The Tsarnaev Trial and the Blind Spots in “Countering Violent Extremism”

On April 19, 2013, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lay bleeding from gunshot wounds in a suburban Boston backyard, he scrawled a note that contained the following message: “The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that….I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [unintelligible] it […]

On April 19, 2013, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lay bleeding from gunshot wounds in a suburban Boston backyard, he scrawled a note that contained the following message:

“The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that….I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [unintelligible] it is allowed…Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.”

This message mirrored comments Tsarnaev would later give to investigators, in which he cited grievances over American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as his motivation for the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon.

In his trial, which begins today, more details are expected to emerge about how he went from a popular college student to an alleged homegrown terrorist.

Widely described as a “self-radicalized” terrorist, Tsarnaev now serves as a prime example of the type of individual targeted by Countering Violent Extremist (CVE) programs. Yet in fact,  Tsarnaev’s life trajectory leading up to the bombing does not resemble the “path to radicalization” identified in CVE frameworks — raising questions about the capacity of these programs to intervene effectively to preempt terrorism.

“Typical signatures” in the path toward terrorism frequently invoked in CVE models include those featured in a 2007 NYPD study: giving up recreational drug use, wearing traditional Islamic clothing and associating primarily with like-minded individuals motivated by Salafi Islam. Tsarnaev is not reported to have exhibited any of those traits (though of course most who do will not themselves end up becoming terrorists).

CVE models do not usually even discuss political grievances, such as those Tsarnaev repeatedly cited as a motive for his acts.

In response to what it characterized as a growing threat of homegrown extremism, the Department of Justice last September announced the launch of a national pilot program on CVE in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The White House recently held a major summit on radicalization.

Documents recently published by The Intercept show that while the government tends to focus on social and economic problems officials believe contribute to extremism, it does not address the political motivations most often cited by terrorists themselves. 

“Government agencies are using models of radicalization which don’t reflect reality,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center’s National Security Program. “These models are not designed to actually identify the problem, they’re designed to suppress the questioning of political motives when discussing violence.”

Media coverage of the bombing has also tended to gloss over the implications of Tsarnaev’s political motivations. A controversial 2013 Rolling Stone cover story, “Jahar’s World,” focused overwhelmingly on building a social and psychological profile of Tsarnaev but made only passing reference to the political context of his actions. 

A separate article published in Rolling Stone on May 6, 2013 was cited in an “Official Use Only” bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Office as highlighting some of the problems with the concept of radicalization as presently understood.

“The [Rolling Stone article] cited ‘preventive policing’ as an ineffective tool to stop an attack and allows for law enforcement monitoring of ‘radicalization incubators,’” read the bulletin, a copy of which was obtained by The Intercept. “The cornerstone of a proper CVE program is to rely on the community and its leaders to assist law enforcement in identifying extremist behaviors and subjects prior to an attack.”

However, the line between community partnerships and surveillance is often blurred, leading many members of Muslim communities to be wary of law enforcement authorities. 

A prominent local Muslim leader who attended the same mosque as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the now-deceased brother of Dzhokhar, told The Intercept that it was a common belief in the community that mosques in the area were subject to surveillance, and that prior to the bombing a fellow attendee at the mosque had been revealed to be a longtime undercover informant. “I’ve had a number of experiences where I have suspected someone [of being an informant] — it’s always in your mind when talking with someone at the mosque that they could have been sent to conduct infiltration there.”

On multiple occasions, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was known to have been ejected from the Boston-area mosque for making provocative comments objecting to the commemoration of American holidays.

Experts on the issues of terrorism and radicalization have suggested that these efforts at indiscriminately surveilling Muslim communities have been counterproductive to the effort of swaying individuals from the path of extremism.

“American Muslims today rightly fear law enforcement infiltration and scrutiny of their innocuous conversations about religion, foreign affairs and current events. One reason the First Amendment protects conversations like these is so that people can explore different views and debate appropriate responses to government policies,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “This is exactly why mass and suspicionless surveillance of American Muslims is so counterproductive — it engenders a climate of fear that chills public discourse and prevents the kinds of constructive conversations and debates people need and want to have.”

Among ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims, religious figures have often expressed fear about broaching topics of conflict and radical politics even when feeling pressure to engage on these issues by their followers. In 2011, Abu Eesa Niamatullah and Yasir Qadhi, two influential Salafis, shelved a potential course discussing the fiqh (jurisprudence) of warfare in Islam in response to repeated questions posed to them by students of their religious institute. Explaining the decision at the time, Niamatullah said, “Picture two bearded guys talking about the fiqh of jihad. We would be dead. We would be absolutely finished.”

A critical 2012 assessment of U.S. CVE approaches by the Foreign Policy Research Institute suggested the need to provide meaningful outlets of expression for individuals with radical political grievances, and recommended the facilitation of “positive, alternative outlets for their activism” that might discourage them from seeking to express dissent through violence. 

The study also implicitly concedes the role that foreign policy plays in driving domestic radicalism, suggesting that dissuading many individuals from extremism will remain difficult “given the intractable nature of larger political problems that drive some forms of terrorism.”

Photo: Jane Flavell Collins/AP

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