Tsarnaev Brothers’ Overt Links to Jihadism Remain Shaky

By Mairbek Vatchagaev

In the aftermath of the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, United States authorities and law enforcement have been scrambling to identify and capture the perpetrators. On Friday, April 19, media reports revealed that ethnic Chechen brothers Tamerlan (26) and Jokhar Tsarnaev (19) were suspected of carrying out the attacks earlier in the week (for a preliminary biographical sketch of the brothers, see https://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-preliminary-profile-of-boston-bombers.html). The brothers were apparently caught in a shootout with police in a suburb outside Boston on Friday morning. Tamerlan died in the armed exchange, while Jokhar has remained at large as of the publication of this article. As more information (much of it contradictory or incorrect) is coming to light about the Tsarnaev brothers and their possible motivation behind the Boston marathon bombings, some experts have alleged that the two young Chechens were tied to extremist jihadi groups.

Were Tamerlan and Jokhar Tsarnaev radical adherents of jihadism? Judging by the information gleaned from open sources, the answer is most probably not. Possibly, the United States security services and the police have special information that cannot be disclosed yet, but at this point nothing points to the Tsarnaev brothers’ jihadi background.

First, their photographs, which have been circulating in the media and on the Internet, point to their integration into the society where they lived (www.echomsk.spb.ru/blogs/EchoSPB/13507.php). The brothers’ outward appearance does not provide much grounds for considering them devotees to any kind of extremist religious movements. Moreover, according to the testimony of an ethnic Chechen from Boston who knew them, they never appeared in the mosque (www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/boston-tsarnaev/1644887.html). It is unlikely that the suspects could hide their political and religious preferences from everyone, including their family, the Chechen diaspora and all those who had contacts with them since 2003.

Further, some experts have seized on the information that the brothers watched Islamist videos on YouTube (https://m.weeklystandard.com/blogs/boston-bomber-posted-video-black-flags-khorasan_718071.html). But a fuller look at the brothers’ publicly accessible YouTube view history hardly prejudges their alleged adherence to radical Islam. In fact, it is hard to find anyone that would not visit an Islamist website at least once in his life. It is also worth noting that the brothers apparently watched a video like that two months ago (www.buzzfeed.com/scott/tamerlan-tsarnaevs-youtube-page-focused-on-islam). It is unclear what may have sparked their interest in these types of videos. One of the videos they had watched, “Allah is the One,” is just a two-and-a-half-minute-long Muslim propagandist video, which recites in English the first sura from the Quran (www.youtube.com/user/TheMercifulServant). The next video recording is titled, “Mikail Sokolov: How I Came to Islam.” This video is 18 minutes long and tells about an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam—to the Shia branch of Islam to be precise. A Sunni would never watch a video about conversion to Shiism. So, the brothers were not very selective about which videos they opted to watch. Two online videos they watched recently depicted musical performance by a Russian performer Vasya Oblomov, who is considered to be in opposition to Russian authorities (www.youtube.com/watch?v=p43MJ6NMLZs). Finally, the fifth video, just dealt with skiing (www.youtube.com/user/MaineSkiFamily).

Moreover, one can find videos on the Internet that appear to show the eldest brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev drinking what appears to be alcohol at a bar. So it is still too early to connect the brothers to jihadist forces until more substantial information comes to light.