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The Ideology Behind the Boston Marathon Bombing

Undated photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The jihad of the brothers Tsarnaev, perpetrators of the Boston Marathon massacre, came to an abrupt end on Friday, April 19, 2013. Tamerlan was sent to check the veracity of the Islamic teachings about houris by his own younger sibling and partner in holy war, Dzhokhar, who reportedly ran down his his historically-named brother with a stolen SUV during a gunfight with law enforcement officials. The younger Tsarnaev was captured later and is currently in a Boston hospital fending off his own appointment with the houris. The media and other entities have begun scratching their empty talking heads and speculating as to the possible motives for the Tsarnaevs’ brief but bloody reign of terror (four dead; almost 200 wounded), as indicated by the 1.45 million hits on Google [as of Sunday, April 21, 2013] for the topic “Tsarnaevs, motive.” Islam, in some form or fashion, is undoubtedly the answer -- but don’t expect anyone in the popular media (except for Bill Maher) to admit it, much less analyze it.

Much of the world, including the twittering class, woke up to the relevance -- if not existence -- of Chechnya this past week. (The Tsarnaev brothers’ parents were Chechen, but Dzokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan and Tamerlan in Russia proper; both had also lived in Dagestan.) Still a part of Russia, despite violent efforts at independence, this small region is home to about 1.3 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, and is located between the Black and Caspian Seas. Islamic militancy has been part of this Caucasus Muslim culture for at least two centuries, until recently mostly in the guise of the various Sufi jihads waged against their Orthodox Christian (or Marxist) Russian overlords -- exemplified by that of Imam Shamil (d. 1859).  (The Sufis are the mystics of Islam, usually peaceful but never pacifist.) Throughout the twentieth century the Sufis in Chechnya, Dagestan and environs -- predominantly two orders known as the Naqshbandis and Qadiris -- increasingly eschewed jihad and, in recent decades, their Islamic militancy mantle has been taken on by Muslims (both indigenous Chechen and foreigners, such as Arabs) of the more Wahhabi/Salafi tendency (who have even killed Sufi leaders there).  Salafis are Sunnis who believe in emulating the salaf, “pious ancestors” of Muhammad’s time -- think Primitive Baptists, but wielding swords.  Wahhabis are a specifically Saudi Arabian type of Salafi, intellectual heirs of the Sunni fundamentalist Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) who had resurrected and repopularized the strict Sunni teachings of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) which, inter alia, included a dislike of Sufis (for their love of saint veneration, seen as shirk, “idolatry”) and the duty to fight jihad against any rulers deemed insufficiently Islamic as well as, a fortiori, non-Muslims. 

This was the Chechen Islamic context which incubated both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev before they came to the U.S. as young men and, after over a decade here, seemingly assimilated.  However, Internet sleuthing by various outlets indicates that the elder Tsarnaev, at least, was being pulled back into strict Islamic norms: he was a purveyor of the online sermons of one Feiz Mohammed, whose views were so Islamically “extremist” they might have made Ibn Taymiyya blanch; he may, as well, have become enamored with the ideas of a Pan-Islamic Caucaus Emirate and may have received training from jihadists of that self-styled polity; finally, perhap most tellingly, Tamerlan was influenced by Islamic eschatological teachings about the coming of the Mahdi. 

The video that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had linked on his social media sites has been described (by “Mother Jones,” among others) as an “Al Qaeda prophecy” -- but that observation, while perhaps necessary, is woefully insufficient. The idea of forces bearing  “black banners” coming from the eastern part of the Islamic world into the Middle East proper (and further West) to conquer fi sabil Allah, “in the path of Allah,” is almost as old as Islam itself -- enshrined in a number of hadiths, “sayings” attributed to Islam’s founder Muhammad. There are literally thousands of hadiths, in both Sunni and Shi`i collections, second in Islamic doctrinal authority only to the Qur’an itself, dealing with topics ranging from the mundane (how to bathe like Muhammad) to the bizarre (drinking camel urine is recommended). Much of Islamic eschatology -- theorizing about the end of the world -- derives from these alleged sayings of Muhammad; in particular those dealing with al-Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one” sent by Allah to make the entire world Muslim (with help from the returned prophet `Isa, or Jesus) before the end of time by militarily establishing a global caliphate. (I examine these subjects in my book Holiest Wars, pp. 11ff, as well as, with even more detail, in my doctoral dissertation “Eschatology as Politics, Eschatology as Theory: Modern Sunni Arabi Mahdism in Historical Perspective,” Ohio State University, 2001, pp. 68ff.)

The video which Tamerlan Tsarnaev favored specifically draws upon this tradition -- which, again, is not particular to al-Qaeda [AQ] but, rather, is part of the entire Sunni world’s patrimony. (The Twelver Shi`is, while believing even more fervently in the Mahdi, have different hadiths and beliefs about him -- most notably, that he has already been here as the 12th Imam descended from Muhammad, disappeared but never died in the 9th c. AD, and will return, perhaps soon).   

This video -- almost the entirety of which is backgrounded with a soundtrack of Arabic Muslim chanting -- is entitled “The Emergence of Prophecy: Black Flags from Khorasan” and opens, unsurprisingly, with the flag (or banner) in question: a jet-black one emblazoned in white with the shahada, the Islamic “profession of faith” which says “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” This is followed by slow-motion clips of marching jihadists with AK-47s as the voice over by Imran Hosein Nasr -- a prominent cleric who opines often on Islamic eschatology and Mahdism -- warns  that “they demonize as a terrorist anyone who supports Allah.” A disclaimer then appears, cautioning that “the Muslims pictured herein may not be the people of prophecy” but rather images (or, presumably, types) thereof as well as that some of the sourced hadiths are authentic, but some are weak. (Hadiths are classified, by Muslim scholars, as:  sahih, “verified;” hasan, “sound” but not certain; and da`if, “weak,” and quite possibly fabricated.) A hadith from Abu Huraira that “great wars will occur” is illustrated with shots of what appear to be U.S. airstrikes on Iraq. Ibn Majah’s hadith that “Allah will raise a non-Arab army with better weapons who are better riders” is then adduced, followed by a gloss that these will conquer “Constantinople.” Since a great non-Arab Muslim army already conquered that city in 1453 -- the Ottoman Turks -- one is hard pressed to see how this “prophecy” is still to be fulfilled. Then a hadith from Muslim b. al-Hajjaj is cited: “some will come from the east who will make the caliphate ... easy for Imam Mahdi,” as well as one from Ibn Hanbal advising that “if you see black banners from Khurasan, go to them because the Mahdi will be among them.”  This is followed by several minutes explicating, with maps, Khurasan as an area encompassing eastern Iran, western and northern Afghanistan, as well as portions of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, most notably for the Tsarnaevs, Kyrgyzstan (but not, at least, Secretary of State Kerry’s “Kyrzakhstan”).  

There is also a fascinating exegesis of another hadith from al-Hajjaj that “the last hour will not come until 70,000 from Bani Ishaq will attack and conquer Constantinople,” after which al-Dajjal -- the Islamic “Deceiver,” or leader of evil, who will be killed by Jesus -- will emerge: these “sons of Isaac” are said to be Jews who had relocated to Khurasan at some point, and proof for this is provided via the “Jewish scholar” Simcha Jacobovici, former host of the TV show “The Naked Archaeologist.”  (Why an Islamic eschatological film would attempt to include Jews -- usually depicted in such venues as, at best, nefarious -- in the Mahdi’s army is curious.  Perhaps the intent is more to stress Islam’s link to the Hebrew Scriptures, and thus attract Christians? Or could it be a way of ameliorating Islamic anti-Jewish tendencies?)

In perhaps the same vein, al-Hajjaj is cited to the effect that Jesus will join the Mahdi’s ranks. This is illustrated with a (pirated?) clip from the movie “The Passion of the Christ” -- namely, the scene where Jesus saves the woman caught in adultery, a rather counterintuitive choice. Following Jesus (or at least his sandal, which is all we see), clips resume of marching jihadists brandishing weapons and carrying the black flag. Then a hadith from al-Tirmidhi is proffered, to the effect that these black banners will, eventually, reach Jerusalem; curiously, however, the Dome of the Rock rather than al-Aqsa mosque is shown. This is immediately followed by the hoary video, from shortly after 9/11, of AQ jihadists running an obstacle course in their Converse, embellished with more Imran Hosein Nasr voice-over, asserting that “no one can stop that jihad. When you see that army coming from Khurasan, [like] the Prophet said, go and join that army -- even if you have to crawl over ice.” Then a smorgasboard of jihadist eschatological imagery follows: Taliban or Uzbek tribesmen on horses; black banners; jihadists praying with weapons shouldered. As the video winds down, an unidentified, black-clad, bearded Muslim -- likely intended as a Mahdist figure -- intones “the flags from Khurasan are on their way. Allah will honor his religion and demean the disbelievers. History is repeating itself, as with Muhammad conquering [pagan] Mecca. The polytheists hate it.” (Polytheists, in this Islamic worldview, include Christians -- for the Trinity is mischaracterized as three deities.) The very final screen shot informs the viewer that the “real undercover enemies” are the Illuminati, the Freemasons and the New World Order.

How did the Tsarnaevs move from Mahdist videos to maiming and murdering in Massachusetts? A number of analysts and commentators have opined about the Tsarnaevs’ “self-radicalizing.” However, self-radicalization” is a fatuous concept. First, what does “radical” mean in this context? I would submit that it means to accept, internalize and, ultimately, act upon the belief that violence in the name of Islam is not only justified but mandated. This is not a “radical” concept in Islam, because the Qur’an itself clearly spells this out (Sura al-Tawbah [IX]:5; Sura Muhammad [XLVII]:3; Sura al-Baqarah [II]:191ff; etc.),  Muhammad lived it, many hadiths reinforce it, and Islamic history is rife with jihad and conquest (Muhammad himself; the first four caliphs; the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Almohads, Almoravids, Ottomans, Safavids, etc.). More than any other world religion Islam lionizes violence, even in the modern world -- a major reason why 31 of 51 transnational terrorist groups are Islamic.  Indeed, it’s probably more accurate to call Muslims who eschew violence “radical,” since the ones who engage in it are, in a very real sense, simply fulfilling the Qur’anic rubrics literally. Thus, no Muslim terrorist “radicalizes” himself but, rather -- as we see with Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- is more prone to engaging in terrorism and violence as he (or, less frequently, she) becomes more observant of traditional (in particular, Sunni) Islam and then falls under the influence of Internet teachers like Feiz Muhammad or Anwar al-Awlaki or their ilk, who encourage such pious young men to wage jihad fi sabil Allah. But make no mistake: if the religion were as peaceful and opposed to violence as apologists and (most) analysts allege, then no amount of YouTube sermons or editions of AQ’s “Inspire” magazine would have any effect, and would instead fall on deaf ears. And note: the Arabic name of this magazine is actually al-Malahim, which means not “inspire” but, rather, “slaughters, massacres, epic struggles” -- something one never hears explained on CNN or even FNC, much less by government analysts. And what struggle is more epic than an eschatological one?

The Tsarnaev jihad, at least at this stage, shows yet again that it is no longer necessary to be formally attached to a terrorist organization in order to engage in Islamic-based terror. Formerly solo jihadists were likely to be identified as exhibiting “Sudden Jihad Syndrome” or as being “lone wolves.” Now the neologism “stray dogs” is being applied to them. The first term at least has the virtue of not denying the Islamic element in attacks by Muslims who say they are engaged in, well, jihad. But no one suddenly decides to ascribe to Islamic holy warfare and wage it -- only a fairly long process of indoctrination can bring a person to that point. A lone wolf is a terrorist who takes up his bloody trade sans formal support from any larger group.  Pending further research into alleged Caucasus Emirate training received by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he and his brother would seem to fit into this category, as the Romulus and Remus of Islamic terrorism, along with Faisal Shahzahd (the abortive Times Square bomber) and Major Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter). The classification of stray dog, however, posits “men for whom Islam as a religion is less important than the search for adventure and a desire to be part of a historic `epic struggle’” -- striking me as yet another attempt by analysts to remove Islamic ideology from the calculation, for apologetic and emotional rather than rational reasons. And, as mentioned above, what struggle is more epic than the eschatological one in which Islam will, according to hadiths, eventually take over the world? 

The Brothers Tsarnaev fit neatly into neither the “domestic” nor the “international” terrorism category -- which, again, seems to confound most analysts. Each had been in the U.S. for at least a decade and the younger brother was even a naturalized U.S. citizen. Thus both were profoundly, domestically American -- but Tamerlan, as explained earlier, tapped back into transnational Islamic influences and seems to have dragged Dzhokhar down with him into the jihadist vortex.   Plus, contra ignorant and malicious Salon writers, the Tsarnaevs were “white;” in fact, the quintessential “white” people, if “Causcasian” origin is still accepted as the paradigm for all folks of Euro-American heritage (as is the case on many government forms).  This example of “white Muslim” terrorism should, if nothing else, disabuse the American left of the nonsensical notion that Islam is a (usually dark-skinned) race, and that any criticism of Islam or Islamic practices is tantamount to racism.

As I’ve been saying on my website (and on radio, and in articles, and even occasionally on TV) since the turn of the century, Mahdism needs to be studied seriously as a motivator for violence and terrorism in the modern Islamic world. In a long article on HNN (August 2012), I examined belief in the Mahdi by mining new Pew research data on that topic, which indicated that some 42 percent of the world’s Muslims expected the coming of the Mahdi in their current lifetimes. Relooking at the same study, the figure for Muslims from Central Asia is 31 percent, an average of: Turkey, 68 percent (although Turkey is not, strictly speaking, in Central Asia); Azerbaijan, 41 percent ; Tajikistan, 39 percent; Uzbekistan, 22 percent; Kyrgyzstan, 17 percent; and Kazakhstan, 13 percent).  Unfortunately, no polling was done in Chechnya or Daghestan, but nonetheless it is clear that the many millions of people in “greater Khurasan” do expect the imminent coming of the main Islamic eschatological actor.

Unlike the legions of Muslims who believe in the Mahdi but are content to wait passively and piously for his arrival (if they’re Sunni) or return (if they’re Twelver Shi`i), but like AQ and some other Sunni groups, the brothers Tsarnaev fused jihadist and Mahdist thought in an attempt to “hotwire the apocalypse.”  They may even have seen themselves as “greater Khurasanis” whose Allah-ordained task was one of constituting the vanguard of the Mahdi’s black banners from that region -- a role which would allow them to engage in an epic struggle as predatory conquerors. But viewing them from outside, analytically, as lone wolves may give them too much credit; while classifying them as stray dogs neutered of religious ideology gives the Islamic element too little.  Perhaps a new paradigm, one of roaming hyenas, best describes the Tsarnaevs -- characterized by anomie (fitting into neither domestic nor foreign contexts), the ability to feign surrender when necessary, and a propensity for attacking only the defenseless. The Mahdi might employ the likes of the Tsarnaevs -- but one suspects that Islamic rulers such as the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din (d. 1193), the Mughal Emperor Akbar (d. 1605) or the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (d. 1861) would have had little patience for such animals—and neither should we.

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On Topic: Boston Marathon Bombing

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