As the post-mortem psychological autopsy continues for the Boston Marathon bombers, more details emerged about the mental health picture of the perpetrators, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 20-year-old younger brother Dzhokhar. While it didn’t take long to identify the two Chechen-born terrorists, government officials were reluctant to specify a motive, despite growing reports of Tamerlan’s trip and radicalization in Chechnya less than two years before the April 15, 2013 twin-blasts in Boston. Despite early denials by federal authorities, the official motive for the terrorist-style pressure cooker twin-bombs that killed three and injured 254 was “extremist Islamic beliefs,” New information about Tamerlan tormented “hearing voices” sheds more light on the real motives behind the violence. His 20-year-old younger brother, Dzhokhar, followed and worshipped Tamerlan.
Tamerlan’s “voices” made him more vulnerable to the kind of influence that he received traveling in 2012 to Russia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Krygzstan, circulating among Islamic radicals. Killed in a shootout with Boston Police and federal law enforcement July 16, investigators can only speculate as to what triggered Tamerlan’s carefully planned massacre. “He believed in majestic mind control, which is a way of breaking down a person and creating an alternative personality with which they must coexist,” 67-year-old Donald Larking, Tamerlan’s fellow mosque buddy, told the Boston Globe. “You can give a signal, a phrase or a gesture, and bring out the alternative personality and make them do things. Tamerlan thought someone might have done that to him,” turning the 26-year-old former Golden Gloves boxer into a modern Manchurian candidate, a kind of hypno-assassin.
Individuals living in the twilight zone between reality and fantasy find themselves attracted to cult-like religious and secular groups that celebrate their underlying psychotic thinking. If other groups or individuals lend credibility to clinical delusions and hallucinations, it validates the mentally ill’s distorted reality. Fellow mosque devotee Larking shared Tamerlan’s fantasy world of mind control and programmed assassins. Suffering from impaired reality-testing, delusions or hallucinations is enough to leave individuals vulnerable to the kind of brainwashing found in cult-like groups and religions, like those found in radical Islam. If you can convince enough mentally-impaired or immature youth that Islam—or any other group—is under attack, you can recruit, brainwash and convert an army of radicals and suicide bombers to carry out destructive missions.
In an 18,000-word report, law enforcement officials concluded that the Tsarnaev brothers were “coequals” in carrying out the April 15, 2013 massacre. Yet law enforcement don’t see how the “blind-lead-the-blind,” where an immature younger brother could be easily influenced by his recently converted older brother to radical Islam. Laws related to criminal prosecutions make distinctions between youth and adult offenders. While the line is blurry to be sure, gullible youth are easy targets for clever manipulating adults. Suggesting that both brothers played equal roles in the Boston Marathon attacks ignores the sizable body of social research documenting the vulnerability and influence on unsuspecting youth. It’s no accident that most of the cannon fodder for radical Islam—those youth converted into suicide bombers—are young adults, whose brains lack maturity.
Brain researchers suggest that the youthful brain isn’t mature until about 25 or older, before one can fully recognize the consequences of actions. Youth tend to accept and follow the structured beliefs and practices of various cult-like groups, often involving themselves in subculture activities. “A family friend said Tamerlan was “idolized” by the rest of the Tsarneaev clan,” read the investigative report. “Tamerlan had some form of schizophrenia,” speculated a family friend. “That combined with smoking marijuana and head trauma from boxing had made him ill,” getting close to Tamerlan’s mental state when he was subjected to radical Islamic brainwashing on his 2012 trip to Russia and the Caucasus region. Tamerlan’s mother Zubeidat refused to get him mental health treatment, instead encouraging his conversion to Islam to discourage his “partying and drinking.”
Organized religions and cult-like groups don’t recognize how mental illness influences followers into taking radical actions. Putting Tamerlan under the post-mortem microscope identified psychotic traits that left him vulnerable to influence, brainwashing and conversion to radical Islam. “Medical treatment wasn’t the answer for her son,” Zubeidat told the Globe. “Religion was. Eventually, she would encourage Teamerlan to embrace Islam to discourage him from partying and drinking,” opening the door to radicalization and violence. What happened to Tamerlan wasn’t all that different to what happened to 39-year-old Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malek Hasan who massacred 13 U.S. soldier at Fort Hood, Texas Nov. 5, 2009. Hasan’s mental illness contributed to his radicalization by Yemen’s U.S.-born al-Qaeda chief Anwar al-Awlaki with whom he communicated in the months before the attack.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.