt, Mitch Silber, and others, "Radicalization In The West: The Home Grown Threat," The New York Police Department website, 2007.

2. For a detailed analysis of al-Qaeda’s strategic authors see: Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

3. For virus free copies of all Inspire magazine issues, see Aaron Zelin’s magnificent jihadist document clearinghouse, Zelin also provides a copy of the newest English language jihadist magazine, Azan, which also features a translation from al-Suri.

4. Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, Da‘wah al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (The call to global Islamic resistance), Parts 1–2. (N.p.: December 2004). Al-Suri finished this book in 2004; Pakistani authorities arrested him in 2005.

Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan is an independent consultant and researcher on Middle Eastern security issues and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.