Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Ensnared by Islamist Ideology, Driven to Murder

AP Photo/Jane Flavell Collins
AP Photo/Jane Flavell Collins

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death for the murders he committed when he and his brother blew up the 2013 Boston Marathon. Judging by the case that the government presented against Tsarnaev and its visible effect on the jury, his odds of escaping the needle seemed early on to be less than even. But did the attorneys defending Tsarnaev make a major mistake that cost him his life by failing to tell the jury the entire story of how he decided to do what he did?

According to coroner testimony, all the victims murdered by the Tsarnaevs’ pressure cooker bombs were conscious right up to their death, and it took them as long as several minutes to die. The coroner testified that they were certainly in a massive amount of pain from injuries inflicted by blast pressure, shrapnel penetration, and gunpowder burns. Much of the testimony about the final moments of Tsarnaev’s murder victims came from family and friends who were lying mangled next to them and were themselves in excruciating pain as they watched their loved ones die. The images the jury members saw were gruesome, the testimony they heard was heart-wrenching; and many jurors were brought to tears as they heard about the injuries and pain that the Tsarnaev brothers inflicted on almost 300 innocent spectators at one of Boston’s most beloved annual events.

By contrast, throughout the trial Dzhohkar Tsarnaev maintained a poker face and displayed a body language that ranged from indifference to insolence. His demeanor likely did a better job of proving his lack of remorse to the jury than anything that the prosecution could throw at him.

There are two likely reasons for Tsarnaev’s remorselessness: Utter depravity of his character or utter conviction of his own righteousness. The defense made a convincing case that Tsarnaev was not a depraved psychopath. Multiple witnesses for the defense testified to his personal warmth and good nature. Middle school and high school teachers recounted his passion for learning, strong work ethic, and positive influence on his classmates. His college friends described him as a fun, approachable, and kind guy to be around. His relatives, flown in from Russia for the trial, recounted a sensitive child who cried after watching Simba’s father die in The Lion King.

Having made their case that depravity of character was not a likely factor, the defense strategy consisted of admitting that Tsarnaev indeed believed that his slaughter of innocents was justified. However, his attorneys asked that his life be spared on the theory that this belief was foisted on him by his brother Tamerlan and mother Zubeidat, who had become Islamic extremists and brainwashed him into not being able to discern right from wrong.

It was at this point that Tsarnaev’s attorneys failed him by leaving out key details of the exculpatory narrative and spinning an improbable story that apparently did not resonate with the jury. As the defense told it, sometime around the start of this decade, Tamerlan and Zubeidat spontaneously transformed. Zubeidat, who was a licensed beautician and had a penchant for fashionable clothing, all of the sudden began veiling her head and body and spouting Islamist conspiracy theories. Tamerlan, who was a clubbing playboy and also had a penchant for fashionable clothing, all of the sudden became a strident and hateful Islamic extremist prone to violent outbursts. Just as magically as they metamorphosed from secular aspiring bon vivants into ascetic Islamists seething with hate for American culture, so did they mysteriously pass off their new obsessions onto Dzhokhar.

Tsarnaev’s attorneys did, in fact, tell the superficial aspects of the story accurately. Even as he plotted and went through with bombing the marathon, Dzhokhar never gave up his secular lifestyle of partying, smoking weed, drinking, and hanging out with girls. Most of his friends had no idea he was religious. It really seems to be the case that only his mother and brother – and not Dzhokhar himself – fully bought into radical Islamist ideology. It’s quite likely that their personal influence as radicalized Islamists, much more so than Dzhokhar’s own coherent intellectual understanding of Islamist ideology, was paramount in convincing him that carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing was the right thing to do.

Yet when all was said and done, only three jurors told the court that they were convinced by the defense’s keystone argument that his older brother Tamerlan influenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s decision to commit his crimes. Only one juror was convinced that Dzhokhar’s mother played any role. Unfortunately for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his attorneys were unwilling or unable to tell the entire story – a story that might have led the jury to a different conclusion – and perhaps a different verdict.

The truth is that over the past decade, multiple well-adjusted Muslim youths from Boston, all with promising futures, have destroyed their lives by deciding to become Islamist terrorists. For example, there’s Aafia Siddiqui, a bright MIT graduate and Brandeis PhD who became the most wanted woman in the world. Nicknamed “Lady Al Qaeda,” she was captured in Afghanistan with plans for a mass casualty attack on New York City and is now serving an 86 year sentence. There’s also Tarek Mehanna, who, shortly after completing his pharmaceutical doctorate at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, was charged with providing material support for Al Qaeda in Iraq, and is now serving a 17 year sentence. There’s Ahmad Abousamra, a Northeastern University computer science major from Stoughton, Massachusetts, who is now a fugitive and heads up social media strategy for the Islamic State. His fellow Northeastern University computer science major Rezwan Ferdaus, who played drums in a rock band before becoming radicalized, pled guilty to an attempted bombing of the United States Capitol Building.

What all these Muslim youths have in common with each other and with the Tsarnaev clan is that their radicalization coincided with their involvement with the Islamic Society of Boston, or ISB. The ISB, which runs two extremist mosques in Massachusetts, has over the past decade had twelve of its leaders and worshippers either killed by law enforcement, jailed, or declared fugitives due to terrorist activity.

Thanks to the top-notch investigative work by journalist Michelle McPhee published in Newsweek, we know that Dzhokhar’s brother and mother began to attend the ISB’s Cambridge mosque around 2008, and became radicalized around the same time. Our own thirteen year-long investigation of the ISB shows that extremism is indeed being taught by the ISB’s leaders.

Indeed, while hiding from the police inside a boat dry-docked in a suburban Boston backyard, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote a note, entered into trial evidence by the prosecution, which showed his utter conviction in the righteousness of his cause. Scrawled in pencil on the boat’s walls, Dzhokhar’s claims of an American war against Muslims and the need for Muslims to respond with violence and murder are eerily similar to the indoctrination curriculum that our research shows has been promoted by the ISB’s religious leaders.

The Tsarnaev brothers have left concentric circles of victimization in the wake of their jihadist massacre: 4 people brutally murdered, 264 people maimed and wounded, an entire city terrorized, and a country left reeling from the highest casualty Islamist terror attack since 9/11. Yet the Tsarnaevs are also themselves victims of an ideology that has, more than any other in recent times, left death and destruction across the world. The exact details of how they became what they became and who might have made them this way remain less than clear. By failing to investigate and present to the jury how Islamist ideology ensnared Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his defense team has failed not only this young man now fated to be executed for crimes motivated by this ideology, but also all the Muslim youths who are quite likely to follow his footsteps for many years to come.