Fighting for a Just Cause or “just because”?

Questions we should be asking about terrorist motivations

Posted May 26, 2013

Last month, the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon.  In the immediate aftermath of the attack, endless waves of speculation by terrorism experts and pundits alike filled the airwaves and

Dzokhar Tsarnaev

editorial pages about why the attacks occurred.  However, over the past several weeks we’ve learned quite a bit about the brothers.  For instance, we’ve learned that the younger brother Dzokhar seemed to be a rather well-adjusted, even popular, college student with a penchant for smoking marijuana.  Certainly, this isn’t the classic image that most of us hold of a terrorist. 

Tamerlan Tsarnaev

On the other hand, the more we learn about the older brother, Tamerlan, the more we see a story that evokes themes of alienation, isolation, frustration, and perceived grievances fueled in part by his perceptions of a broader war on Islam triggering in him a profound sense of moral outrage.  Maybe he was especially influenced on the trip to Russia that he evidently took? Or perhaps it was his exposure to online jihadist propaganda?  His story seems to fit much more neatly into the popular narrative about why someone would think that terrorism is a good idea, if not an obligation, demanded by an ill-conceived and perverse notion of what God wants.  

However, the apparent dichotomy of motives here should compel us to ask sharper questions, and to dig deeper about the underlying motivations for terrorism.  While the older brother at this point seems to be motivated by his sense of fighting for a Just Cause, the younger brother appears to have engaged in the attacks, “just because.”  The apparent importance of this fraternal dynamic should force us to more carefully consider the impact of friends and family on radicalization generally, but more importantly on actual terrorist behaviors.  In fact, there are numerous instances of people becoming involved in terrorism along with a group of friends, family, or lovers without holding especially radical ideas.  And while some former or failed terrorists might purport that they are motivated by some overarching or compelling reason, one of the things that seems to be evident across many such cases are their relationship dynamics.  Relationships can be critically important in increasing levels of involvement in terrorism and ultimately in the perpetration of an attack.  In their superb study of radicalization, Friction, my colleagues Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko

provide an excellent portrayal of this process – noting that in some casesmotivations for involvement might have just as much (if not more) to do with interpersonal relationships and small group dynamics as they do with a relationship to some broader cause. (They've also written about the Tsarnaev brothers here.)

Someone who commits terrorism need not be a true believer or fanatic.  And we know that many who hold the most radical of beliefs never cross the threshold to action, and certainly not toward violence that is indiscriminately directed at a general population. So it behooves us to recognize that there are multiple layers of motivating terrorism, and to avoid knee-jerk tendencies in our attributions of causality to religious or ethnic identifications.  Better understanding these dynamics ultimately impacts the safety of everyone.