As details emerge regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s 2012 trip to Dagestan and Chechnya, which his family has insisted was merely to visit with relatives, fresh questions arise as to how that trip may have influenced either his motivation or preparation for the Boston Marathon bombings.
The frequency with which American-born or naturalized citizens have traveled overseas to engage in violent Islamic extremism is alarming, but it is as yet unclear what Tsarnaev’s intentions were when he decided to spend six months in Chechnya, a region long mired in ethnic and religious conflict.
The notion that Americans would travel abroad (often to their ancestral homelands) to participate in violent regional conflicts is not new. A Congressional Research Service report found that between 1,000 and 2,000 Americans participated in Islamic extremist activities in areas such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya during the 1990s, a phenomenon known as the foreign fighter.
The foreign fighter concept primarily refers to Westerners who become inspired to participate in violent conflicts throughout the world, often under the tutelage of inspirational bridge figures such as the now-deceased Anwar al-Awlaki.
These bridge figures use nearly all methods of modern communication and social networking outlets, such as YouTube and Twitter, to promote their Islamic extremist narrative and influence disaffected Westerners.
If turned on to the Islamic extremist narrative, these Westerners are often viewed as tremendous assets within the varied Islamist movements throughout the world. Their ability to move more freely in and out of the United States, or other Western nations, makes them invaluable and less prone to scrutiny by the intelligence community.
Their participation in local conflicts also brings a level of media attention far greater than that which can be generally obtained from indigenous fighters.
Some areas of the United States have been disproportionately affected by the foreign fighter phenomenon. Minneapolis has seen multiple individuals travel to East Africa to participate in Islamic extremism with the Islamist group al-Shabaab.
The case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev may demonstrate a slight variation on the foreign fighter concept. According to a 2010 report from the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, “Foreign fighters may intend to fight abroad, but may instead be radicalized further, trained, and turned back home to attack Western states.”
The continued investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings will likely uncover more of the details surrounding how and when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became radicalized and intent on waging terrorism against the United States.
Whether Tamerlan traveled to Chechnya last year through the influence of a bridge figure intent on furthering his radicalization, or whether the process was indeed organic will all have a profound impact on how we continue to view the broader radicalization process at home.