An evil family that saw themselves as noble idealists

Peter Bergen describes an evil family that thought of themselves as noble in a chapter in his book United States of Jihad.  It is in some ways an ironic story, and the details shed some light on the unpleasant types who become idealists for Allah.

The chapter starts with a nineteen year old named Jahar bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds.  He was hiding in a boat parked in a suburban backyard, sirens all around him, while he was losing blood rapidly.  He wrote what he believed was his final testament on the inside of the boat with a pencil:
The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that.  As a M[uslim] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.
Martin Richard
Four days earlier, Jahar and his older brother dropped backpacks near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  When the bombs went off, three people died – Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell.  Other people lost limbs.  About 170 people were wounded.
Its ironic that Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev tweeted the following three months before the bombings:
I don’t argue with fools who say Islam is terrorism it’s not worth a thing, let an idiot remain an idiot.

But by his actions, he lent credence to the idea that Islam and terrorism do go together, maybe not always, but too often.

Jahar’s family came from a town four thousand miles to the east of Manhattan, a grim Caspian port city.  For murky reasons that may have involved crossing some local gangsters, the Tsarnaevs applied for refugee status in the States.  They wanted out.

Over the course of 2002 and 2003 the family immigrated to Massachusetts.  At first everything seemed to be going somewhat well.  The father, Anzor, was an adept car mechanic, and his wife Zubeidat, a cosmologist, performed facials in their home.  The eldest son Tamerlan dreamed of becoming an Olympic boxer, a goal that seemed less and less far-fetched as he swiftly ascended in the New England boxing scene.

Jahar wrestling for his Cambridge high school

Meanwhile, Jahar captained his high school wrestling team at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and upon graduation he won scholarships from both the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the city of Cambridge. At UMass Dartmouth, Jahar was seen as an easygoing, party-loving skateboarder.  Facebook documents his active nightlife, and his prolific tweets were the typical musings of an indifferent (indeed failing) American college student: homework that was late, sleeping in, sex, girls, marijuana, and alcohol.”

Tamerlan was the star of his tight-knit family.  The whole family laughed at his jokes.  But he dropped out of community college, and his leisure time was full of drinking and smoking.
Worried about this, his mother, who herself was getting more religious, began urging him to embrace his Islamic heritage.

Tamerlan’s dreams of boxing were blocked by a rule change that prohibited non-U.S. citizens from competing.  Various disasters followed.  Anzor got into a fight at a restaurant and was struck in the head by a steel pole, an injury from which he never quite recovered.   Then his business took a dive and he became ill, diagnosed with cancer.  The family now subsisted on welfare and food stamps.  In 2011, Anzor and Zubeidat divorced, and Anzor went back to Dagestan.  Zubeidat became a Muslim fundamentalist, but her new-found religiosity did not stop her from shoplifting sixteen hundred dollar’s worth of clothes from Lord & Taylor.  The couple’s daughters moved to New Jersey, where one of them was arrested for selling marijuana.

Tamerlan told a confidante that he heard a “voice” in his head that told him to do certain things.

Tamerlan drew deeper into the world of Islam, shedding his fancy clothes.  He no longer looked at himself as the larger-than-life hero.  His younger brother, whose father was no longer around, became more radical under his influence.
In 2011, Tamerlan and a Chechen companion murdered three of Tamerlan’s friends, Rafi, Erik and Brendan, so violently that they were almost decapitated.   A veteran Waltham investigator called it “the worst bloodbath I have ever seen,” and compared the victims’ wounds to “an Al-Qaeda training video.” About a pound and a half of high-grade marijuana covered two of the corpses.  The victims were Jewish.   I speculate that in Tamerlan’s new identity as a purist Muslim, he violently rejected Jews, as well as his past with marijuana.  But other people have advanced other reasons.  Robbery does not make sense, because drugs and thousands of dollars were not taken.  Anyway, the murders illustrate that Tamerlan was a very violent killer, even before the marathon bombings.
Three Jewish friends later murdered by Tamerlan


At the Cambridge mosque, Tamerlan met Donald Larking, a convert who started believing conspiracy theories after an injury that left him with brain damage.  Larking confirmed Tamerlan’s radical views, and Tamerlan started recommending to acquaintances The Protocols of the Elder of Zion, which purports to reveal a secret plan of the Jews to take over the world.
Not only that, but Jahar, Tamerlan, and their mother came to believe that 9/11 was engineered by the U.S. government to create mass hatred for Muslims.
This is ironic.  Tamerlan and Jahar believed in evil motivations and evil actions by President George W Bush that were completely incorrect.  Then they did something truly evil themselves, summed up in this photo:woundedMarathon
As Tamerlan and Jahar prepared for their bombing, Jahar tweeted:
Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

This certainly illustrates that he did not believe he, himself was evil.

Peter Bergen then tells the reader about the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and the six stage process they looked at, which involved:

1. Grievance (motive)
2. Ideation – the idea that violence is both necessary and justified.
3. Research and planning – constructing the plot
4. Preparation – finding a weapon or mode of assault
5. Breach – enacting the plan to get inside whatever security perimeter surrounds the target
6. Attack.
An FBI analyst explains:

We don’t mean grievance like ‘I’m mad because the guy cut me off in traffic.’  Grievance that is the kind that sorts of eats at your core..

There are also inhibitors that prevent someone going down the path to violence, such as family ties, having a good job, and religious beliefs.  Sometimes these inhibitors “topple like dominoes, with one inhibitor knocking over the next in a sequence of decline–frequently, rapid decline.” The loss of a job, for instance, might trigger a divorce, and that might trigger, in turn, the loss of a house, and so on.
Dominoes falling
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, the grievance was that the Muslims were supposedly under attack by the U.S.  They then moved to ideation, were they came to believe that it was necessary to avenge this grievance.  The inhibitors did fall like dominoes.  Tamerlan was both unemployed and unemployable.  Jahar, often wreathed in smoke from his joints, was struggling in school and lacked a stabilizing family life after his parents’ acrimonious divorce.

Tamerlan had lost a big dream (of being an Olympic boxer).  One hypothesis mentioned in Peter Bergen’s book is that Tamerlan blamed others for the decline in his fortunes.  Some people don’t take personal responsibility, instead they “collect injustices”.  After that, explains forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, they feel moral outrage, and they embed their personal grievance in a cause.

The irony is that the lone terrorist often has not himself suffered any oppression.  Tamerlan’s family had been welcomed to the U.S. as refugees, he and his siblings had attended free American schools, and his family had survived on welfare payments when the going got tough.  Jahar had been given scholarships to help him with college.

The judge at Jahar’s trial (Tamerlan had died in an intense shootout with the police) said

Surely someone who believes that God smiles on and rewards the deliberate killing and maiming of innocents believes in a cruel God. That is not, it cannot be, the God of Islam.

After looking at “Islamic State” and the various mass killings in Paris and New York and elsewhere, I would have to ask the judge, why can it not be the God of Islam?

Without Islam, Tamerlan and Jahar would still have been contemptible, with Tamerlan being a violent murderer as well, but they would not have bombed the marathon.  Islam was what logicians call a “necessary condition.”

Before the ‘lone wolves’ get to a secrecy stage, where they have to hide their motives and plans, they often do give hints, on social media or elsewhere, that they are radicalizing.  Unfortunately it is common for peers who suspect something is amiss not to come forward.  Family members are somewhat more likely to come forward but not much.

Tamerlan had actually stood up in his mosque and called the Muslim preacher an unbeliever for saying that Dr. Martin Luther King was a great man. This made other worshippers shouted “Leave now!” at Tamerlan until he left the premises. He was a very self-righteous type at this point. Perhaps that is a clue, but it is hard to see in practice how lone holy warriors can be stopped in time. Maybe one clue is that they are just plain obnoxious people, before and after they latch on to their cause.

United States of Jihad – Peter Bergen (2016)

11 thoughts on “An evil family that saw themselves as noble idealists

  1. Excellent analysis, except that you comment on the term “God of Islam,” and suggest that God as appearing in Islam is evil. You might as well examine some of the horrific genocides of the Old Testament, where Jehovah instructed the Israelites to totally wipe out some of their rival tribes; or the Christian Inquisition that ordered people to be burnt to death. Are you saying that God is evil? I think that people of all religions are just good at justifying their violent actions as the command of God, about as sensible as the serial killers who say that “God told me to do it.” At the moment, Islam is in the spotlight because of the actions of a minority of terrorists who are roundly condemned by 99% of ordinary Muslims. The real problem as I see it is that all these religions were designed to stabilise people’s behaviour in the remote past in the Middle East and are no longer appropriate in a completely different historical and technological context.

  2. When I say “the God of Islam”, I mean the Muslim conception of what God wants out of his followers. Does he want them to treat men and women as equals? Does he want them to treat other religions with respect? Does he disapprove of Democracy?
    A poll by the Center for Security Policy found that nearly one-fifth of Muslim respondents said that the use of violence in the United States is justified in order to make sharia the law of the land in this country.
    I don’t know of any other religion in the U.S. that advocates violence to implement its rules on everybody else. Sure, the Bible advocates the destruction of the Canaanites and their families, and sure, the Catholic Inquisition pursued Jews in the Western hemisphere as recently as 1850. But right now, of the dominant interpretations of these various religions, the only one that has statistics like the above is Islam. In addition, when the Old Testament advocates killing an entire group of people, as far as I know, its a group like Amalek (a group of nomads that attacked the Jews) or the Canaanites – who stood in the way of the Jews getting hold of a homeland. So cruel and barbaric as this may be, it doesn’t mean that Jews cannot be part of a larger, multi-religion society today. However, Islam’s doctrine of Jihad (and dhimmitude) is incompatible with living in a multi-religious civilization of equals.

    1. As I understand it, the original teaching of Islam was to treat all religions (in practice that meant Judaism, Christianity, and maybe Zoroastrianism) with respect, if they were esssentially montheistic. Women were to be respected, democracy wasn’t a very familiar concept at that time. At the moment, I agree, Islam is in crisis. The situation that obtained in Mohammed’s time — the early Moslems being persecuted and killed by the pagan groups — no longer applies, and the terrorists and lunatics who commit atrocities in the name of jihad are playing with words to justify their actions. But as you accept, history gives us plenty of examples from other religions of similar situations. The difference maybe is that with the technological advances that have taken place since, mass murder and assaults on the innocent have replaced the kind of “honourable” hand to hand combat that was once the norm. In history there have been a few Islamic leaders who have been fanatical, but many more have been cultured and tolerant. Much of our own Western culture grew out of interactions with the then superior Moslem culture of the dark ages. Islamic scientists, scholars and artisans were familiar figures to the West albeit often known by Westernised names. Let’s hope the current schisms within Islam can be resolved in a way beneficial to all.

  3. Carl (with a ‘c’): I would suggest you take a look at a website by a Christian whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt. He talks about the ongoing slaughter of Christians, which nobody seems to be doing anything about (most of the slaughter is by Muslims, at the moment). He talks about issues with Islam too. His name is Raymond Ibrahim, the site is: There is also Mark Durie, an Australian theologian who takes on your points directly: His site is: Personally, I do agree with you that are good Muslims, and that there have been times and places when Muslims got along with other faiths (at least the monotheistic ones). However, life is not simple. I honestly think you would be interested in the two links, especially Durie.

    1. I’ve glanced at both. Nobody denies that at the moment there are groups of Muslims who take a fanatical and basically evil view of Islam and that they are doing horrific things. But attempts to explain this as religious motivation are misguided. The situation in the Middle East reflects one factor more strongly than any other — the presence of huge oil reserves, that have led Western interests to intervene in various ways, and often to the detriment of the (largely Muslim) population. E.g the support given to the Shah of Iran, a corrupt dictator, which led directly to the growth of Islamic extremism and the Ayatollah’s revolution. In short, the fanatics have both “religious” and “political” motivations, as well as personal problems and even criminal activity, as you have yourself discussed in previous posts. And the US support of Israel, as you know well, has provoked a huge backlash from not just Muslim locals but many Western observers.

      I am old enough to have seen many hours of footage of violent demonstrations, Molatov Cocktails, and attacks on the police, from many times and places. Compiling a set of videos with the common feature that notionally Islamic people are involved is as sensible and helpful as singling out protests by Fascists, Socialists, anti-war campaigners etc. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who take the infantile view that behaving like violent idiots will in some way promote their “cause” — in fact of course it has the opposite effect.

  4. Carl, I did not post the video, though I know the person who did. But lets use logic here for a minute. If oil reserves have something to do with the violence we see coming from Islamists, then in a time before oil was used, the violence should not have existed. Likewise, if Israel is the explanation, or reaction to American and Britain keeping the Shah of Iran in power, then before either existed, there should have been no violence.
    We know the following. All of North Africa was Christian. It was conquered by Islamic armies. Very few Christians remain. Present day Turkey was Christian. It was conquered by Muslims. Israel was Jewish. It was conquered by Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and finally Muslims. Iran was Zoroastrian and was conquered by Muslims. Pakistan was Hindu (I think). As for Afghanistan, remember those big Buddhist statues that the Islamists destroyed? Lets take Pakistan as one example. Why are there so few Hindus in Pakistan, while in neighboring India, there are about 150 million Muslims? The reason is that Pakistan is ruled by Muslims, and life gets difficult for non-Muslim minorities in Muslim lands.
    If Muslims had not been turned back by Charles Martel in a battle in France, you would be speaking Arabic, praying 5 times a day with your face toward Mecca, and so forth. So the next question is: are all religions equally good? When I say “equally good”, I mean, equally accurate, equally moral, and so forth. If you believe all religions are based a divine revelation, then I guess your answer will be yes. But how does one know this? Finally, we know that in the period of the initial Islamic conquest, many of the worst features of ISIS were present.
    The Golden age you mention was just after the Muslims conquered peoples such as Greeks and Persians who already had many achievements. But more relevant is tolerance. How tolerant have Muslims been through the ages?.

    1. Of course, after Mohammed’s death, a struggle for power began between the Shia and Sunni groups and subsequently the Muslim armies conquered many areas. The Islamic Empire was huge, but not as big as the British Empire, which was supposedly Christian, and should have been based upon peace and non-violence. Does this make Islam evil and Christianity good? The argument would never end, would it? I haven’t read the source you cite but I have read Karen Armstrong’s biography of Mohammed, which doesn’t gloss over the violent bits but comes to a generally sympathetic conclusion about the prophet. It is commonplace that once a religious teacher dies, his alleged supporters disregard much of his teaching, which is certainly the case with Jesus. However, we do have a lot of Hadiths and many of these show Mohammed in a good light. I am not trying to to whitewash one particular religion, but I do not agree that Islam has been any worse historically than the others. Arguably Buddhism has the best record, maybe. The problem is that a majority of followers just want a belief system and a tribe to belong to, and often feel themselves justified in imposing their views on others. Today, whether you accept it or not, nationalistic and political factors have played a major role in a deteriorating situation.

      The Buddhist statues had survived thousands of years under many different rulers, including Moslems, before the current lunacy.

      The question about all religions being equally “good” is in a way the central issue. It is difficult to compare the three monotheistic religions for a number of reasons. One is that they were presumably aimed at different social and ethnic groupings in particular places. Judaism was aimed at (obviously) the tribes of Israel, and allowed (or commanded) the use of violence to destroy rival groupings. Mohammed considered that Islam was aimed at the local desert arabs, and it was only after his death that the armies of Islam formed and conquered a wider area. Jesus never advocated violence at all, and stated that his teaching was aimed at the Jews. This was all turned upside down by his followers, who eventually proved themselves the most violent and powerful of all — i.e. the current Western power bloc. As for the followers of these religions, many have proven evil, corrupt, and hypocritical. So which is most evil? I think history proves that many people who pay lip service to this or that teaching, actually act in a very different way when the chips are down. I wouldn’t care to say which of the three is worst in this respect. (I don’t belong to any to these, by the way.)

  5. To Carl Grove: You argued that greater than 99% of Muslims are peaceful. The video you watched makes it abundantly clear that is not the case. That is one short video that could have been filled with a lot more information if it had been longer. How much information do you need? Perhaps browsing through would help.

    As far as your statement that “trying to explain this as religious motivation is misguided” have you read the Koran? Have you read Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad or the Hadiths? If those books are too long and boring for you and you don’t have the time to read them I suggest you read Muhammad Then and Now by Zaynab bint al Harith.
    Karl E

  6. Carl,
    I like pursuing arguments ad-infinitum, so here is another reply:

    Whether Islam is just another religion (like Christianity or Judaism) is important. Merkel’s policy of letting in large numbers of Muslims makes sense only if they can be assimilated as well as Buddhists, or Hindus, or Jews.
    In the United States, Donald Trump’s desire to ban all Muslim immigration does not make sense if Islam is just another religion – seeking to worship God and do good deeds. Presumably his many critics must believe that.

    Without looking at the theology, I agree the three monotheistic religions have done bad things. In the case of Judaism, the damage was limited because the Jews claimed only a small piece of real-estate, they were not a missionary religion.
    Christianity is a missionary religion, and there was.forced conversion and violent assimilation of pagan tribes in medieval Europe, for example.
    Islam is also a missionary religion.

    The record of Islam is not good. In India alone it is possible that millions of Hindus were killed in the first contacts with Muslims – In fact the name of the mountain range known as the Hindu Kush means “Hindu Killer”.

    The British Empire was not a religious initiative, the Brits happened to be Christian, but the empire was not a religious project.

    The Koran does have statements we might agree with such as “there is no compulsion in religion”, but it has other statements about “smiting the unbeliever”, for example.

    It is hard to tease apart grievances from ideology. For instance, we could assume that the Muslim world is outraged at the treatment of their fellow Muslims by Israel, a country that receives arms from the United States, and which got an initial mandate from Great Britain. But then we read the testimony of former Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who say that in her childhood in Somalia, she would have cheered the destruction of the New York World Trade Center by Jihadists, though Palestinians were just an “abstraction” to her.
    Similarly with Iran – the supposed representative of the “people” who the CIA helped depose, Mossadegh, himself dissolved the Iranian senate, suspended an election, and decided to rule with absolute power. One quote by him is: “anyone forgetting Islam is base and dishonourable, and should be killed.”
    This is important to know if you try to put yourself in Muslim shoes and to to assume Muslim hatreds are rational, and based on real grievances.
    Ultimately, the most convincing argument to me, is this — Great Britain has a large number of immigrants from India and Pakistan – Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. Great Britain has been responsible, deliberately in some cases, for the deaths of many Hindus. So Hindus should be very, very angry. But Hindus do not hack British soldiers to death, put bombs in the London underground, enslave young British girls for sex, and call for imposition of their religious laws on the U.K.

    Jews were badly treated in the British mandate by the British. There were cases where they were disarmed by British soldiers and then left to face an Arab mob. Moreover, Jewish refugees fleeing the murderous Nazis were not allowed ashore. Jews died because of this policy.

    But the Jews did not burn down Windsor Castle.

    Interestingly, Muslim demonstrators have chanted “Heil Hitler” in the middle of London. Not all that patriotic, are they?

    There has to be some ingredient that explains this. It could be historical wrongs perpetrated against Muslims, but as I just pointed out, historical wrongs were perpetrated against Hindus. (And lets not forget the wrongs perpetrated against Africans (the slave trade), the Australian aborigines (many killed).
    So since these other groups are not flying planes into buildings, or producing movements such as ISIS that happily admit they are willing to kill many millions of people, then it seems ‘historical wrongs’ is not the cause.

    So we look for other distinguishing features. We find religion. Why does Boko Haram invade Christian villages in Nigeria, and kill everyone except the girls, who they remove as slaves? Is it because of the cause of “Palestine”? Is it because of Mossadegh?
    Obviously not.

    By the way, with those girls removed as slaves, they have babies. And those babies are indoctrinated to be Jihadists. And those Jihadists will feel that the “West” has wronged them, and those wrongs must be avenged by “Jihad”. Its like the story of the Janissaries – these were children kidnapped by the Turks from Christian parents, brought up as Muslims, and who became fearsome fighters for Turkey (and Islam).

    Its very distasteful to even talk about all this, but it happened and is happening.

    It could be argued that ISIS is no more true Islam than the cult of Jim Jones in Guyana is true Christianity. But then, why is it getting so many followers and sympathizers from wide areas of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere?
    OK, enough for now, I will go off and debug a computer program.

    1. Obviously there is something very wrong with Islam today, but maybe in 50-100 years time some other group will become the main source of terrorists. Regarding the root cause being Islam itself, I am going to have to sit down and work my way systematically through the Koran, something which I have been putting off for some years! (Because it looks like hard work.) I still suspect that a major factor is the extension of a religion beyond its initial boundaries. This applies to all religions today — they were designed for a remote past and people of a much more primitive level of thinking. But they have played a useful role in history, arguably.

      Have a good time debugging your program.

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