Before he planted bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three bystanders and injuring some 260 others, Tamerlan Tsarnaev wanted to be an American hero.
As late as 2010, the Chechen refugee was hoping to receive citizenship in time to join the U.S. Olympic boxing team. A new rule that year for Golden Gloves, the national amateur boxing tournament, prevented non-U.S. citizens from participating in the tournament.
With his path to stardom blocked, Tsarnaev’s personal identity increasingly centered on the mosque he had recently joined. By 2011, the FBI and Russia’s Federal Security Service were actively investigating his behavior.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died as Massachusetts police tried to apprehend him April 19, 2013, days after the bombings. His younger brother Dzhokhar, who survived arrest, is on death row awaiting his execution.
The Tsarnaevs’ parents were refugees from Chechnya, the troubled majority-Muslim region in southwestern Russia. Neither son had ever been to Chechnya. Tamerlan was born elsewhere in Russia, and Dzhokhar in Kazakhstan shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In America, where the family immigrated on grounds of political asylum in 2001, they hoped to find the stability and opportunity that had evaded them for decades. Instead, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev found themselves drifting from mediocrity to desperation and finally to infamy.
In the years since the Boston bombings, Islamic State has attracted hundreds of American fighters to its self-styled caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Countless others have made or attempted attacks on American soil — including Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi.
When Simpson and Soofi attempted to attack a conference center in Garland, Texas, May 3 of 2015, they did so just minutes after vowing their allegiance on Twitter to ISIS’ leader, its so-called “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They referred to him by the historical title given to leaders with authority over all Muslims: “Amirul Mu’mineen,” that is, “Commander of the Faithful.” Enraged by an anti-Islam group hosting its “First Annual Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest,” they opened fire at the building’s entrance and injured a private security officer.
Simpson was an Illinois-born convert to Islam. Soofi, the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, grew up as a child of divorce, with one foot in Texas — then later Utah — and another in Islamabad. The two men were roommates in Phoenix at the time of the attack.
Though a police officer shot and killed Soofi and Simpson almost immediately, Islamic State Twitter accounts quickly hailed the #texasattack as the group’s first successful operation in the U.S. It would have been unthinkable just two years ago — when the Tsarnaevs were identified as the perpetrators in Boston — for extremists on the other side of the planet to instantly claim credit for a botched raid by two men.
But like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Simpson was the focus of an FBI investigation in 2007, long before he committed any crime. In 2010, he was arrested one day before boarding a flight to Somalia, but he was released when a judge found insufficient evidence that he was intending to join a terrorist group.
THE GOVERNMENT RESPONDS
Since the Boston bombings, federal and local law enforcement have struggled to predict and stop what they call “violent extremism” by Americans. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has become a widespread term at the FBI and the Department of State. Initiatives in the CVE field range from local outreach to ambitious international messaging campaigns, from training for religious leaders to infiltration of terrorist recruitment cells.
The targets of these operations often meet a certain profile — not racial or even religious, but psychological.