The Psychology of a Boston Marathon Terrorist: 10 Questions for a Retired Marine

Elaine M. Grossman

Many of those who knew the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, believed them to be talented students and athletes with promising careers ahead of them. So how could these seemingly “normal” young men have become terrorists -- and why? 

The two brothers actually fit into an emerging trend, according to G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer and militancy expert who specializes in counterterrorism, criminal behavior and forensic psychology.

“Terrorists are not psychotics or mentally disordered,” Wilson said on Friday. The study of terrorism over the past couple of decades has given experts “a greater appreciation of how normalcy is reflected in terrorists’ behavior,” he told Global Security Newswire.

Like those implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the Tsarnaev brothers appear to have quickly assimilated from another nation into their local community and had no outwardly apparent radicalism, psychosis or inclination toward violence.

The pair of blasts near the marathon’s finish line on Monday resulted in three deaths and more than 175 injured.

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The two suspected perpetrators, whose identities were made public on Thursday, were reported to have moved to the Boston area more than five years ago from southern Russia, near the restive area of Chechnya.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was described as a gifted amateur boxer who studied at Bunker Hill Community College part time between 2006 and 2008, and hoped to become an engineer. He was killed in a firefight with police Thursday night, according to news reports.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was described an all-star wrestler in high school and a student at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He was the focus of an epic manhunt in the Boston area on Friday and remained at large at press time.

Wilson, a former infantry colonel, said a sense of normalcy can pervade groups of extremists when individuals surround themselves with like-minded compatriots.

He recalled a segment on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” more than a decade ago about Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas bomb-maker who was nicknamed “the Engineer” and was ultimately assassinated by Israeli operatives in 1996.

“One of the Engineer’s followers was asked to describe how a terrorist could do such a terrible thing. His answer: ‘He’s a very normal person, just like us,’” Wilson said.

When the CBS interviewer took exception, the militant replied, “There thousands and thousands in our country that believe what we believe -- and not only in our country, in the rest of the Arab world and even in your country,” according to terrorism expert.

Wilson, who retired in 2006 after more than 30 years of uniformed service, responded to GSN questions about terrorism and psychology in an e-mail exchange. Edited excerpts follow.

GSN: Based on your understanding of the criminal mind, what is going on now inside the head of an accused Boston terrorist on the loose amid a major manhunt, whose alleged co-conspirator brother was just killed?

Wilson: No one can read a criminal's or terrorist’s mind, but past behavior is an indicator of future behavior.

Psychiatrist Jerrold Post … contends we should not speak of a terrorist psychology in the singular, but rather of terrorist psychologies.

Ideology is central to the terrorist's psychology, no matter their ilk. They are therefore totally committed – [or] radicalized – and [this] tends to be expressed in all-or-nothing activities.

Watch for a very violent conclusion.

GSN: Reports are that the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is a second-year medical student and came with his family to the United States about a decade ago from a Russian area near Chechnya, a region known for Islamic militancy and separatists. Any theories about why a young man like that would undertake a terrorist attack in the United States?

Wilson: Chechnya fighters -- [who typically refer to themselves as] "volunteers” -- have been seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. [It is a] matter of participating in jihad, which is an integral part of their belief system, ideology and psychology.

GSN: Specifically, news media is reporting that these young men seemed like "normal Americans," who like many in the nation are first-generation immigrants. What are we not seeing here, in terms of hidden psychological pathology?

Wilson: Appearing normal is the norm [for terrorists], and they often just blend in. [Stanford University’s Martha] Crenshaw … identifies normalcy as a characteristic feature of terrorists, rather than psychopathology or personality disturbance.

GSN: Is someone who carries out such a horrific attack necessarily a psychopath? Or could these be psychologically healthy individuals who are killing for a cause in which they deeply believe?

Wilson: Current data indicates terrorists and suicide bombers do not display any marked psychopathology. … Nevertheless, a trend and frequent perception has emerged asserting that terrorists possess traits of pathological personalities but do not possess the actual clinical disorders. This effectively paints terrorists with the psychological brush of pathology. 

Violence today may be a norm and the norm for such radicalized young people, whether it is on a wide scale or within a smaller community or family. It may come to be considered the normal response to achieve objectives. 

In fact, many terrorists view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war. 

GSN: How could we do a better job at recognizing in society a person who has the potential to become a terrorist?

Wilson: [Counterterrorism expert Marc] Sageman found that about 70 percent of terrorists had joined while they were living as expatriates in other countries, looking for jobs and education. Prior to moving they were not strongly religious, but while in their new countries they visited mosques and moved in with other Islamic expatriates. Some of the latter were already members of terror organizations who then recruited them into those organizations.

GSN: Given what the FBI has revealed about the composition of the two pressure-cooker bombs and the way in which the suspects have operated, how likely do you think it is that they had the support of additional co-conspirators?

Wilson: While terrorists often operate in cells and are compartmented for operational security reasons, they often do need support. I would not rule out any co-conspirators or support personnel, be it intentional or unknowing support. Association with others must be looked into.

Terrorists use groups and networks for both logistical and psychological support. Groups afford a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, perhaps even a sense of identity. 

GSN: When working with a fast-breaking case like this, how do you deal with the phenomenon of not knowing which incoming information is accurate, and which is inaccurate and leading you down false paths?

Wilson: Any operator will tell you your first information is neither your worst nor best, and generally is incomplete and inaccurate. That is very true here, as well. Every data point must be checked and verified. Never rely on single-source reporting. The best example of this was the deluge of reports of an arrest being made that were not accurate.

GSN: What would it take to plan the Boston attacks in terms of devising a plan, scoping out targets, assembling bomb materials and carrying out the logistics? Can you make sense, after all that planning, why the Boston bombers would have stuck around the area before being identified and then robbed a local convenience store?

Wilson: They lived [in the area] so they knew the "terrain" and blended in, which no doubt gave them the opportunity to do surveillance and reconnaissance.

GSN: What are one or two things you have learned from past terrorist attacks around the globe that you've thought this week might be applied to this episode?

Wilson: Their capability to adapt so very quickly using our very own system of laws and technology against us. [They employ] simplicity, sophistication, and global networks, much like third-generation street gangs. 

They have a very fast, adaptive [and] complex orientation-decision-action cycle, leveraging the physical -- for example, operationalizing IEDs and suicide bombers -- with the moral-mental aspects – for example, radicalized ideology concordant with the psychology of terrorism. [They are intent on] creating widespread global fear, giving [the] impression that governments cannot protect their people. Cartels and gangs in Mexico do much the same.

GSN: What are a couple of key questions on your mind now as the details of this episode unravel?

Wilson: Today we are recognizing many of the misconceptions regarding terrorists and their profiling. Terrorists are not psychotics or mentally disordered. Terrorists do not suffer markedly formed personality disorders nor does data support terrorism finding its genesis in personal frustration, economic deprivation, or psychological coercion.

We do have a better idea today of what is and is not psychologically related to terrorism and a greater appreciation of how normalcy is reflected in terrorists’ behavior.