The terror attacks in Boston, perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers, have finally come to an end with the capture of the younger brother Dzhoakhar in Watertown on Friday evening. One hopes that Dzhoakhar survives just long enough to tell us whether he was working with any foreign or domestic Islamist groups before he hopefully meets the same fate of his victims. Our nation will certainly be resilient, and we cannot let terrorists achieve their goals of unraveling our society.
Perhaps Boston’s terror may finally be the impetus to begin the long overdue process of retooling America’s current counterterrorism strategies. Since 9-11, except for the Fort Hood massacre, we have been fortunate enough to avoid the kind of devastation and loss of life that we saw this week in Boston. That was certainly not for a lack of trying by our enemies, with over 300 arrests on terrorism charges since 9-11. Of these, over 80 percent were Islamists. I’ve said it before — after 9-11, after Fort Hood, and after Times Square, this is a Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution.
The Tsarnaev brothers prove that the current Homeland Security “whack-a-mole” strategy is severely limited and rather flawed. The United States must address head-on the ideology of political Islam, which is the root cause of Islamist terrorism.
As details emerge about the identity and ideologies of the Tsarnaev brothers, it should quickly become clear that these individuals did not go to sleep one night normal American Muslims and wake up the next day al-Qaeda jihadists putting together pressure-cooker bombs. Their pathway towards radicalization will now be obvious to those who honestly connect the dots in retrospect. Far more important now is that leading reform-minded American Muslims, along with the U.S. government, the media, and academe, begin to confront and dissect the early stages of radicalization (Islamism), not just the last one (violent extremism).
Despite our devotion to our faith, I and other leading anti-Islamist Muslims were vilified by Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups in America, along with their choir on the left, for participating in Representative Peter King’s (R., N.Y.) hearing in Congress on American Muslim radicalization and the central role of Islamism. I believe history will show Chairman King’s hearings to be prescient. I was also vilified by those same groups for my role in narrating the documentary The Third Jihad, which happened to open with an illustrative scene from the terror in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004, when militant Chechnyan Islamists killed 334 civilians, 186 of them children, after a two-week standoff. The 2008 documentary was about the threat of militant Islamism to the West and the need for anti-Islamist Muslims to counter that threat. How many attacks like that suffered by the people of Boston this week must we see before we recognize the need to drill down against the separatism of the global movement of political Islam and their dreams of an Islamic state?
Though these two brothers may have acted like regular American youth to unsuspecting neighbors, participating in sports, attending public schools, and hailing from neighborhoods in the Boston community, at some point they were taken in by the ideology of political Islam, which, like an intoxicating drug, lured them down the path of separatist Islamism and its common endpoint of militant jihadism against both non-Islamist Muslims and non-Muslim societies.
We at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy hope that our nation can begin to awaken from the anesthetic belief that we are simply fighting the nebulous threat of “violent extremism” to the fundamental realization that we need to counter early on the identifiable infection of Islamism that penetrates the mind of susceptible Muslim youth.
The struggle between western and Islamist ideologies rips to the core of a young Muslim’s identity. This is what I confront head on in my book A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith. Our nation must develop a robust “liberty doctrine” that acknowledges this battle both at home and abroad. Since the FBI actually interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, it will also be important to unravel in this case how the administration determines who actually poses an ideological risk for radicalization. As our diverse American Islamic Leadership Coalition (AILC) of anti-Islamist Muslim organizations in North America wrote in 2011, to date the administration has been unwilling to even recognize that there is an identifiable ideological threat. Instead its strategy relies on the meaningless phrase “violent extremism,” or, in the case of Major Nidal Hasan’s Fort Hood massacre, “workplace violence.”
While these brothers were immigrants from Chechnya, they were not recent immigrants. It appears from their YouTube and Facebook pages that their Islamism was nurtured in just the past few years, after they had been in the U.S. for some time. So their radicalization was likely less about Chechnya than it was about the transnational Islamist supremacism that they brought with them. Tamerlan’s trip to Russia may ultimately reveal some indoctrination or training. Most likely, as we see the clues so far, is that they became obsessed with “Muslim victimhood” and became estranged from the America they had embraced to only fill that vacuum with militant Islamist hatred and supremacism.
This supremacism often originates from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi or Salafist ideologues, now positioned around the world and in social media. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for example, had lauded the radical sermons of Feiz Muhammad out of Australia. On his Facebook page he described his own world view as “Islam,” which is synonymous with the Islamist desire to create theocratic Islamic states and a global neo-Caliphate. This is also code for the ultimate defeat of non-Islamic-majority nations by the ascent of Islamist states.
To jihadists, terror is a tool against societies that they dehumanize in order to disrupt their harmony and economy. Through terrorism, they can also make the West less comfortable or attractive for liberal Muslims, making it much easier for them to win this battle within the House of Islam. Their narrative is not new. Brothers like this, despite outward appearances of being “normal Americans,” never actually bought into the idea of Americanism and a truly pluralist society. We’ve seen it before in Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, and so many of the other radicalized jihadists found since 9-11 on our soil.
Even in Boston itself, a quick look at various competing Muslim and non-Muslim narratives finds the arrest and conviction of Tarek Mahenna — a recent, important teachable moment. In April 2012 the MIT graduate and pharmacist received more than 17 years in prison for aiding al-Qaeda. His arrest, trial, and conviction were reviled by the left and Islamist groups alike including the bizarre New York Times op-ed “A Dangerous Mind?” Just see the FreeTarek.com website for a virtual clinic into how the soil of Muslim victimization is tilled.
An obsessive mindset of “Muslims as victims” rather than as Americans is how many of these radical Islamists start. Put another way, Muslims are indoctrinated by many Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups and the like in the West to sympathize with the grievances and supremacist identity of the transnational theo-political movements of political Islam. Notice the brothers’ aunt and parents in Canada and Russia, who were brimming to the media with conspiracy theories and excuses. But then, as many point out, the Islamists of Chechnya have been fueled for decades by radicalization from salafi and Wahhabi ideas brought in by Saudi masters. Russia’s authoritarian and repressive response to entire swaths of Muslims in Chechnya certainly didn’t help empower moderate Muslims to defeat the radicals.
In A Battle for the Soul of Islam I dissect how my own patriotic upbringing in the Midwest, as the son of Syrian expatriates, taught me that I could practice my faith more freely in America than any where else in the world. I was raised with the sense that my primary allegiance was always to America and its fabric of Americanism, which can be realized only through a rejection of “Islamism” and its ideology. The idea of liberty must be nurtured within the Muslim consciousness in order to inoculate youth against the ideology of Islamism. This requires Muslim leaders who both believe in the separation of mosque and state and reject the “Islamic state.”
Until most Muslims begin to harness our resources and our efforts to counter the ideology of Islamism and its attraction of vulnerable American Muslim youth and its pathway towards jihadization, we will continue to see youth ages 13 and up turn against us. The “morphine” of jihadism numbs their identity and drives them to destroy free societies. It infects them, dehumanizes their fellow Americans, and instructs them to commit acts of terrorism against their own — Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
As is often the case with Islamists, their radicalization is preceded by misogyny and a learned behavior that dehumanizes women and then all those who seek to be free. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was arrested in 2009 for assault and battery against his girlfriend.
The warning signs in these two youths were obvious. But as a society that refuses to engage Islamism, we ignored them at our own peril.
— M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, based in Phoenix, Ariz. Follow him on Twitter @DrZuhdiJasser